Melvin Watt, an eleven-term U.S. Representative from North Carolina, served as a vocal advocate for civil liberties and sought to build ties to business interests from a prominent seat on the Financial Services Committee. Born into poverty, Watt brought a unique perspective to a district known for its banking industry. “People look at you in a suit as a member of Congress, and they think you’ve always been in a suit and always been a member of Congress,” he once said. “I came out of a different kind of history.”1
Melvin Luther (Mel) Watt was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on August 26, 1945, to Graham Edward Watt and Evelyn Lucille Mauney. He grew up in a tin-roofed shack without running water or electricity while attending segregated public schools in Mecklenburg County. When Watt started college, southern universities had recently been desegregated, so he was among a relatively small number of black students enrolled in the state university system.2 He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a business administration degree in 1967. Three years later, Watt earned his J.D. from Yale University Law School. He returned to Charlotte, where he entered the North Carolina bar. For the next 20 years, Watt worked in private practice, specializing in minority business and economic development law. He eventually served as president of the Mecklenburg County Bar. He married Eulada Paysour and they raised two sons, Brian and Jason. He served a single term in the North Carolina state senate, from 1985 to 1987, but left to spend more time with his teenage sons until they finished high school.3 Much of Watt’s early political work was behind the scenes. He managed the successful campaigns of a rising African-American politician, Charlotte city councilman and Mayor Harvey Gantt.
After managing Gantt’s unsuccessful effort to win a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Jesse Helms in 1990, Watt ran for elective office himself. In 1992, redistricting created a majority-black (53 percent) congressional district in central North Carolina that stretched through parts of 10 counties and included portions of Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte.4 In a crowded primary field, Watt carried 47 percent of the vote, defeating his closest rival, North Carolina state representative Mickey Michaux, by 19 percentage points.5 Against Republican Barbara Gore Washington, Watt captured 70 percent of the vote in the general election.
Watt’s uniquely-shaped district, and the frequent state court challenges it inspired, led him to embrace his role as “the poster child of redistricting.”6 The district meandered along the I-85 corridor to maintain its status as a majority-minority district, with one 1993 court decision noting, “Northbound and southbound drivers on I-85 sometimes find themselves in separate districts in one county, only to ‘trade’ districts when they enter the next.”7 The district was redrawn five times between the late 1990s and early 2000s but retained its “serpentine” nature.8 In 1998, during a particularly controversial effort to reconfigure Watt’s district, Watt experienced his narrowest margin of victory, when he defeated Republican challenger John “Scott” Keadle with 56 percent of the vote. In his subsequent seven re-election bids, Watt won by comfortable margins, usually by 63 percent of the vote or more. In 2012, Watt was elected to his eleventh consecutive term, with 80 percent of the vote coincident with another round of redistricting and the re-election of President Barack Obama.9
When Watt entered the U.S. House in January 1993 he received an appointment to the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee (later renamed Financial Services), where he eventually served as chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in the 110th Congress (2007–2009) and the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology in the 111th Congress (2009–2011). He was also assigned to the Judiciary Committee. Watt served on both panels throughout his House career, and in the 109th Congress (2005–2007) he served as Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law. For a single term in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), he served on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee before it was abolished in the following Congress. In addition, Watt served on the Joint Economic Committee in the 107th and 108th Congresses (2001–2005). Watt was unanimously elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for the 109th Congress.
In Congress, Representative Watt established a reputation as an independently-minded liberal. As a freshman in the 103rd Congress, Watt voted with the Democratic majority nearly 90 percent of the time, although he broke with President William J. Clinton to vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the administration’s 1994 crime bill.10 During the 1990s, Watt also criticized efforts to dismantle federal welfare programs and tough crime measures that reinforced or upheld use of the death penalty. In late 2009, Watt joined other members of the CBC who withheld their votes on a financial services bill before the House Financial Services Committee, arguing that the bill failed to help African-American communities. The CBC claimed victory two weeks later after House leadership added several requested provisions into the final bill, including funding for low-interest loans and the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to purchase foreclosed homes and rent them to low-income families.11
From his position on the Judiciary Committee, Watt employed his experience as a former attorney specializing in minority rights. Watt’s extensive preparation for and detailed knowledge of legislation were widely recognized by his peers.12 He took a lead role in negotiating the 2006 extension of the Voting Rights Act (H.R. 9), earning praise from both Democrats and the committee’s Republican chairman and bill sponsor James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. The bipartisan bill passed by a vote of 390 to 33 in the House and with unanimous support in the Senate.13
On the Judiciary Committee, he vigorously defended constitutional prerogatives and civil liberties. In 2001, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was one of a minority of House Members to oppose the USA Patriot Act, sweeping legislation that granted expanded powers to law enforcement agencies. “And let me be blunt,” he said during debate, “Some of us, who have a different history in America, with delegation of authority to the government and abuse of that authority, proceed a lot differently than others when we talk about giving authority to the Government [sic] that can be abused….We cannot just come in, in the middle of a terrorism episode and forget all the history that has occurred in this country.”14
After 2011, when Democrats lost the House majority, Watt became the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet which was responsible for the internet and intellectual property rights. He was a leading advocate for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2011, which faltered amid concerns of censorship.
Watt struggled to balance the needs of the major banking industries headquartered in his district against the consumer-oriented concerns of his constituents. Early in his career on the Financial Services Committee, Watt tended to work with Republicans across the aisle and to focus on the business interests, particularly banking, that dominated his district. Notably, he voted in favor of interstate banking and revisions to the Glass-Steagall Act which allowed banks to sell securities and insurance.15 Over time, he leaned towards the role of a consumer advocate. In 2003, President George W. Bush proposed reorganization of the Federal Housing Finance Board overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Watt labeled the attempt a “shell game” and objected that tighter regulation could discourage affordable housing efforts for low-income families by weakening the bargaining power of advocacy groups.16 His position shifted following the housing crisis in 2008, when Watt supported the long-gestating reorganization included in the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, resulting in the new Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). Forced once more to walk the line between two constituencies, Watt worked with Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank both in committee and floor debate to limit civil litigation against the banks and instead provide citizens affected by bad loans funding for financial counseling. He also called on mortgage holders to delay foreclosures until the housing reform bill containing consumer aid had passed.17
Watt served as one of Frank’s key allies during the negotiations on the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in the 111th Congress (2009–2011), which aimed to improve regulations and transparency in the financial services industry in the wake of the Great Recession. Watt and California Representative Maxine Waters secured funding for a new Office of Minority and Women Inclusion, located in the Securities and Exchange Commission, to ensure equal employment in the federal financial services agencies.18
Ahead of President Obama’s second term, the CBC lobbied the president to include more minorities in his cabinet, suggesting Watt for the position of Commerce Secretary.19 On May 1, 2013, President Obama appointed Watt to head the FHFA. Watt’s appointment to the regulatory agency drew scrutiny given his attachment to prominent banks located in his district. The CBC continued to advocate for his appointment during the lengthy seven-month confirmation process. The Senate confirmed him on December 10, 2013, and he was sworn in as director of FHFA on January 6, 2014.20
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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