Watt nomination could have local impact, some say
SALISBURY — Shortly after taking over as executive director of Salisbury Housing Authority in April 2010, Sam Foust spent two hours touring the town with veteran U.S. Congressman Mel Watt.
Foust, like other residents, said Watt’s interest in housing policy and willingness to listen to local issues will serve him well as the longtime congressman prepares for a possible new job.
Watt was nominated by President Barack Obama on Wednesday to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. That proposed appointment could require Gov. Pat McCrory to call a special election, depending on the timing of Watt’s resignation or the U.S. Senate’s confirmation.
Foust said the nomination could spell good things for Salisbury.
After touring neighborhoods and listening to Foust’s ideas, he said, Watt encouraged Foust to apply for a large federal grant to revitalize Civic Apartments.
“He was very supportive and open to us trying for this huge federal grant,” Foust said. Watt “wrote a very nice letter of support. I think he’s a champion of affordable and public housing. I think it’s another remarkable appointment out of this area of North Carolina.”
Watt’s nomination sent several state Democrats into a flurry Wednesday as some quickly announced their consideration for the 12th District seat.
The 20-year congressman’s district, which zigzags from Greensboro to Charlotte, has a strong liberal base. Watt received 79 percent of the vote in the 2012 election.
But Catawba College Politics Professor Michael Bitzer said Watt faces a tough road to a U.S. Senate confirmation.
“Republicans will either try and block him potentially or slow his nomination down,” Bitzer said. “If he makes it out of committee he goes before the full senate for a vote.”
Bitzer had his doubts Watt can push through the heavily conservative senate.
“He may not make it through confirmation,” Bitzer said. “He may choose to retire from the seat. That could be as likely a possibility as him being confirmed.”
Still, a Watt confirmation would garner interest from Democrats in the open seat.
“It is one of the most safe seats because of racial gerrymandering,” Bitzer said. “Any Democrat that wins the primary basically will win the election.”
Bitzer had equally cautious words for conservatives looking to get in on the District 12 action.
“A Republican can waste his or her money,” he said. “Unless you have a Mark Sanford-like meltdown of a Democrat — even in that scenario I can’t envision a Republican winning.”
Mayor Paul Woodson told a crowd at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday he was late because of a conversation with White House officials regarding Watt.
“I got a call from the White House. I was riding down the road. When people say they’re calling from the White House you’re not always sure,” Woodson said laughing. “Basically they had heard that I had been on some programs with Mel Watt. We did some programs together. They just asked me about him and what I thought of him.”
Staffers then asked if he would compose a letter addressed to the U.S. Senate to help pave the way for Watt’s confirmation.
“I think he’s done well for Rowan County. I think he’s represented Salisbury and Rowan County well,” he said. “I told them I would do a letter or email tomorrow about the congressman.”
Community activist William Peoples — who once helped train Watt’s local campaign staff — said he’s taken several issues to the congressman’s office over the years. Peoples said Watt always took time to hear him out.
“I think it’ll be a big boost to this area,” he said. “I think we have a friend there. We have someone who’s going to right some wrongs and do everything he can to bring it under control.”
M. J. Simms-Maddox, chairwoman of the department of history and political science at Livingstone College, said Watt’s nomination just days after Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx was nominated for Transportation Secretary does wonders for young people looking to see local successful leaders.
“It will be wonderful for our students that there will be someone that they recognize that has been appointed by the President to a position in Washington,” Simms-Maddox said.
Simms-Maddox said Watt has visited the campus before and she hopes his interest in housing policy helps those dealing with housing conundrums.
“I think if we have a housing problem — and I know we have one here in Rowan County — I’m hoping his appointment would be of advantage to those of us here,” she said.
Following a press conference with President Obama Wednesday afternoon, several federal officials released statements on the nomination.
“Congratulations to Congressman Watt on this appointment,” U.S. Congressman Richard Hudson (NC-5) wrote in a statement. “It’s always great to see the President look to North Carolina to fill such an important post. I have real concerns about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the way they are being operated so I look forward to discussing these issues with Congressman Watt as he steps into this new role.”
Sens. Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Richard Burr (R-NC) also released reactions to Obama’s decision.
“Congressman Mel Watt is an outstanding choice to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency,” Hagan said in a statement. “Throughout his career Mel has been a champion for affordable housing in North Carolina and across the country, and has worked tirelessly to protect families from predatory and deceptive lending practices.”
Burr, too, congratulated Watt on the appointment.
“Having served with Mel, I know of his commitment to sustainable federal housing programs and am confident he will work hard to protect taxpayers from future exposure to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” Burr wrote.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.