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Southern Bellwether

The Democratic convention is a national coming-out party for Charlotte. But diverse North Carolina is also a harbinger of how the presidential race could go.

Banners hang on the side of the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Michael Hirsh
August 30, 2012

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 on the losses 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 kind of 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 that the outcomes in Alabama, Georgia, and the other Southern states were “usually about 80-20 against that kind of an amendment” legalizing same-sex marriage. By contrast, North Carolina’s vote banning such unions was a much tighter “60-40,” he says. “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 9.6 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.”


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).

In the end, Romney must hope that the Tar Heel State is more the North Carolina of Jesse Helms than that of Terry Sanford or Jim Hunt, two popular former liberal governors (or even a pre-scandal John Edwards). North Carolina is so astonishingly diverse, it remains capable of electing either type, Democrats and Republicans alike here say, as evidenced by a hard-fought vote over school choice in the Raleigh area’s Wake County that garnered national attention last spring; it went 5-4 in favor of the Democrats.

Charlotte itself will be something of a bellwether for these trends. On one hand, it is a New South showcase where the Shakespeare Festival staged The Merchant of Venice in August; the Mario Botta-designed Bechtler Museum of Modern Art was added to a remarkable array of arts venues; and even Duke Energy resides in an environmentally “platinum”-rated building. It is a city that is proud of its reputation for “making integration work in city schools,” even luring Boston education officials down to study Charlotte’s success, Foxx says.

But Charlotte is also home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the Billy Graham Library, and the homophobic members of the Mecklenburg County commission who slashed city arts funding after the Charlotte Repertory Theater put on the AIDS-themed play Angels in America in 1996.

“The city has always been kind of flying under the radar.” —Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gant

And North Carolina features a remarkable university system and a Research Triangle Park that houses the second-largest IBM complex in the world. But outside Charlotte and other urban areas, it remains a poorer, grimmer state that has lost thousands of jobs in textiles, tobacco, and furniture manufacturing. On Sept. 6, Obama will deliver what is expected to be a rousing speech at a packed Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, where the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play. (Democratic organizers prefer to call it “Panthers Stadium” these days.) No doubt the speech will be reminiscent of Obama’s mesmerizing address at Denver’s Mile High Stadium in 2008. The difference this time, says Steve McClure, a young real-estate developer in Charlotte, is “now everybody’s seen him do those big speeches. They know those speeches aren’t going to change their lives.”

McClure, 32, speaks for many young North Carolina Republicans and independents when he says that Obama oversold himself badly in the state, as elsewhere. “I’ve talked to many people who supported Obama in 2008 because they believed the dream. But not anymore,” he says. “It’s like one of those phony marketing campaigns for real estate when you ‘sell the dream,’ as we say, by putting a nice picture on a brochure of what could be built on a piece of land. But then nothing comes out like you’d imagine it. That’s Obama.” True, few of those centrists are falling in love with Romney either. “He’s a decent guy,” says Peter Barfield, a conservative lawyer. “But he’s no Reagan.”


No matter their political leanings, many Charlotteans—even Republicans like McClure and Barfield—are excited by the boomtown feel of the convention. They also see Charlotte and North Carolina as entering a brave new world of national renown. Charlotte has always been a “striving city” that’s been underestimated and never quite getting there, says Dan Murrey, head of its convention planning committee. In the mid-1980s, when businessman George Shinn first tried to get an NBA franchise for Charlotte, the joke was that “the only franchise you’re going to get is the golden arches,” Gantt recalls with a laugh. (Charlotte ultimately did get the Hornets, then the hapless Bobcats, owner of the worst-ever record in NBA history.)

When the Democratic National Committee went looking for a convention site and named as finalists Charlotte, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and St. Louis, at least one old pro in Washington was sure that Charlotte had no chance. “Not gonna happen,” National Journal’s political pundit, Charlie Cook, told The Charlotte Observer in 2010. “Charlotte is not a city that has hosted many major national conventions of any kind, not just talking about political conventions.” Cook added, “The politics don’t make that much sense. While Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, that was a very high-water mark for Democrats, one unlikely to be replicated in 2012.”

Oops. Today, Foxx proudly keeps near his desk a framed and signed copy of Cook grimacing before a Photoshopped plate of crow. “Mayor Foxx, a great city beats the odds,” Cook wrote graciously.

