Politics & Government

Guilford candidate draws on long record

Colorful hats aren’t the only thing that make Alma Adams stand out in her race for Congress: She’s the only woman running against six men.

“It certainly sets me apart,” she says. “But I want people to look at the work I’ve done and what I will do.”

At 67, Adams is an 11-term member of the state House, and she previously served on the Greensboro City Council and school board. She has held elected office longer than any of her opponents.

She also boasts the most endorsements with support from groups representing women, teachers and organized labor.

With more than half the meandering 12th District in Mecklenburg County, geography will be a big factor in the race. So will gender. Nearly 56 percent of the registered voters are women.

Adams cast herself as a champion of issues affecting children, women and families. She’s pledged to work on issues such as the minimum wage in Washington.

The lawmaker

When Democrats controlled the House before 2011, Adams had choice assignments. She even co-chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee. She also led the Women’s Legislative Caucus and the Black Caucus.

Her effectiveness, according to rankings by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, peaked at 27th in the 120-member House in 2009. When Republicans took over, it tumbled to 108.

She points to successes such as a 1998 measure that increased job-training money for homemakers forced back to work. Such measures level the playing field for low- and middle-income North Carolinians, she says, dismissing the center’s rankings.

“Your ratings come from the people,” she says.

Privately, some colleagues describe her as abrasive and hard to work with.

“The things I believe in I work hard to make happen,” she says. “Sometimes in doing that you have to be persistent and you have to be aggressive. I don’t necessarily see that as a flaw.”

Adams has cast herself as a defender of public education, criticizing rivals for supporting school vouchers, which would give parents tax money to send their children to private schools.

The artist

In Guilford County, Adams is known as much for her art as her politics.

She is a longtime arts instructor at Bennett College, and her own work includes prints and silkscreens, some with motifs inspired by her travels to Africa. Her work has been exhibited at galleries and colleges.

In 1991, she co-founded the African American Atelier, a nonprofit gallery that showcases black artists and hosts student workshops.

“It certainly has enriched my life,” Adams says of art. “It helps to round us out and make us human and whole.”

The collector

Hats have a special place in Adams’ heart, and in her home.

The woman rarely seen with her head uncovered has a room reserved for her collection of hats, all 779 of them. Spring and summer hats are arranged on one side, winter hats on another.

Her hats have been featured in a book and on TV. Many, like one she got arrested in during a protest march, have their own stories.

Adams has an annual campaign fundraiser called the Mad Hatter’s Luncheon.

“We just never believed that you were completely dressed” without a hat, she says. “I’ve been wearing one every day for the last 30 or 35 years.”