Wednesday’s General Assembly opening will spotlight a paradox of North Carolina politics – the re-ascendance of rural power in one of the nation’s most rapidly urbanizing states.
When Cleveland County Republican Tim Moore takes the gavel as House speaker, he’ll join a cluster of rural lawmakers with top leadership posts in both chambers.
It will be a mirror image of a pattern that marked North Carolina for most of its history when it was rural Democrats who ran state government.
The re-emergence of rural muscle coincides with the rise of Republicans, who tend to come from rural counties and metro suburbs.
“What (you’re seeing) is a new phenomenon in American politics, which is the return to power of rural interests and the alignment of rural interests with the Republican Party,” says Gerald Gamm, a political scientist at the University of Rochester who studies state legislatures.
“The rise of the Republicans as the dominant party in the South also has restored rural interests to positions of influence.”
Moore will be the first speaker in 16 years not to come from Mecklenburg County or the Triangle.
Tension between urban and rural interests is expected to play out this session on several issues, including the proposed redistribution of local sales tax revenue. It already has flared in debates over economic incentives.
Half the state’s House members still come from counties defined as rural by the state’s Rural Center, as do a little more than half the senators. In each chamber, rural lawmakers dominate the Republican caucus, giving them the majority in the majority party.
Urban counties grow
The rise in rural influence comes despite the state’s growing urbanization.
In 2010, 66 percent of North Carolinians lived in urban areas, according to the U.S. census. A decade earlier it was 60 percent. The trend has accelerated.
Ten counties accounted for nearly 80 percent of the state’s population growth since the census, according to John Chesser, a senior analyst with UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.
Leading the growth were Mecklenburg and Wake counties, where cranes again punctuate the urban skylines. Last year, the United Nations projected Charlotte and Raleigh to be the fastest growing of all large U.S. cities from 2010 to 2030.
By contrast, Chesser found half of North Carolina’s 100 counties have lost population since 2010.
“Generally speaking, metro and urban regions are all growing,” he says, “and now a huge part of the state not only is not growing, but they’re slowly declining in numbers.”
Also declining are urban Republicans. As cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh have grown, their electorates have become more Democratic. And so have most of their legislators.
While a lack of growth hurts rural counties, rapid growth strains resources and infrastructure in urban areas.
“It’s easy to emphasize differences, but there are a lot of things in common that communities have when it comes to economic development and economic prosperity,” says Scott Mooneyham of the N.C. League of Municipalities. “And this state in general benefits when big cities thrive economically and when small towns thrive economically.”
Finding a middle ground
Advocates say both sides benefit from a regional approach.
Metro areas have jobs and opportunities that benefit outlying communities. Charlotte, for example, attracts 153,000 daily commuters from as far as Stanly and Cleveland counties. And urban areas are dependent on help from rural and suburban lawmakers.
“The challenge is going to be that the majority of urban voices are now Democrats,” says former Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican. “Candidly, ever since you had Raleigh in the hands of one party and the city of Charlotte in the hands of another party, it’s been rough going. So regionalism is going to become even more important.”
The tension between urban and rural flared last summer during a debate over whether the state could limit local sales taxes.
“If North Carolina is a body, then certainly the urban area is the heart,” says former state. Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat whose term just ended. “And if the heart stops beating, the body dies.”
“I guess those that are fortunate enough to live in Mecklenburg or Wake can make those kind of arguments,” responded Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican. “For those of us who live in rural North Carolina, those arguments are hard to take. You’ve got two North Carolinas is what you’ve got.”