It had all the ingredients of a “60 Minutes” snare: A TV camera crew is waiting in a driveway when the surprised owner pulls up, spots them and speeds away.
It’s an image that put into relief a question that has come to dominate the 12th District congressional race. Where does Democratic U.S. Rep. Alma Adams really live?
A longtime Greensboro resident, Adams said she moved to Charlotte’s Fourth Ward in April. But the TV footage aired this week has given her Mecklenburg County opponents ammunition as they question her residency – and argue that it matters.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“Alma Adams is intentionally deceiving Mecklenburg County voters,” Democrat Tricia Cotham wrote on Facebook. “She continues to live in Greensboro after telling us that she moved to Charlotte.”
Or, as Malcolm Graham, a former state senator and Charlotte City Council member, told a forum this week: “This is my home. I’m not passing through.”
In a Democratic primary where candidates agree on most issues, rivals have homed in not only on Adams’ move but her ability to represent a county in which, up to now, she has never lived.
Adams’ move followed this year’s redistricting. When federal judges ruled that the 12th and 1st Districts were racially gerrymandered, lawmakers redrew all 13 districts. The 12th, which snaked from Charlotte to Greensboro, was drawn entirely within Mecklenburg County.
The Constitution only requires members of Congress to live in the state they represent, not the district. Adams was one of two incumbents who found themselves outside their new districts.
So this spring she leased a Fourth Ward condo and changed her voting registration to complete a promised move. She still represents the “old” version of the district, and still maintains a congressional office in Greensboro.
On Memorial Day, a WBTV reporter and camera crew, acting on what they said was a tip that she was still living in Greensboro, showed up at her suburban home. Adams pulled into the driveway, saw the reporter and pulled out. Spying her again a few blocks away, they tried to flag her down, but she continued driving off.
Political rivals were quick to post the footage or accounts of it online.
Adams gave her side this week while canvassing for votes in Charlotte’s Washington Heights neighborhood off Beatties Ford Road.
After celebrating her 70th birthday in Charlotte Thursday, she said she returned to Greensboro Friday to visit her daughters and check on repairs being done to her home, which she said she may sell or lease. She stayed Saturday, returned to Charlotte on Sunday and was back in Greensboro Monday.
She said she took the occasion to visit the grave of her mother, who died a year ago this week. She was on her way back when she encountered the camera in her driveway.
“I was just not in any emotional position to be talking to anybody,” she said. “I just wanted my time.”
But the images were not flattering. WBTV also asked her about deleted references to Greensboro on her campaign website.
“Rep. Adams is clearly in an uncomfortable position … so you can understand her frustration,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. “(But) don’t hurt yourself with the optics, the picture of you appearing to avoid the situation rather than to confront it directly.”
Asked if she regretted the way she handled the TV crew, Adams said, “My thoughts were on my mother … I’ve never had a problem talking to reporters.”
In an email to supporters Thursday, Cotham, a state lawmaker from Matthews, said voters “feel deceived” and are “tired of politicians playing games.”
A radio ad for Graham says, “Who to vote for? Someone who has just moved to town from 100 miles away? … Someone more attuned into Greensboro? No.”
Does longtime residency matter?
Graham, Cotham and fellow Rep. Carla Cunningham of Charlotte argue that their longtime political and civic involvement would make them more effective representatives for Mecklenburg County.
Adams disagrees. She said she has represented Mecklenburg along with the rest of the district ever since she was elected in 2014. In that year’s primary, she won the district despite finishing third in Mecklenburg.
She touts a list of accomplishments that includes supporting federal appropriations for projects such as Charlotte’s light rail and new airport control tower as well as programs that benefit people in Mecklenburg and throughout the district.
She argues that she has been an effective advocate for her constituents and would continue to be.
“People want a representative they can trust and who gets the job done for their community,” she said.
“The truth is that Alma Adams has represented Charlotte well. People who were very skeptical have said to us, ‘It’s obvious that you do care about Charlotte. … Some people have said, ‘You’ve done a good job. I don’t care where you live.’”