Watt, Melvin 1945–
Melvin Watt 1945–
Congressman from North Carolina
North Carolina U.S. Representative Melvin Watt stood at the center of one of the most divisive American political controversies of the 1990s: the debate over whether redisricting should be used to create political-district boundary lines enclosing large African American majorities, thereby guaranteeing African American political representation. The man at the vortex of the storm was no political opportunist, but a superbly qualified attorney who has been noted for taking principled stands even when they were politically dangerous. Even after the boundary lines of his district were redrawn, Watt won re-election in his new white-majority district, defying the usual voting patterns based along racial lines.
Watt was born on August 26, 1945. He grew up on the outskirts of Charlotte in a tin-roofed shack without electricity or indoor plumbing. Education took him quickly out of these modest surroundings. Watt graduated from Charlotte’s York Road High School in 1963 and then moved on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Desegregation of the large southern state universities, a process marked by contention and sometimes violence, had been underway for only a few years, and Watt was one of only a few African American students enrolled. Nevertheless he compiled an excellent academic record, and graduated with a business administration degree in 1967.
Even more impressive was his conquest of the curriculum at Yale University Law School, one of the most competitive and tradition-bound institutions in the country. Watt finished the program in only three years, receiving his degree in 1970 and passing the bar exam in the District of Columbia that same year. In 1971 he moved back to North Carolina, passed the bar exam in that state, and began a career in civil rights law. Watt joined the firm of Chambers, Stein, Ferguson, and Becton and served there until his election to Congress in 1992. By joining numerous civic organizations in Charlotte and winning election to the presidency of the Mecklenburg County Bar Association, he built a valuable network of contacts. In 1989 Watt invested in a Charlotte restaurant and hotel complex, and became the owner of a nursing home.
Politics seemed a natural choice for Watt, and he served a term in the North Carolina state senate between 1984 and 1986. Family obligations temporarily halted his political career, and he vowed not to run for office again until his two sons, Brian and Jason,
Born August 26, 1945, near Charlotte, NC; married, wife’s name Eulada; children; two sons. Education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, B. S, in business administration, 1967; Yale University, J.D., 1970, Religion: Presbyterian.
Career. Practiced civil rights law with the firm of Chambers, Stein, Ferguson, andBecton, 1971-92; elected to North Carolina Senate, 1984; temporarily left politics to concentration family, late 1980s; campaign manager, Harvey Gantt for Senate campaign, 1990; elected to House of Representatives from the Twelfth District of North Carolina, 1992; re-elected in 1994, 1996, and 1998; member, House Banking and Financial Services Committee.
Addresses: Office —1230 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
had finished high school. Watt’s devotion to his family paid off, as both sons followed their father to Yale. He kept a hand in politics, though, managing the Charlotte city council and mayoral campaigns of a fellow rising star in African-American politics, Harvey Gantt.
Gantt made headlines when he became the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, and jumped into the 1990 race for the U.S. Senate seat held by longtime Republican Senator Jesse Helms, one of the most conservative politicians in America at the national level. Watt received a trial by fire in national politics when he signed on to manage Gantt’s campaign. Helms, who is widely acknowledged to have run an ugly campaign that inflamed racial passions, won reelection. However, Watt gained status within North Carolina’s Democratic party organization that he would use in his own bid for a Congressional seat two years later.
After the 1990 census, the North Carolina state legislature created a new Twelfth Congressional District with a 57 percent African American majority. African American politicians including Watt supported the change, and were joined by white Republicans who saw an opportunity to dilute Democratic voting strength in adjacent districts. The new district snaked along Interstate 85, encompassing predominantly African American neighborhoods in cities from Gastonia through Charlotte and Winston-Salem to Durham. The bizarre shape of the district attracted national attention. One candidate who joined Watt in the race for the seat complained, according to the New York Times, that he could “drive down 1-85 with both car doors open and his every person in the district.”
Watt defeated three other candidates in the 1992 Democratic primary, and cruised to victory in November. He and fellow first-time Representative Eva Clayton became the first African Americans to be sent to Congress from North Carolina since 1901, at the end of the Reconstruction era. Watt proclaimed that he was “saddened that it took 92 years” to break the color barrier once again, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
In Congress, Watt emerged as one of the nation’s most staunchly liberal legislators, and became a strong ally of President Bill Clinton. On the issue of health care he went even further than Clinton, supporting a Canadian-style government plan. Watt also strongly resisted bills that would restrict civil liberties. He opposed a series of bills that strengthened the hand of law enforcement in dealing with juvenile offenders, and voted against a measure to fence off the U.S.-Mexican border. In 1996 Watt was the only member of Congress to vote against the “Megan’s Law” a bill requiring convicted sex offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies upon their release from prison. He even crossed swords occasionally with North Carolina’s powerful tobacco lobby. “On one issue after another,” noted the Almanac of American Politics, “he [Watt] has risked unpopular stands to defend principle.”
More notorious than any of Watt’s activities in Congress was the protracted battle over the makeup of his district, which was still going on in the year 2000 as the new census was being taken. First, a federal lawsuit challenged the boundaries of the Twelfth District, under which Watt had run in 1992, as impermissible under statutes that required congressional districts to be compact and contiguous. The Supreme Court in 1996 declared those boundaries unconstitutional and, in 1997, the North Carolina legislature responded by shaving the ends off the district. This failed to satisfy a new panel of federal judges and, in 1998, the legislature devised yet another plan that reduced the proportion of African American voters in the district to 36 percent.
During Watt’s reelection campaign, in which Republicans attacked Watt as an ultra-liberal and focused on his vote against Megan’s Law (a position he eventually abandoned), he reaped the benefits of incumbency. He illustrated to voters the benefits he could bring to Charlotte’s large banking industry through his position on the House Banking Committee. Watt won reelection to Congress in 1998 by a 56 to 42 percent margin. He took 69 percent of the vote in predominantly Republican Mecklenburg County, and made significant gains among white voters. Watt had done what few African American politicians and no Southern liberals had ever managed: he had won election in a white-majority district.
The redistricting battle continued to make headlines when a U.S. district court threw out the new boundaries. However, their decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered the reinstatement of the state legislature’s 1997 plan. “Clearly, Mr. Watt’s constituents are exasperated,” observed the New York Times, which noted that Watt had the unenviable task of spreading the word of the decision among his constituents. Although Watt’s political future seemed to depend in some measure on the 2000 elections and the future makeup of North Carolina’s state government, he had already shown an ability to cross lines of party and race. The Almanac of American Politics noted that “he [Watt] has proven to be a tough contender.”
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics 2000, National Journal, 1999.
Jet, January 11, 1999, p. 4; April 10, 2000, p. 8.
New York Times, April 29, 2000.
Time, November 2, 1992, p. 44.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.house.gov/watt/bio_mel.htm
—James M. Manheim
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