N.C. Rep. Alma Adams brings forceful nature to Capitol Hill

Democrat Alma Adams smiles as her grandson lauds her before she gives her victory speech after winning North Carolina's 12th Congressional District at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C., Nov. 4, 2014.
Democrat Alma Adams smiles as her grandson lauds her before she gives her victory speech after winning North Carolina's 12th Congressional District at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C., Nov. 4, 2014. AP

It’s 6:42 p.m. and Alma Adams, the 100th woman to serve in the current Congress, rushes into the U.S. Capitol after sitting through a four-hour ethics seminar for new lawmakers.

The 68-year-old freshman from Greensboro, N.C., pulls off her purple beret, lays it on a hallway bench for an aide to watch over and ducks onto the floor of the House of Representatives, where hats – no matter how colorful – aren’t allowed. A minute after voting, she pops back out, pulls on her beret and darts toward the door. She’s running late for a freshman reception.

“It’s been busy,” she told McClatchy this week. “It’s a lot of juggling. Major juggling.”

U.S. Rep. Adams, a Democrat, is less than a week into her new job in Washington and already is one of the busiest and most talked-about members of the incoming class of freshman lawmakers.

Never one to hold back her views, the veteran Democratic state legislator is using her new national platform to share her disdain for practices she says disenfranchise minority voters in North Carolina and across the country.

When introduced by Democratic leadership last Thursday she used the opportunity to jab N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory for allowing 730,000 North Carolinians of the 12th Congressional District to go without representation for 10 months after former Rep. Mel Watt left to join President Barack Obama’s team as the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

And Adams took a swipe at her Republican colleagues in the state legislature for drawing new gerrymandered district lines. She said Africans-Americans had been “stacked and packed” into one district to prevent them from having sway in other elections across the state.

“They’re not able to have an impact and influence in other parts of the state,” she said. “There is something wrong with that.”

The 12th District snakes alongside the Interstate 85 corridor from Greensboro to Charlotte, weaving through the urban communities of Winston-Salem, High Point and Salisbury. First conceived in 1992, it’s changed a bit in statewide redistricting but still was named this year by The Washington Post as the most gerrymandered district in the country.

With her hundreds of trademark hats and forceful opinions, Adams is expected to add color and grit to a district that, since its inception, has been led by the more careful Watt, of Charlotte.

Colleagues recalled how Adams waved a coat hanger, a reminder of the dangers of illegal abortions, on the state House floor in Raleigh last year when Republicans inserted abortion restrictions into what had been a motorcycle safety bill.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said Adams knew when to be assertive.

“She knows when to attack,” Butterfield said of Adams. “In this place you need to choose your issues.”

It’s not that Watt, who served the district for more than 20 years, didn’t have forceful opinions about gerrymandering and other matters, but he had a different style, colleagues said. Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said Watt’s committee assignments also likely affected his tone of leadership. He was a longtime member of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees banking and housing issues.

“If you’re on Financial Services as a Democrat, it often leads you to moderate your positions on economic issues,” Taylor said.

Adams will join the Congressional Black Caucus. She is not sure what committees she will be assigned to, but is interested in Financial Services, and Education and the Workforce.

Adams, unlike most of those elected Nov. 4, already is on the job, finishing the last month and a half of Watt’s term. She’s been zigzagging between orientation meetings and district duties. It’s a mix of speeches, strategy sessions, caucus meetings, media interviews and roll-call votes.

Her staff is working on building a website and establishing district offices. She said she hadn’t had time to unpack.

“I hope to do that Wednesday and Thursday,” she said.