U.S. Rep. Mel Watt announced Friday that he’ll resign from Congress Jan. 6, officially clearing the way for a crowded race – and two separate elections – for his seat.
His resignation will become effective when he’s sworn in as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The resignation will trigger a special election for the 12th District seat he’s held since 1993. At least six Democrats already are running in the heavily Democratic district that stretches from Charlotte to Greensboro. No Republican has announced.
But when that election will be is unclear. The date will be set by Gov. Pat McCrory.
“We’re working with the Board of Elections on a schedule right now,” Bob Stephens, the governor’s general counsel, said in a statement Friday. “We have to take into consideration setting time for a filing period, absentee voting, primary election(s) and the special election.”
A special election could set up a confusing schedule for candidates and voters.
Next year’s regularly scheduled primary is May 6. Filing opens Feb. 10. Watt’s seat, like other congressional races, will be up for grabs.
But a special election could be held as early as March, even late February. Or it could be in May, concurrent with the regular election schedule. Then there would be a likely runoff and a general election.
To make matters more confusing, candidates running in the special election almost certainly would run in the regular election. If the elections are concurrent, their names could appear twice on the same ballot.
“Obviously what we need is certainty and a schedule that doesn’t confuse the public,” said state Sen. Malcolm Graham, one of four Charlotteans running for the seat. “There’s a lot of … educating that will have to happen.”
Graham already has been campaigning. So have his rivals.
State Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro, the only woman in the race, picked up three endorsements this week.
One is from Emily’s List, a national organization that helps fill the coffers of pro-abortion rights, Democratic women. The North Carolina Association of Educators also backs the retired teacher, as does the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
“They’re pretty key,” Adams said Friday. “They’re great organizations that have a large following.”
Rep. Marcus Brandon of High Point touted the endorsement of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. That promises a national fundraising base for Brandon, who already led his rivals in fundraising at the end of September.
The state’s only openly gay legislator would be the first openly gay congressman from a Southern state.
George Battle III said he’ll bring experience in health care and education that his rivals lack. The general counsel for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, he held the same position for 11 years with Carolinas HealthCare System.
“To my knowledge, nobody else in the race has that kind of experience,” he said.
Charlotte attorney Curtis Osborne, a newcomer to politics, hopes to use that to his advantage in the race.
“People are tired of politics and the gridlock that has come along with it recently,” he said. “They want somebody who’s going to listen to the people … and deal with the issues and not get bogged down in politics as usual.”
The latest in the race is James “Smuggie” Mitchell, a former Charlotte City Council member who ran unsuccessfully for mayor. He met with supporters Friday in Winston-Salem and Greensboro.
“I see this race as a reboot now that we know the seat is vacant,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was right to campaign for a seat that wasn’t vacant.”
Mitchell is one of four candidates from Mecklenburg County, which has 52 percent of the district’s population. Guilford County has 27 percent.
Concurrent elections possible
Depending on the scheduling, all the candidates could face a gauntlet of elections.
The schedule will have to account for such things as a legally mandated 45-day period to get absentee ballots overseas and a required 10-week interval between a primary election and a runoff, if needed.
Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson said the options run from three separate special elections (two primaries and a general) – for a total of six with the normally scheduled elections – to holding the special and regular primaries on the same day.
Concurrent elections would have at least one benefit, he said. At a cost of roughly $200,000 per election in Mecklenburg alone, they’d be cheaper.
All of that means that Watt’s seat could be vacant for months. In the meantime, his staff would continue working with constituents, under the auspices of the House clerk.