She clapped. She danced. She prayed. She shook a lot of Charlotte hands.
At the 111th anniversary celebration of East Stonewall AME Zion Church in Charlotte, parishioners approached freshman U.S. Rep. Alma Adams like an old classmate. One brought a yearbook to prove he was a classmate. She laughed over her old hairstyle.
She talked about her colorful hats and complimented those other parishioners wore.
And when the 69-year-old lawmaker said she’d run again for office in November 2016, the Charlotte crowd clapped – loudly.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“I’m so honored to be your voice in the U.S. Congress,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for trusting me.”
Adams is not from Charlotte. She’s from Greensboro, about 100 miles up Interstate 85. And that distance has been a point of contention for some voters who feel the person holding the 12th Congressional District seat should be from Charlotte, the district’s largest city.
The bottom line is, will be and should be, not where my residence is, but how I’ve served the residents of this 12th District, including the residents of Charlotte.
Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C.
Adams won the seat last year after handily defeating former television anchor Vince Coakley of Charlotte. She replaced Charlottean Mel Watt, a Democrat who held the seat for more than two decades. Watt is now director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees government-controlled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
More than half of the 12th District’s residents live in the Charlotte region.
“The biggest issue is if someone challenges her from the Charlotte area, and Charlotte is the bigger portion of the pie than Greensboro,” said Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer. “How is she going to make herself known in the Charlotte area?”
Supporters – and she has a lot of them – say that shouldn’t matter. Adams represents every part of the 12th District, which snakes alongside the I-85 corridor from Charlotte to Greensboro, weaving through Winston-Salem, High Point and Salisbury.
Always in one of her nearly 1,000 colorful hats, Adams has been to Charlotte ribbon cuttings. She rode in the Thanksgiving Day parade. She threw out the first pitch at a Charlotte Knights game. She even absorbed the g-forces on Turn 4 at Charlotte Motor Speedway during a test drive.
She’s pressed Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Charlotte’s former mayor, for federal money to expand light rail and build a new control tower at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
“The bottom line is, will be and should be, not where my residence is, but how I’ve served the residents of this 12th District, including the residents of Charlotte,” Adams said.
Next year, her biggest threat is unlikely to be a Republican. Redistricting has made the district even more Democratic. About two-thirds of the district’s registered voters are Democrats; nearly 60 percent are black.
I had to prove myself to the people of Durham. And I think Alma is going through the same thing proving herself to the people of Charlotte.
Former Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C.
Some Charlotte officials have told her they were concerned that she’d be more focused on Greensboro. But Adams says they soon came around after she proved she was serious. She notes Watt didn’t live in Greensboro, but Triad residents supported him because he showed he was faithful to all parts of the district.
“We didn’t hold it against him because he didn’t go to sleep in Greensboro every night,” she said.
Watt can relate. When he was first elected in 1992, the district included parts of Durham. He said many people resisted a Charlotte politician representing them.
“I had to prove myself to the people of Durham,” he said. “And I think Alma is going through the same thing proving herself to the people of Charlotte, which is why I think she’s probably spending a lot more time in Charlotte than she’s spending in some other parts of the district.”
President Barack Obama pulled Watt out of Congress early to become the top housing regulator. Adams was sworn in almost immediately after the November 2014 election to fill Watt’s unfinished term.
She didn’t have the same luxury as other incoming freshman to prepare for a new job. She attended caucus meetings and voted while going through orientation.
The reality is that Adams landed in Washington with a bang. When she took the oath, she became the 100th woman in Congress. The history, her hats and matter-of-fact personality made her an immediate media darling.
The National Journal featured a cartoon caricature of Adams in a purple derby hat with 17 other Washington players to watch, including Obama and the new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Essence Magazine featured her in a black and white cloche hat for a piece on influential black congresswomen.
Adams has been tickled by the national attention, but she said her focus is on the 770,000 residents in the 12th District.
It would take a well-executed campaign to topple Adams, said Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte. She beat six other Democrats in last year’s primary. She has also worked hard to shore up her liberal bonafides.
Adams, a former college professor, helped launch the bipartisan congressional caucus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She serves on the education committee, and she’s lobbying to join the financial committee because of the industry’s importance to Charlotte.
Congressional Quarterly reports she voted with the party more than 99 percent of the time. She’s voted with Obama 94 percent of the time. One exception: Adams opposed granting Obama special authority to pass future trade agreements. She cited the harmful effects that past free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA, have had on North Carolinians.
Adams has endorsements from Democratic allies representing women, progressives and organized labor.
“Your first step is, ‘Where do I go for support?’” Heberlig said. “And if most of the groups that might fund you or endorse you have no reason to do so – they’re not going to alienate an incumbent if they don’t have to – you don’t really have much of a base to challenge her.”
Former state Sen. Malcolm Graham finished second to Adams in last year’s Democratic primary. In May, on his Twitter account, he gave a not-so-subtle hint of his intentions.
“if first you don't succeed ....,” he wrote with an attached campaign picture.
He told the Observer that he is considering another run.
“Obviously, I have always had an interest in serving. And my interest didn’t stop with losing the election,” he said.
Bitzer said Graham could be a more formidable challenger next year if he’s able to harness the Charlotte vote for himself. Last year, he split the local vote with three other Charlotte-area politicians - George Battle III, Curtis Osborne and James Mitchell.
Adams chuckled when asked about potential competitors. She says she’ll be ready.
Last time, Adams had more endorsements – and more money. Two super PACs spent more than $186,000 on her behalf.
While she hasn’t raised nearly as much this year – just over $52,000 in the first three months of 2015 – it’s still early.
“I have never run unopposed,” Adams said. “I have had 16 elections or something like that. I think I’ve done a good job serving the people. And clearly... evidence of that is people continue to support me.”