One of the starkest political divides this election season splits the firmly Democratic 12th Congressional District, the gerrymandered urban arc between Charlotte and Greensboro.
Two familiar faces with polar-opposite political views want to replace former Rep. Mel Watt, who resigned in January to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Alma Adams, a veteran Democratic state legislator from Greensboro, hopes to succeed a popular political ally in Watt. Republican Vince Coakley is making his first run for office after nearly 18 years on the air at Charlotte’s WSOC-TV.
Their views of government separate the candidates in a predominantly black district beset by growing poverty and stubborn unemployment.
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Adams, 68, was raised by a single mother, a domestic worker who never earned minimum wage or had health insurance. Those struggles shaped Adams’ 11 terms in the N.C. House, where she fought for equal pay and help for families and historically black colleges.
“She scrubbed floors so I wouldn’t have to do it, so education is really important to me,” said Adams, a retired art educator with a Ph.D. Voters sense, she says, that their problems were once hers.
“I’m a woman who is going to be impacted by this election in so many ways because we are the low-wage earners, and we are the ones who are the majority who don’t have health care,” she said. “We are the ones who don’t make an equal wage, and my opponent doesn’t believe women should make an equal wage.”
Coakley, 49, the son of a civil service worker and a homemaker, blames the federal debt, over-regulation and government dysfunction for killing jobs. He sees national renewal in individual freedom and unfettered opportunity.
Coakley says the Affordable Care Act mostly benefits insurance companies. He calls education budgets bloated and says the U.S. is “a nation with blood on our hands” because of abortion.
Government social programs, he said, have helped “decimate the black family, and as a result we have a 73 percent illegitimacy rate and a (11) percent unemployment rate among blacks.”
Coakley said he felt spiritually called to enter the race but admits that “from a purely human, statistical viewpoint, it’s a suicide mission.”
About two-thirds of the district’s registered voters are Democrats, and nearly 60 percent are black. The candidates’ names will appear twice on the ballot: once to serve the rest of Watt’s term this year, and again to fill a two-year term through 2016.
Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer gives Coakley no chance of winning in a district that President Barack Obama and Watt both carried with 79 percent of the vote in 2012.
“It is a district heavily drawn for Democratic dominance, and it’s really kind of symptomatic of the bigger picture,” he said. “Most of North Carolina’s congressional districts are not competitive at all, partly due to redistricting but also due to where people live.”
Americans increasingly live in like-minded communities and associate with people who think as they do, political experts say.
Through Oct. 15, Adams had raised about $683,000 to Coakley’s surprisingly strong $320,000. Coakley raised $172,000 in the quarter ending in September, outstripping Adams’ $158,000.
Finding ‘human solutions’
Coakley supporter Clarence Henderson took part in the 1960 sit-ins at a Greensboro Woolworth’s that became a seminal civil rights event. Now 73, he maintains that government programs like the Great Society of the 1960s failed to lift black families from poverty.
“Statistically, we’re worse off now than we were before,” he said over the twang of a bluegrass band at a Coakley reception in Charlotte last week. “We are a society of opportunity, not entitlement. We have to revive our economy and give people an incentive to get back to work.”
Coakley talks about a need for “transformative leadership” that doesn’t polarize voters or over-promise on results.
Raised in Indianapolis, he worked for radio and TV stations in Lexington, Ky., before moving to Charlotte’s WSOC. He became prime anchor in 2005. Since leaving the station in 2010, he’s worked in radio at Charlotte’s conservative talk-oriented WBT-AM and now hosts a weekly talk show in Greenville, S.C.
“I believe society is built on individuals and families, not on Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Whatever ails us, we’ve got to recover as human beings first and foremost. (For) the problems we have in our society, frankly, there are not political solutions. There are human solutions.”
An outspoken advocate
Strong support from her home of Guilford County helped Adams win the May primary over six other candidates, amid overall low turnout. She would be the first Democratic woman from North Carolina in Congress since Eva Clayton of Warren County left in 2003.
Known for her hundreds of colorful hats, the longtime arts instructor at Bennett College has pushed legislation on domestic violence, teen pregnancy and reproductive rights and public education. She led a successful effort to increase the state’s minimum wage in 2006, but her bill to index the minimum wage to inflation went nowhere last year.
The assertive Adams isn’t likely to be shy as a freshman member of Congress, Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, says with a chuckle.
“Her style is a little bit not warm and fuzzy, I think you’d say, but she has knowledge and is very approachable, and I’ve never seen anyone work harder for her constituents,” Harrison said. “She’s not afraid of saying what needs to be said.”
Harrison recalls Adams waving a coat hanger – a symbol of illegal abortions – on the House floor last year when Republicans inserted abortion restrictions into what had been a motorcycle safety bill.
Adams calls Coakley’s insistence on limited government “a real lopsided view.”
“You only need to get out in the community and talk to people to see the many people who have needed help, who benefited from various programs and who pulled themselves up,” she said.
Adams has a ready foil in North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature, which has limited unemployment benefits, enacted abortion restrictions and refused to expand Medicaid.
Speaking at an appearance Saturday in Charlotte by Hillary Clinton, Adams referred to the N.C. House speaker and Senate candidate as “Uncle Thom” Tillis. She later said the reference was to the actions of Republican legislators.
“This General Assembly has given people reason to go to the polls and vote,” she said.