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Mel Watt’s House seat empty, but his staff remains

By Franco Ordoñez
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON More than 730,000 North Carolinians were left without representation in the U.S. House of Representatives when former Rep. Mel Watt left to become a housing regulator.

It’s likely to stay that way for most of the year since Gov. Pat McCrory decided that the special election will have to wait until the regularly scheduled election in November.

Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a big deal or doesn’t make much of a difference.

But it does mean 12th District residents who want their voices heard on the major votes of the day, such as the budget, voting rights, and immigration, are out of luck.

“Any big vote is a loss,” said Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman and now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Particularly, in this Congress where every vote counts and you need to develop almost supermajorities to get things passed. Immigration is a wonderful example.”

But, he said, one vacant position isn’t going to make a big difference.

Now, put in a call to Watt’s office and the phone is answered generically: “Office of the 12th Congressional District.”

Staffers in both his Washington and North Carolina offices have remained behind, including chief of staff Danielle Owen. She leads Watt’s old team helping constituents with federal needs and answering questions about pending legislation or scheduling tours of the Capitol.

Office will stay open

But what exactly is happening in the office is unclear. The Office of the Clerk of the House has ordered Owen and other staffers not to answer questions about any calls they are receiving or any staff changes that might be contemplated.

Salley Wood, a spokeswoman for the clerk, said it’s policy not to allow staff interviews or provide specific examples of the work. She said the staff is continuing to work on helping residents in the same manner they would have if the congress member were still there.

“The most important thing, as far as we’re concerned, is that the constituents understand that this office will remain open and there will be staff there to help them,” Wood said.

A request for a tour of the office was also denied, but a visit to the lobby showed that many of Watt’s touches remain.

A North Carolina flag stands outside the door of the third-floor office. Watt’s congressional nameplate has been removed, but a stack of his business cards remain on the receptionist desk.

Photos of Watt pitching for the Democrats in the annual congressional baseball game adorn a wall. In one photo, the right-hander is captured mid-wind up, with a not-so-high leg kick, wearing a UNC Charlotte green uniform.

Watt’s old office is next to the reception desk. The door was open. Packed boxes sat against a bare wall that appeared as if it had recently been stripped of art and photos.

Unrepresented

The geography of the 12th District winds through six counties from Charlotte to Greensboro. It’s predominantly Democratic and African-American.

Democrats and the NAACP have criticized the governor for not holding the election sooner. A special election was scheduled in June to fill the seat left vacant by former Florida Congressman Trey Radel, who resigned last week after pleading guilty to cocaine possession. Officials estimate the election, including a April 22 primary election, will cost Florida taxpayers more than $1 million.

But North Carolina election laws are different. McCrory said holding the special primary for Watt’s seat in conjunction with the regular election was the most cost effective and least confusing option. That means there will be a May primary, a probable July runoff and a November general election.

Seven Democrats are vying for the seat.

One Democrat missing for an additional few months is unlikely to alter the dynamics of what is going on in the House of Representatives, said Danny Hayes, a political science professor at George Washington University.

It’s unfortunate, but no one congressman is absolutely necessary, Frenzel said.

“We have 435 of them. We can live without a couple of them for awhile,” he said. “But if they’re representing you, you don’t want to live without them.”

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