Many pundits still agree with Cook that North Carolina was a dubious choice for the convention, one that looked sillier after it was revealed that Obama would be speaking at a stadium bearing the name of Bank of America—the still deeply troubled giant corporation that the president controversially bailed out. Obama’s thin 2008 margin of victory, making him the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976, was seen as a fluke. The likelier outcome in future campaigns was that North Carolina would simply join the red-ink sea of Southern states that today automatically go Republican. “Who dreamed this up?” said CNN’s curmudgeonly Jack Cafferty. “President Obama will give his convention speech in Bank of America Stadium. Perfect—not. Then there are the unions, one of the Democrats’ key voting blocs. They’re angry and aren’t in the mood to help fundraise.” Labor unions do remain upset that the party chose a “right-to-work” nonunion state. (The convention effort was constantly rumored to be in fundraising trouble, although Steve Kerrigan, head of the Democratic convention team, denied this. “We are right on track,” he told National Journal.)

True, the locations of party conventions usually don’t matter much in the general election. “I’ve never known the venue for a convention to have the slightest impact on the result in November,” Republican pundit Rich Galen says. But Democratic organizers argue that this convention just might tilt the balance, because North Carolina is so closely contested and because, as organizers did in Denver, the Obama campaign is trying to make convention week a bigger phenomenon than the old-style smoke-filled arena. They are combing the state to fill the 72,000-seat stadium with nonconvention attendees, just as Obama filled the 80,000-seat stadium in Denver. The difference: no controversial Greek-style columns this time. In addition, “Bank of America” and other corporate logos inside the stadium will be covered up “to make sure our message gets across,” Kerrigan says.

“Where you host the convention will not impact the election unless you use the convention in the right way, and the Republicans don’t,” Kerrigan adds. Before Obama, he says, conventions “were about political elites and insiders.… They were never used as message tools before.” Another Democratic organizer adds dismissively: “The Republicans have plug-and-play conventions. They do the same one every time; even the logo is the same.” The Democrats also trimmed the convention program from four days to three to make room for a “Labor Day festival” that Kerrigan describes as “a day to organize and celebrate the Carolinas, Virginia, and the South.” (Read: maybe take North Carolina and Virginia on Nov. 6 and bury Romney entirely.)

Republicans, sensing danger in North Carolina, have rapidly ramped up their presence here in the past several months. Whereas Democrats had 16 campaign offices statewide and Romney operated only four as recently as late June, by mid-August the GOP had 20 “fully functioning” offices throughout the state, says party organizer Rob Lockwood. Both Romney and his vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan, had already campaigned there several times. A Democratic official, Cameron French, countered that the Democrats had 40 offices statewide by late August. Both campaigns admit that the race in North Carolina is too close to call.

Above all, it’s risky to compare other places to North Carolina, which has always been “peculiar,” Gantt says. Charlotte itself is evidence that North Carolina is growing closer in makeup to the nation as a whole than most Southern states are. Tracking the broader changes in the nation, Charlotte became a minority-dominated city for the first time in the 2010 census, and the biggest population growth by far is among Hispanics—spelling trouble for the hard-line, anti-immigration Romney. (Nationally, whites for the first time represented a minority—49.6 percent—of all U.S. births, the Census Bureau revealed recently.) The demographics are also changing with astonishing rapidity: Charlotte was the fastest-growing urbanized area in the country between 2000 and 2010, with some 59,000 people moving here annually—a growth rate of more than 3 percent a year. In the past 10 years, the population jumped from 567,000 to 772,000.

That’s one reason the 9.6 percent unemployment rate in North Carolina is not quite as bad as it seems, argues Tony Crumbley, who heads up the local chamber of commerce’s research department. “There are a lot of jobs, but there are also a lot of people moving here looking for them.”

So between growth and national recognition, Charlotteans think their time has come. “The city has always been kind of flying under the radar,” Gantt says. “We’re the ‘CH’ city no one can quite place. Charleston [S.C.], where I’m from, is known because it has some historical credits, and it’s still a great tourist attraction. And then there’s Charlottesville [Va.]. But we’ve always been a big city, an economic engine that fuels a good part of North and South Carolina. It’s been that way for years. But it’s never had those historical features. So when people see us step forward to get something, they’re surprised.” As Foxx puts it, “Charlotte’s always been sort of like the guest at a dinner party who you talk to for a few minutes and you go away and say, ‘What was that person’s name again?’ ”


As a striving city that feels ever slighted, Charlotte tries to glam up its history as much as possible. Brass plaques denote various “historic” moments along the streets. At 200 S. Tryon Ave., outside a McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant, one reads: “RCA Victor used the upstairs offices of Southern Radio Corporation as field studios for country, blues, and gospel recording 1931-36. Bill Monroe, father of the ‘Bluegrass,’ began his recording career here February 17, 1936.” A little farther down the street is another one. “Jefferson Davis was standing here when informed of Lincoln’s death, April 18, 1865,” the plaque reads. (Davis probably wasn’t there long: He was fleeing Union troops and was captured a month later in Irwinsville, Ga.)

