April 4, 2012 10:57

Generational contest plays out between two movement candidates in 12th Congressional District

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Matt Newton found himself explaining to the teachers at the NC Association of Educators convention in Winston- Salem last month that he was not a student. With a clean-shaven face and close-cropped hair coupled with youthful energy, it’s easy to mistake him for someone younger than his 32 years.

A criminal defense lawyer who took an active role in the early days of Occupy Charlotte, Newton faces an uphill battle in his quest to unseat Rep. Mel Watt, who has represented North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, since it was created two decades ago.

The district snakes along Interstate 85 to pick up urban areas including parts of Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro. A Charlotte resident, Newton has been making frequent trips to the northern end of the district to introduce himself to voters. On Thursday, the candidate and his campaign manager were in the Greensboro neighborhood of Dudley Heights knocking on doors before swinging over to Winston-Salem for a campaign event. On Saturday, the candidate stood in front of Winston-Salem Democrats at Shiloh Baptist Church, and made a pledge that was highlighted by his opponent’s conspicuous absence.

“We’ve seen our voice here in Winston- Salem, our voice in Greensboro get lost,” Newton said. “We’ve seen the voice in Lexington and High Point be lost…. That needs to change.”

Newton is an unabashed progressive who makes a point to note his opposition to the marriage amendment on the North Carolina primary ballot and his support for labor. He wants to yoke the minimum wage to inflation and make it easier for workers to obtain collective-bargaining agreements with employers.

“If it were up to me, Taft-Hartley would be overturned,” he told the Democratic regulars at Shiloh Baptist Church. “If it were up to me, this would not be a right-to-work state. That’s something the federal government can take an active, progressive role in accomplishing. And we need to have people in Washington that will make that a priority and that will fight for something like that.”

Mecklenburg County has increased as a share of the district from about a third of its decreased from 42.3 percent to 34.8 percent. The redistricting process shifted about 100,000 Forsyth County residents from the 12th to the neighboring 5th district. Meanwhile, the elimination of the 13th district in Guilford County led to 100,000 residents being distributed between the 12th and the Republican-leaning 6th district. Northeast Greensboro and Browns Summit are among the areas in Guilford County that were added to the 12th. Roughly half of Greensboro and High Point’s residents live in the 12th, while one in five Winston-Salem residents lives there.

The 12th has become both blacker and browner, and younger since redistricting took place.

The latter characteristic is one Newton hopes to exploit to gain an advantage over an entrenched rival. He said in an interview that he and his partner — he operates a private law practice with Tiffany Arroyo, the woman he describes as “the love of my life” — are burdened with a staggering student debt that makes it easy for them to empathize with many of their fellow citizens. Newton has made his opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act a centerpiece of his campaign. The legislation foundered in the wake of a sharp public outcry. It so happens that Watt is a cosponsor.

Newton argues that the proposed law undermines innovation and small business enterprise, and basically amounts to corporate censorship.

“I feel like SOPA is the brainchild of outof-touch politicians in Washington,” he said.

Watt did not return interview requests to his campaign office, but said in a prepared statement in October that the bill “represents a good-faith effort following months of negotiations between multiple stakeholders and staff members of Congress, including my staff, to craft a legislative solution to the problem of online theft of intellectual property which has reached crisis proportions.”

Though separated in age by more than three decades, Newton and the 66-year-old Watt both come out of reform movements in American politics.

the burning of two American flags. In the aftermath he helped found the People’s Coalition of the Carolinas. The coalition adopted as its goals the twin tenets of the occupy movement – addressing the corrupting power of money in politics and unsustainable income inequality. The coalition brought a resolution before Charlotte City Council that would put the city on record as opposing corporate personhood so that corporate campaign contributions are not considered “a form of constitutionally protected speech.”

Watt practiced law with Ferguson Stein Chambers, a legendary civil rights law firm that forced Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to implement busing with the landmark 1971 Swann case. Watt joined the law firm in 1971 and continued to serve until he ran for Congress in 1992. During that time he managed Harvey Gantt’s historic campaigns for Charlotte mayor and US Senate. Watt won his congressional seat shortly after the 12th district was created to fulfill the requirement for minority representation in the Voting Rights Act. A low-key lawmaker, Watt was elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2004.

Charlotte is a regional banking center, but the 12th district suffers from one of the higher levels of unemployment and poverty in the state. Both candidates have focused on population to more than half since it was redistricted last year. The Triad overall has

Newton said he broke with Occupy Charlotte in December, in part, because of curbing the abuses of the banking industry.

Newton is critical of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which passed in 2008 with approval from Watt.

“You saw a lot of that TARP money going to bonuses to executives and not to people who were homeless because they couldn’t keep up with their subprime mortgages,” Newton said.

In a prepared statement in September 2008 Watt said the secretary of the treasury and the chairman of the Federal Reserve warned that the financial crisis might prove to be worse than the Great Depression, adding that “it would have been irresponsible not to respond in a constructive way.”

Newton supports auditing the Federal Reserve – a position embraced by figures on the socialist left such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and the libertarian right such as Rep. Ron Paul. Newton said he would like to see Watt “get on board with us on auditing the Fed. I wish he was not tacitly approving of TARP.”

A member of the House Finance Committee, Watt worked with fellow Democrats to pass consumer protection legislation for homeowners before the Republicans took control of Congress in 2010.

“Today’s bill signing culminates years of efforts to rein in predatory lending, establish an entity in the government that has as its primary purpose protecting consumers of financial products, reduce the prospect that financial institutions get too big to fail and taxpayers end up getting stuck with the cost of bailing them out, and reducing the incentives that drove many financial institutions to pay much more attention to making profits than to protecting the interests of our nation and our economy,” Watt said in a prepared statement in July 2010.

Watt says on his campaign website that his votes for stimulus spending required political courage, and Newton said he supports the American Jobs Act proposed by President Obama, which would provide a combination of tax cuts and tax relief to businesses and workers, allow homeowners to refinance their mortgages while increasing spending on schools, roads and other infrastructure.

Both candidates emphasize their support for education, particularly Title I funding, which focuses resources in high-poverty schools.

“I believe that every citizen has a right to a quality education and I am a strong proponent of funding public education at the highest levels possible,” Watt says on his campaign website. “I have consistently supported maximum funding for Head Start, programs authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and federal student aid programs.”

Newton sounds similar themes, albeit with an earnestness contrasting with Watt’s aloofness.

“Is our priority a war overseas?” he asked. “Is our priority a tax cut for the rich? Or is our priority education? Wars overseas and tax cuts for the rich to not ensure our country or District 12’s future. Making education a priority does.”

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