Thoughts on the Mel Watt Nomination

What's next? Vilma Leake to direct the ATF?
U.S. House

First off, no kidding President Obama's nomination of U.S. Rep. Mel Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency "sparks controversy." President Obama could say he enjoys grape rather than cherry Jolly Ranchers and some yahoo congressman would tear him a new one on the House floor for not eating circus peanuts like a real American.

For a couple of reasons, the near-immediate strident reaction from the GOP's designated hitter on this one — U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee — was both illuminating and completely incoherent:

"I could not be more disappointed in this nomination. This gives new meaning to the adage that the fox is guarding the hen house,” said Corker. “The debate around his nomination will illuminate for all Americans why Fannie and Freddie failed so miserably.”

“Before any nominee should be considered for this post, regardless of their qualifications, the administration should explicitly lay out how they will unwind these entities.”

So the only acceptable nominee for the job of overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is somebody who'll outline a step-by-step plan for exterminating them? Republican governance, ladies and gentlemen! They will destroy this village in order to save it! Corker's "fox guarding the hen house" analogy is precisely wrong, then, unless now the fox has switched parties and is now protecting the hens against an attack by a deranged and famished Alan Greenspan or something.

But the statement was revealing in another way, as Slate's Matthew Yglesias points out: "… this is a golden opportunity to beat up on Obama for being too close to the banking industry and muddy the waters over financial regulations." The first reason is purest hypocrisy, but there's no denying Obama's (and Watt's, for that matter) strong ties to Wall Street, and the Tea Party base will lap it up. The second is more to the point, as Yglesias addresses: "… the pick is sure to fire up talk radio's deepest id-like fears that the whole problem in American banking is that somehow people contrived to let black folks get mortgages." It's all symbolism, very little substance.

Kind of like Watt himself, actually. Perhaps that's harsh. He seems to have served North Carolina's 12th Congressional District with — well, if not distinction, then at least a lack of clownishness. There's a reason why the people of that district kept re-electing the guy.

But I'm hard-pressed to come up with a significant legislative achievement of his, or some crucial issue he took the lead on. His importance seems to be almost completely symbolic: along with Eva Clayton, the first black North Carolina member of Congress since Reconstruction; former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Perhaps he's just one of those éminence grise types who works quietly behind the scenes — or perhaps he's quiet because he just doesn't do that much.

What is substantial is this nomination's immediate effect on the Charlotte mayoral race. N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham — which the Observer, at least, considers the prohibitive favorite for the job, although I think they ranked Patrick Cannon a bit far down their list — just flat came out and said today that if Watt is confirmed, he's running for the 12th District seat. That shakes things up considerably, and it opens up a wild race for Congress that's almost as much of a free-for-all as the mayor's race.

That's one last thing to consider: that the Mecklenburg County minority voters who've been comfortable electing one of their own to Congress for the last 20 years might have to face the possibility of representation by someone from up Greensboro way. You can thank our Republican-controlled General Assembly for that; they're the ones who sought to dilute the effects of minority votes in statewide races by cramming as many as possible into a few grotesquely shaped congressional and legislative districts.

The worst, according to this global mapping firm that's been studying gerrymandering for several years now? None other than the N.C. 12th. If Watt's confirmation hearing will shine a new light on government-backed mortgage loans, maybe the race for his seat will illuminate anew the absurdity of indiscriminate drawing of district lines guided by anything but the precept of "one person, one vote."