With a serpentine shape that once stretched up Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Durham, North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District has been one of America’s most mocked and litigated districts.
Now the district is the only one in the state confined to a single county.
The change has profound effects for voters and the nine candidates – including Democratic incumbent Alma Adams – running in the district that now includes 80 percent of Mecklenburg County residents:
▪ More than 350,000 people who had been in other districts now find themselves in the 12th.
▪ The redrawn district left Adams, who has lived most of her life in Greensboro, scrambling to find a home in Charlotte. In a race where candidates generally agree, residency has become a fault line.
▪ Demographics have changed. Only 38 percent of voters are African-American compared with 57 percent under the old map. Democrats make up a bare majority of voters. They were 64 percent.
Add to all that a new rule for the June 7 primaries: For the first time in a N.C. congressional race, there will be no runoff. Whoever gets the most votes in the primary wins.
Adams first won in 2014, defeating a crowded Democratic field in a district that then ran from Charlotte to Greensboro. While she carried the district, she finished a distant third in Mecklenburg. The candidate who carried the county two years ago, former state Sen. Malcolm Graham, is running again.
The new district also has attracted two current N.C. legislators, Democratic Reps. Tricia Cotham and Carla Cunningham, and two Democrats from elsewhere: Gardenia Henley of Winston-Salem and Rick Miller of Guilford County. (State Rep. Rodney Moore suspended his campaign but is on the ballot.)
Three Republicans are running in the district where the GOP makes up about a quarter of registered voters. Vying for the nomination are Ryan Duffie and Leon Threatt of Mecklenburg County and Paul Wright of Mount Olive, about 200 miles east of Charlotte.
Unlike legislative candidates, congressional candidates don’t have to live in the districts in which they run.
Candidates split on residency
In a League of Women Voters debate on Friday, the Democratic candidates generally agreed on issues such as raising the minimum wage, enacting “common sense” gun laws and opposition to the General Assembly’s House Bill 2.
They split over how important it is for the 12th District representative to live in the 12th District.
Adams moved to Charlotte’s Fourth Ward last month and changed her voter registration. She has touted her move and said she had already been successful in lobbying for the city in Washington on issues such as transit and education.
“We’ve been able to deliver for Charlotte,” she said.
But Cotham, Cunningham and Graham said it’s important for the district’s representative to live in Mecklenburg. Only Henley, of Winston-Salem, said it’s not important to live in the district.
“Do you want to vote for somebody who has been representing this community for 18 months or Malcolm Graham, somebody who’s been working (here) 30 years?” Graham asked.
Cunningham said her state House district is right in the middle of the new 12th. And Cotham downplays Adam’s recent move to Charlotte.
“I live in Mecklenburg County,” she said, later calling it “absolutely ridiculous and insulting” that Adams would claim to be a Charlotte resident.
Adams later sought to turn the tables on Cotham, whose Mathews home is in the 9th District, a half-mile from the 12th.
“She will not even be able to vote for herself,” Adams said. Cotham responded by saying she has not only lived in Mecklenburg but represented the county.
Adams tops fundraising
As the incumbent, Adams has by far the most resources. She’d raised more than $500,000 by the end of March, more than two-thirds from political action committees representing corporations, labor unions and interest groups. She’s has been the only candidate with a TV ad.
Cotham had raised $43,750 and Graham, $30,400. Cunningham has only reported a $20,000 loan from herself. Henley had $7,200, most from a personal loan.
With little more than three weeks until the primary, it’s not clear how much money will matter.
Graham, a former state senator and Charlotte City Council member, said community ties and roots mean more than money in the race.
“We’re not going to out-raise anybody,” he said. “We’re going to run on the issues.”
Eric Heberlig, a UNC Charlotte political scientist, argues that money can make a difference.
“The turnout in this special election is going to be very, very low,” he said. “So money allows you to target the voters likely to turn out with the type of message that will be most persuasive to them.”
Republicans back HB2
Two Republican candidates also debated last week. Duffie, a Charlotte securities trader, met Threatt, a pastor and former Charlotte police officer who ran in 2014. Wright did not attend.
Like the Democrats, the two candidates differed little on issues. Both support HB2, oppose a higher minimum wage and more regulations on guns.
One of the only places they disagreed was the need for bi-partisanship in Washington. Threatt said lawmakers should look for common ground if it doesn’t violate their core values. Duffie said there’s little chance of working across the aisle.
It’s “impossible to compromise with these people,” he said, advocating instead “win(ning) on ideas.”