The primary is now two weeks away. In the 12th Congressional District, half a dozen democratic candidates are campaigning to replace Mel Watt. He was appointed head of the Federal Housing authority in January, leaving an open seat in the U.S. House.
A map of the 12th congressional district resembles one of those massive twisted branches on an old oak tree. There’s no Spanish moss here, however, the district meanders more than 100 miles, loosely following I-85. It covers parts of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, and Charlotte. The electorate is about two-thirds democratic and the 12th is one of two majority-minority US House districts in the state.
"It was created in response to the 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act," said Eric Heberlig, professor of political science at UNC-Charlotte. That Amendment he mentioned had one specific goal.
"If you have a population of minority voters you’re essentially to maximize their opportunity to elect a representative of the same race," Heberlig explained.
Initially the proposed 12th district stretched from Durham to Gastonia, lacking any sort of geographically defined community. White voters challenged it saying it violated their right to equal protection. The district was redrawn several times, but ultimately the case went before the US Supreme Court.
"Fundamentally what the court decided was that well you can’t draw a district merely for the purposes of racial gerrymandering, that is just to represent an African-American or Hispanic. But you can draw a district to represent a Democrat or a Republican," said Heberlig.
Democrat Mel Watt has held this seat since the District was created in the early 90s. Now, with his departure to the Federal Housing authority, six Democratic candidates are campaigning through the sprawling 12th.
"This district doesn’t constitute the heart and soul or life of any particular community that it’s in – it just takes bits and pieces and cobbles them together. So I think that is the strangest part," said George Battle, one of those Democratic candidates.
Battle is General Counsel for the Charlotte Mecklenburg School board. This is his first run at public office.
The six Democratic candidates are all minorities. Three currently serve in the North Carolina General Assembly. One is a woman. Each is trying to navigate the landscape and build name recognition where TV ads aren’t an option.
"A media buy in the Charlotte area would be about 300-thousand dollars a week," said Alma Adams, who represents Greensboro in the State House. "And one in the Greensboro/Triad area would be about 160-thousand a week. I have out raised everybody and we’re not going to be able to afford that. So we’re going to reach people by direct mail. We’ve knocked on thousands of doors,"
Adams has served 11 terms in the State House and is known for her distinctive hats. The group of Democrats all made it to a 12th Congressional forum in Winston-Salem last week.
On the issues the candidates hold similar positions. Most are well known in parts of the district, but not throughout.
"I think I’m uniquely qualified to serve the residents of the 12th congressional district. I’m prepared; I’m ready, so I’m just ready to do the job for the people," said Malcolm Graham. He has been in the State Senate for ten years, served on the Charlotte City Council and managed a non-profit organization.
Marcus Brandon is a third term house representative from Guilford County. He’s quick to use the word effective when describing himself.
"There is nobody in the race with that experience or those skills. I’ve passed more bills than anyone in the race, I have the highest effective rating, we put two new schools in the district. It’s not about just having a voice, you have to have an effective voice," he said.
Brandon is the only candidate who is an outspoken supporter of the private school voucher program. He is the only openly gay member of the General Assembly.
There are no independent polls in this race so it’s difficult to accurately determine who is ahead, and by how much.
"The big thing I think is going to be social media," explained candidate Curtis Osborne. "I mean social media and pressing the flesh – getting out and talking people and meeting people and if the people that I meet and talk to and shake hands with, if they give me their support I feel confident I can at least come in second place."
That race for second place is a slight concession that Representative Adams holds the top spot. She has out-raised, out-spent and out-saved her opponents. According to the latest campaign finance reports, the long-time House member pulled in more than 150 thousand dollars in the first quarter of 2014. Her closest opponent raised 65 thousand dollars during that same period. Adams also has nearly 115 thousand dollars on hand, as much as all of her opponents combined. But still, the path to the general election in November doesn’t appear smooth.
"Just given the number of candidates and the fact that none of them have wide name recognition across the district I’d be really surprised if any of them got 40-percent of the vote," said Professor Heberlig.
If no candidate secures 40 percent, the top two vote getters on May 6th head to a second primary. There are of course two Republicans seeking a path to the November election as well. But in this strongly Democratic district neither is considered much of a contender. Heberlig estimates about 2-percent of registered voters will turn out in early July for that run-off. They will likely choose the next representative of the 12th.