On a warm evening last July, the Young Democrats of N.C. sponsored an event to honor Harvey Gantt and Mel Watt.
Watt, the only congressman to ever serve the 12th District since it was re-established in the '90s, had just been nominated to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Every major black politician from Charlotte to High Point is on hand to work the room.
Watt acknowledges VIPs there during his speech, including state Sen. Malcolm Graham, his most popular potential successor from Charlotte. But he ignores a stranger in the back. George Battle, the fresh face with a famous African Methodist Episcopal Zion bishop father and no experience in politics, had announced his bid for Watt's seat a week before.
Out in the hallway, then-Mayor Pro-Tem Patrick Cannon pesters a female volunteer, demanding to know when he could speak. In four months, the longest-serving elected official in Charlotte would be elected mayor. Four months after that, he'd be arrested for corruption.
On the February day when Cannon accepted a $20,000 bribe in the mayor's office, Battle was downstairs, working as general counsel for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as he had since 2010. He was an attorney for Carolinas Healthcare Systems for 11 years before that, where he read the entire Affordable Care Act.
Battle is notoriously smart, soft-spoken and idealistic to the core, but because he's not a household name, he has little chance of winning this race.
"Charlotte's politics are tied to its old African-American self, to those who've been around awhile," says Patrick Graham, president of the Urban League of Central Carolinas.
Cannon was elected mayor because his supporters said it was his time. In the aftermath of his scandal, every race moving forward should be approached differently.
No wider than a highway at some points, the 12th District connects every black neighborhood in the Piedmont. Charlotte residents make up about 52 percent of the electorate, and the Triad makes up the rest.
It's gerrymandered, previously contested before the Supreme Court, and assures that blacks in North Carolina are represented in Congress. It also segregates people of color from white Republicans in the suburbs, creating a GOP advantage in surrounding districts.
The unfair trade for Democrats was slightly offset by the value of Watt, a Yale Law grad who managed Gantt's mayoral campaigns and first crusade against Jesse Helms. Watt won his own first election, in 1992, with 70 percent of the vote, becoming the seat's only voice on Capitol Hill. Then Watt was tapped for the Housing Finance Agency.
Six Democratic candidates are in the race, five of them perceived as serious. Two Republicans have thrown their names in the hat as well. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to replace a representative who served for 22 years.
State Rep. Alma Adams has been an iconic figure since she became the first black woman to serve on Greensboro's school board. She is the Triad's best hope. Raised by her mother in the ghettos of Newark, N.J., race riots shaped her childhood. Now, the girl who grew up wearing hand-me-downs is as stylish as anyone in the state legislature, always in colorful hats.
Sen. Malcolm Graham, a longtime fixture in Charlotte's black community, is perceived as her serious competition. An internal poll in March showed Adams led him 26 percent to 19 percent. Battle and James "Smuggie" Mitchell, a tall, ex-jock former Charlotte city councilman who has since dropped out of the race, were neck-and-neck, with 9 percent. State Rep. Marcus Brandon of Greensboro garnered 4 percent, and Charlotte's Curtis Osborne, a self-financed personal injury lawyer, received only 3 percent and is considered a long shot, as is Rajive Patel, a Vietnam vet from Winston-Salem.
Many who attended the July fundraiser were in the crowd at the International & Cultural Center in Plaza Midwood for a February event connecting Mecklenburg County Young Democrats with visitors from across the state. No longer a stranger, "George Battle for Congress" stickers were stuck on every coat.
He has sparked something inside these Organizing for America veterans and college Democrat nerds. The type so inspired by Barack Obama in 2008 that they left school to become field organizers in Iowa or New Hampshire. They see Battle not as an heir to Gantt or Watt's throne, but as the next Barack Obama or Cory Booker — a reformer in the black community running against the transactional politics of the past. Like Battle, Obama and Booker went to good schools, earned top grades and had trouble earning street credibility in the big city.
For Obama, it was in Chicago, where he lost a congressional race to a former Black Panther. For Booker, it was Newark, where the man who defeated him in a mayoral race eventually went to prison. For Battle, it is Charlotte, where Watt and Gantt, two legendary figures in Charlotte African-American politics, barely knew who he is. Where he's been too busy working in policy to build clout in the community.
He made a point to attend Charlotte's first Moral Monday, in August. His campaign staff gathered on the shaded sidewalk outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center to walk to the rally in Marshall Park. Battle had just gotten off work inside.
Educators gathered around the amphitheater, their red shirts showing solidarity. Dressed in a white short-sleeve shirt and jet-black slacks, Battle lamented the state's treatment of teachers, who haven't gotten a raise in years. Five resigned just that day.
He listened to state NAACP head Rev. William Barber preach on stage, while his field director encouraged him to go up to voters. Mostly, Battle just listened. He's not good at the small talk of retail politics.
