Living Here Guide

Like Charlotte’s skyline, politics in North Carolina is ever-changing

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper greets well wishers following a prayer service on Jan. 6, 2017, at the First Baptist Church on S. Wilmington Street in Raleigh.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper greets well wishers following a prayer service on Jan. 6, 2017, at the First Baptist Church on S. Wilmington Street in Raleigh. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Charlotte’s skyline isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the 30-plus years I’ve covered politics for the Observer.

When I first came to Charlotte, the city was less than half the size it is now. Tryon Street pretty much shut down after 5 p.m. Little Italy and the Open Kitchen were about it as far as “international” restaurants go.

In politics, the N.C. General Assembly was controlled by Democrats, and the Charlotte City Council – districts were still just a few years old – was pretty much balanced between Democrats and Republicans. County commissioners and school board members were still elected at-large. Most legislators ran in multi-member districts.

So here are a few ways I’ve seen politics change over those years.

1. The rise of Democrats in Charlotte.

For years Republicans had a better than even shot of getting elected to local office. African- Americans had a harder time.

In the first city council race I covered, two black Democrats led the at-large primary but neither got elected in the fall. Charlotte made headlines in 1983, when it elected Harvey Gantt, its first black mayor. But after he lost re-election in 1987, Republicans held the office until 2009, but that was on the strength and incumbency of Pat McCrory. Democrats have won the office through four elections since.

2. The rise of Republicans in North Carolina.

Jim Martin was elected in 1984 as only the second Republican governor of the 20th century. Democrats still controlled the General Assembly.

All that changed after Republicans swept to legislative victories in 2010 and then redrew districts that helped them cement power. Pat McCrory’s victory in 2012 gave them control over the governor’s office as well as the legislature. Now, we have a Democrat Roy Cooper in the governor’s office, but Republicans are still firmly in control of the legislature.

3. Becoming a purple state.

In 2016, North Carolina was a top presidential battleground, with frequent visits by both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

But for years, North Carolina was a reliably red state in presidential races. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to carry the state before Barack Obama won in 2008 by just 14,000 votes.

Credit demographic changes and the influx of outsiders, particularly to fast-growing urban areas, for moderating the state’s political climate. Some of the state’s most explosive growth has come in Charlotte. With an influx of people from around the world and African-Americans reversing the Great Migration to the north, it became a majority-minority city for the first time in 2010.

4. The increase of polarization.

Along with increasingly competitive races, North Carolina is as polarized as any state in the country. We’ve seen the return of almost tribal politics.

You see it in everything from national to local politics, from the presidential race to the debate over House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill” which divided the state and thrust North Carolina into headlines across the country. Even the law’s repeal divided people.

5. The fall and rise of “the Great State of Mecklenburg.”

For years, that was a term of derision for the state’s biggest county in a legislature dominated by rural interests. But the term virtually disappeared as Mecklenburg County lawmakers rose to power, even the speakership.

But the rural-urban divide is as pronounced as ever, fueled by Republican dominance in rural and suburban counties and Democratic representation in urban areas. And the fight over HB2 has only aggravated tensions with the state’s biggest city.

Jim Morrill covers politics for the Observer.

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