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Watt defends credentials for new job, reminisces on accomplishments

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/23/19/04/qrxj0.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    U.S. Rep. Mel Watt makes his exit statement during a press conference held at his office in Charlotte on Monday. Watt represented the 12th Congressional District for 21 years. On Jan. 6, Watt will resign his position to be sworn in as head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/23/19/04/IG0J5.Em.138.jpeg|292
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    U.S. Rep. Mel Watt makes his exit statement during a press conference held at his office in Charlotte on Monday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/23/19/04/K3b2Y.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    In his new role, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt will regulate $5 trillion in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were taken over by the government at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. At the news conference, however, he declined to say much about his plans in office.

Retiring U.S. Rep. Mel Watt on Monday defended his qualifications for his new job overseeing two giant mortgage finance agencies, while reminiscing about his accomplishments during 21 years in Congress.

The Democratic congressman, whose district snakes from Charlotte to Greensboro, will step down Jan. 6 when he becomes head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Watt takes on the role after overcoming Republican opposition to his confirmation, including criticism that he was a political appointee who didn’t have the needed expertise.

At a farewell news conference in Charlotte, Watt touted his experience in Congress promoting legislation to stop predatory lending and to reform the financial system, as well as his 22 years as a lawyer. Much of his practice before joining Congress was in real estate, including working with homeowners on the “front end” of real estate transactions, he said.

“That’s why it was laughable when people started talking about this guy is not qualified for the position,” said Watt, who plans to keep his home in Charlotte. “I think I’ll stack my credentials in this area against anybody.”

In his new role, Watt will regulate $5 trillion in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were taken over by the government at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. At the news conference, however, he declined to say much about his plans in office.

Asked how he would handle lawsuits the FHFA has filed against banks such as Charlotte-based Bank of America after taking campaign contributions from the banking industry, Watt said he has “walked that line before and I’m not worried about that.” FHFA lawyers “can deal with the litigation, and they’ll have good recommendations about how to resolve or not resolve those cases going forward,” he said.

Watt’s departure has already spurred at least six Democrats to run to replace him in North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, but the outgoing congressman said he won’t take sides.

“I’m staying out of this,” he said. “I don’t have a favorite candidate.”

The frenzy to replace him might have been underway even if Watt had not been nominated by President Barack Obama for his new position. Although he called his final days in office “bittersweet,” Watt indicated that he might have stepped aside after this term anyway.

“You start to sense that somebody else ought to have more of the passion and newness about it,” he said. “You start to understand that it’s time for another chapter.”

Among his contributions in more than two decades in Congress, the 68-year-old touted his efforts to renovate public housing projects, secure money for a new Yadkin River bridge and secure more land for veterans’ graves in Salisbury. His staff counted more than 25,000 closed cases in which his office helped constituents speed up passports, earn military medals, receive government benefits and otherwise navigate federal red tape.

Here are Watt’s thoughts on other topics as his tenure comes to an end:

• On partisanship in Congress: “It’s getting worse. In the House starting in 1995 with the (Newt) Gingrich revolution it has been going downhill ever since. There is no listening to the perspectives of other people. That’s what my confirmation was about. I said, ‘Why are we having this conversation?’ Because a Democratic president nominated me, the Republicans are going to say we don’t like that guy.”

• On the challenge of Obama as a black president: “It’s difficult being president of the United States. It’s more difficult being a black president of the United States. That’s probably the bottom line.”

• On criticism of his lone House vote in 1996 against Megan’s Law, a bill requiring registration of convicted sex offenders that he thought would be deemed unconstitutional: “The week before the (next) election my mama calls me and says, ‘Are you as bad as they say you are?’ That was a lonely stand.”

• On his relief that U.S. military action in Syria was averted: “I was going to hate to vote against the president.”

• On the shape of his elongated district: “It doesn’t need to be as gerrymandered as much much as it is. And I’ve been on the record expressing myself vigorously on that because in an approximate 40 percent African-American district I was getting 65 percent of the vote.”

Rothacker: 704-358-5170; Twitter: @rickrothacker
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