Politics & Government

Election exposes NC urban and rural fault lines

Voters wait in line to vote at University City Regional Library in Charlotte last month. Rural areas went heavily Republican in this year’s election, while Democrats enjoyed an advantage in urban areas – underscoring what some see as a deepening urban-rural divide.
Voters wait in line to vote at University City Regional Library in Charlotte last month. Rural areas went heavily Republican in this year’s election, while Democrats enjoyed an advantage in urban areas – underscoring what some see as a deepening urban-rural divide. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina voters not only helped lift Donald Trump to the White House this month, they widened the state’s political fault lines, creating new challenges for metropolitan areas and political parties.

The vote underscored the paradox of a rapidly urbanizing state governed by a coalition of rural interests.

It also exposed challenges for Democrats, who have to find a way to win voters in suburbs and small towns, as well as for Republicans, who face a shifting population and other demographic changes.

“The division is growing deeper,” says political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College. “The gulf between urban and suburban and rural counties is deepening.”

The post-election map shows most of North Carolina colored Republican red, with pockets of blue in cities and a handful of mostly African American counties.

It’s a pattern reflected across the country. The New York Times called it “The Two Americas of 2016.”

By forging a coalition of suburban and rural counties, Trump overcame Democrat Hillary Clinton’s strength in urban North Carolina. The trend played out in legislative races that left Mecklenburg and Wake counties with delegations more Democratic, even as Republican control of the General Assembly remained virtually unchanged.

Cranes and skyscrapers dot the skylines of Charlotte and Raleigh, places that can’t seem to build homes and apartments fast enough. Meanwhile almost half the state’s rural counties have lost population since 2010.

“Demographically we’re in two worlds,” says N.C. demographer Allan Parnell. “The recession just pushed a lot of small towns and rural areas right up to the edge. They were already kind of staggering.”

In Mecklenburg and Wake counties, where Clinton crushed Trump by wide margins, Democrats picked up a total of four N.C. House seats. But they’ll go to a General Assembly dominated by Republicans from rural and suburban counties.

“I can assure you the urban areas of North Carolina won’t have more of a voice – they’re going to have less,” says former GOP Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville, who watched his seat flip to a Democrat after choosing not to run. “I sure as hell hope Charlotte doesn’t need anything legislatively. Because they’re not getting it.”

Legislative changes

Mecklenburg and Wake counties account for about 19 percent of the state’s population. By 2030 they’re projected to make up 23 percent, or almost one of every four North Carolinians. Two years ago, the United Nations projected Charlotte and Raleigh to be the fastest growing of all large U.S. cities from 2010 to 2030.

This month, Mecklenburg, Wake and 11 other urban counties accounted for 51 percent of all the ballots cast in the state.

At the same, small towns and rural counties continue to hemorrhage jobs and population. That means Republicans may eventually have to find a way to cut into the urban vote. Suburbs in counties like Union and Johnston still vote heavily Republican but could become more competitive for Democrats.

Rockingham County, home to Senate GOP Leader Phil Berger, and Cleveland County, home of House Speaker Tim Moore, are both among the population losers.

In Mecklenburg County, Democrats Mary Belk and Chaz Beasley both won House seats that had been held by Republicans. And in Wake, Democrats Joe John and Cynthia Ball unseated GOP incumbents.

I can assure you the urban areas of North Carolina won’t have more of a voice – they’re going to have less.

Former GOP Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville, who watched his seat flip to a Democrat after choosing not to run.

But Republicans won a handful of rural legislative seats. Robeson County voters made Lumberton lawyer Danny Britt the county’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction.

According to Bitzer, rural and suburban areas turned out heavily for Trump, offsetting Clinton’s urban advantage. While Clinton campaigned mainly in the state’s biggest cities, Trump rallied supporters in places like Selma, Kinston, Fletcher and Concord.

But Jeff Michael, director of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, says that’s why it’s too simplistic to just talk about an urban-rural divide.

“What has shifted the dynamics in North Carolina is a coalition between suburban interests aligning with rural interests,” Michael says. “That has placed more urban core constituencies on the margins.”

Divisive issues

Last week a joint committee of lawmakers began debating a new report on school funding. Among other things it showed that funding was unbalanced, favoring wealthy counties, that is, urban areas.

That’s just one issue that could split lawmakers along geographic lines.

Last session, they debated shifting sales tax revenue from urban to rural counties, an issue that could come up again. Lawmakers tried to redraw voting districts in Wake and Guilford counties. Four years ago they tried to take away Charlotte’s airport. And this year they passed House Bill 2, a law that nullified a Charlotte ordinance and restricted local governments’ ability to enact LGBT protections.

“Right now rural North Carolina controls this state,” says Jeter, the former GOP lawmaker. “When you having competing interests between urban and rural in this General Assembly, rural’s going to win every time.”

Given the new legislative landscape, the City of Charlotte is likely to have a thinner wish list for the next legislative session than it has had in years. Urban advocates say they’ll try to convince lawmakers that they’re all in this together.

“We hear increasingly from legislators from each party that they’re beginning to recognize the value and contributions of cities to the overall economy and quality of life for the state,” says Paul Meyer, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, which represents more than 500 cities and towns. “No one wants to kill the golden goose.”

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, who chairs the N.C. Metro Mayors Coalition, says people have to look for common ground.

“To me the job of an urban area is to provide a platform for a robust economy that serves the whole state,” she says. “So we need to help explain that a win for rural is a win for urban and a win for urban is a win for rural.”

Joe Stewart, executive director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, says the state has to learn to deal with its changing profile.

“North Carolina is now a a state that contains big cities, and big cities have different political dimensions and different political constituencies,” he says.

“The relationship between the state and the cities has to come to a new understanding so that when issues do arise, we have to have a way to address them that doesn’t result in the furor we saw over House Bill 2.”

That would be in everybody’s interest, says political analyst John Davis of Raleigh.

“If Republicans continue to throw their weight around and not respect the values of urban voters, they will lose as early as 2018,” he says.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

  Comments