CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Harvey Gantt gets a faraway look in his eyes as he contemplates political battles past. The silver-haired former mayor of Charlotte is still widely respected, even revered, in his hometown; he’s got a $19 million museum named after him, among other honors. But there is a tightness around the Democrat’s mouth as he recalls his two bitter losses to Jesse Helms in a bid to become the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. Their first race in 1990 featured an infamous racially charged TV ad by the Helms campaign that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a job application, with the voice-over: “You were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority.”
Gantt lost by only 6 percentage points, and then by 7 points in 1996. Now, reflecting a decade and a half later, the 69-year-old Gantt relaxes and smiles. Sure, he failed, but he got close—a lot closer than other progressives who have tried to take on archconservatives in the South, he says. “Helms never won running away like Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, or some of these longtime Dixiecrat senators,” Gantt says proudly. And today, Gantt adds, the rush of history that is profoundly changing the demographics of Charlotte and North Carolina is also vindicating him. Despite a Democratic Party that’s in the doldrums statewide, including a governor who rode in on Barack Obama’s huge coattails in 2008 but is now so unpopular she’s retiring after one term, Gantt says, “The plus for me is, the state’s headed in the opposite direction” from Helms, who died in 2008.
Gantt manages to detect good news even in the recent statewide vote approving a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The outcome was intensely embarrassing to liberal North Carolinians, who are preparing to welcome a deluge of Democrats at the national convention in early September, an event that many proud Charlotteans see as a national coming-out party for their city. Never mind that more than 28,000 outraged Democrats nationwide signed a petition to move the convention from Charlotte. The more significant news, says Gantt, who heads the convention steering committee, is “if I look at the plurality in Alabama, Georgia, and the other Southern states, it was usually about 80-20 against that kind of an amendment [legalizing same-sex marriage]. North Carolina’s vote [banning such unions] was 60-40. And, I daresay, in 10 years, it will be closer.”
Solid evidence of Gantt’s proposition of progress sits in the mayor’s office several blocks away (everything is just several blocks away in compact Charlotte, which resembles one of those perfect snow-globe cities you buy at the airport). Tall and eloquent at 41, Anthony Foxx is the current mayor and the first Democrat to hold the office since Gantt’s term ended in 1987. Asked about Gantt’s claim of progress during a visit in late June, Foxx reflects a moment. “My grandmother turned 95 today. It’s her birthday,” he says. “She grew up in a small town called Carthage, N.C. Within blocks of her home was a little auction block, where her grandmother had been sold into slavery. My grandmother can look back in her life at that North Carolina. And then she can look forward and know that, today, her grandson is the mayor of the largest city in North Carolina.”
Foxx says that Gantt’s losing battles against Helms helped pave the road for Obama’s thin but historic 14,000-vote win in 2008 over Republican nominee John McCain—not to mention the extraordinary fact that in a state with 9.4 percent unemployment, the president is still running roughly even with Mitt Romney in the polls. “Harvey Gantt ran two remarkable campaigns, and I would argue that had he not run those campaigns and put a mirror up to North Carolina, then Barack Obama may not have won here in 2008. Those campaigns started to force our state to worry less about the package of a candidate and more about the content.”
CHARLOTTE AS BELLWETHER
It is easy—very easy—to imagine a latter-day Helms-Gantt contest that features a victorious Anthony Foxx in the role of Gantt. (When asked about that prospect, Foxx laughs and says, “Who knows?”) But it is equally fair to ask: Does North Carolina really resemble a river of progress, or is it more of a pendulum, constantly swinging between the two poles—progressive versus traditionalist—that make up the state’s unique demographics? There is, and has long been, the old North Carolina of tobacco, Civil War reenactors, and roadside barbecue stands, and the New South metro area represented by Charlotte, the fastest-growing urban center in the nation, due in part to an influx of Hispanics. “It is a tale of two states,” says Tom Williams, a spokesman for Duke Energy, the local utility powerhouse that, like so many major corporations, is based here.
November’s presidential election will help answer which North Carolina is dominant—as well as who could end up in the White House. “North Carolina is the canary in the mine for Romney,” says Matt Bennett, a political analyst at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington. “If he loses here, he’s screwed.” The Romney camp’s plan for getting to 270 electoral votes requires victories in all three Southern battleground states (Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia).
This article appears in the June 30, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.