George Battle III grew up in Hidden Valley. He was studious if not outright geeky, reading the encyclopedia at the kitchen table before dinner.
A member of the debate and honor societies at West Charlotte High School, he was on a path that could have reached Pennsylvania Avenue. He ran for student body president at UNC Chapel Hill against a fraternity guy so popular that Battle's own father took him out to lunch and begged him not to run.
He ran anyway, and won. He took the LSAT, stayed in state for law school and passed up a job offer from Goldman Sachs to work for the hospital. Then Watt was appointed. Calls from Washington started coming in, asking Battle to run. Encouragement from wife Renita was the final push.
His is exactly the resume one would expect from a leader, but it's costing him in an era of politics that's produced more lawn mower salesmen than scientists in the halls of Congress.
When Robert Kaiser, former managing editor of The Washington Post, retired from the paper in February, he wrote an autopsy on the death of public trust in government, writing that Republicans had gone crazy, "not that Democrats are all clever and insightful. The intellectual firepower in Congress declined sharply during my years in Washington. Lawmakers who read books, have their own ideas, care about policy issues and believe in government have become rarer than Redskins victories."
Americans have turned to loudmouthed C students to solve complex problems. It is not working, making it difficult now to argue against Battle. "Politics today has devolved into memorizing a platform and telling the other party they're wrong," says John Du Puy, a former co-worker of Battle's. "But George listens, and that opens a door for dialogue that's been missing."
If no candidate receives 40 percent in the primary, a runoff is likely. Graham and Adams are expected to qualify for the runoff, pitting Greensboro against Charlotte. "We cannot split the Charlotte vote and allow someone else to win," Gantt said when he endorsed Malcolm Graham in March. "You have to make Malcolm a household word."
Graham volunteered for Gantt's mayoral campaign while on a tennis scholarship at Johnson C. Smith. Perhaps the endorsement came from loyalty — the speech lacked any real reason to vote for Graham, other than he cares about Charlotte.
Adams has paid her dues. She has a record for fighting for female health and reproductive rights, which earned her the endorsements in this race from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the National Organization for Women and Emily's List.
But she is the 2008 version of Hillary Clinton. A frontrunner with the right record and values, she is screwing up her campaign with inflammatory remarks and uninspiring tactics, including skipping forums in Charlotte.
Gov. Pat McCrory scheduled this special election to coincide with the regular cycle, increasing the seat's vacancy by four months. That will leave the million mostly African-American, mostly Democratic voters of the 12th district unrepresented in Congress for a year, but gives voters the option to actually vet candidates in this most important election instead of just appointing the next person in line. Adams called McCrory's decision "shameful," implying he was trying to stick it to black voters in the district.
While accusing the governor of "playing politics," she proposed legislation to limit the time a seat can remain open, an idea with no chance of passage or purpose, except to appeal to partisanship. That is cynical campaigning, and while Adams would make a fine congresswoman, if she is willing to distort issues to score points now, she might do the same in Washington.
Battle has run a nobler campaign. His platform is more specific, including creating a loan-forgiveness program for students who choose to live and work in economically disadvantaged areas. It's not just a sexy talking point — with his experience in education policy, he has a shot to craft a passable bill.
At his East 9th Street campaign office, Sen. Graham is using arithmetic to handicap the race. "If you believe the seat should stay in Charlotte, that removes Adams and Brandon," says Graham, whose initials were printed on his crisp white shirt. "If you believe experience matters, that alleviates [sic] Battle and Osborne."
But that's precisely what Graham did. In March 2013, he formed an exploratory committee to consider several state and local offices, including mayor. "I had to make a decision about which job I want. It's time for me to play in the major leagues, representing those same individuals at the highest level."
The baby-faced son of a truck driver and a maid fought for anti-gang legislation in the General Assembly to take on the crisis in Hidden Valley. But he seems focused on Malcolm Graham at times, often referring to himself in the third person. He also has one of the least effective records in the Senate. The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research ranked him 44th out of 50. At a recent forum, Graham and Battle exchanged words. "If we want to send experience [to Washington,] now is not the time to send the junior varsity," he said, according to the Charlotte Observer. Battle replied: "It's always been my philosophy that I'd rather be a starter on the junior varsity than on the bench on the varsity."
Graham has voiced his opposition of private school vouchers, the only major policy issue that deeply divides the 12th District candidates. But in May 2013, he spoke at a press conference in favor of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that provides public funding for private education.
Battle is sharper on the issues and more thoughtful in his answers. He's more interested in how to save Social Security and fund public education than in titles or diminishing his rivals. But he's having trouble cutting through the bullshit of modern politics, where a tiny portion of the electorate shows up for primaries.
"Our best and brightest," the Urban League's Patrick Graham says, "no longer see politics as an avenue for change because it looks messy."