Today, although it was founded in 1768, Charlotte feels spanking new. It is a wealth-bespangled frontier town of the New South, a city backed by enough banking and energy money to build Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu several times over. When one walks anywhere down Tryon or Trade streets, the two main drags, there is an overwhelming sense of wealth pouring down like mighty waters from the office towers. Dean & Deluca and chic bistros can be found where soup kitchens and slums once prevailed. “Charlotte is blessed not only by the wealth but also by the generosity of those who have it,” Murrey says.

That is largely thanks to the loving ministrations of gift-giving tycoons based here, dating back to “Buck” Duke, namesake of Duke University, who possessed so much tobacco money that he could just write checks without going to Wall Street. Duke started a power company on his own in 1904 to attract textile companies from the Northeast based on cheap hydropower, and modern Charlotte began taking off. Today, Duke Energy is in the final stages of a merger with Progress Energy to create the nation’s largest utility. Duke is now housed in the giant tower that was to have been occupied by Wachovia Bank before it was taken over by Wells Fargo, which, despite being headquartered in San Francisco, still has a huge presence here. (“Thank you, Charlotte, for making us feel welcome,” the Wells Fargo signs read.)

Charlotte, coincidentally, “is also the only city in America whose streets are literally paved with gold,” says the chamber of commerce’s Crumbley, explaining that a hooky-playing lad in 1799 discovered a giant nugget. Because extracting the gold with crude picks left large lumps of rock, the city fathers simply used them to pave the streets.

“This is a state that has always had to reinvent itself. ” —Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx

So despite the considerable troubles of the banking industry—and its flagship Bank of America—Charlotte is still thriving and thankful. There is also an endearing innocence here. Charlotteans don’t really get the irony about Obama speaking at the Bank of America Stadium—the source of so many jibes by the Washington punditocracy. Out in the real world, Moody’s rates Bank of America, along with Citigroup, just two notches above junk status, and, inside, the bank is becoming more Wall Street-like, more removed from its origins as  the community bank that Charlotteans speak so glowingly about, says one longtime employee. “It took over Merrill Lynch, but its culture is becoming more like Merrill,” this banker says. “It used to be much more service-oriented. Not now.” Wachovia, with its rich North Carolina history dating back to the mid-19th century, set itself up for disaster by buying Golden West, a home-mortgage giant in California, for $26 billion in 2006. In the early 2000s, one could see construction cranes every several blocks, but Charlotte’s skyline is almost empty of them today.

But for people here, the tarnished reputations don’t count for much, despite the 27,000 jobs lost in the financial crisis—not when, as Gantt says, “my uncle, my cousin, my daughter, or somebody here works at Bank of America or Wells Fargo. They’ve seen the wealth created in the community because of this. Would it be any different if you were in Detroit talking about bailing out General Motors? We’re all happy that [Obama] helped to bail them out. If there’s anything there’s a residual bitterness about, it’s that lots of people with underwater mortgages did not get the assistance they needed.”

Bank of America is, in other words, just another homey here, the product of a natural business evolution: the old North Carolina National Bank grew into NationsBank, which then bought BankAmerica Corp. of San Francisco, which then became Bank of America. Because of prescient state laws that enabled North Carolina banks to branch out sooner than banks in other states, Charlotte is still the second-largest financial center in the nation, with more than $2.3 trillion in assets, behind only New York City. By comparison, Atlanta has assets of $182 billion and Boston has $151 billion. So whatever trouble (and it’s plenty deep) that Bank of America and Wachovia got themselves into up on Wall Street, the perception is that outside influences were to blame. “If the banks are going to stick by us, then people in Charlotte feel they’re going to stick by them,” Murrey says.


Who will win North Carolina in November? Despite all the hoopla over the convention, this is not really a great time for the state’s Democrats, just as it’s been a season of bad news on the economic front for Obama. Polls showed the scandal-scarred governor, Bev Perdue, losing by double digits before she announced in January that she was retiring. “Obama is still generally liked in North Carolina,” says Brian Nick, a GOP strategist in North Carolina. “But by far the biggest problem for him, and all the way down the ticket, is the unemployment rate. It’s not just that it’s high; it’s the 41st month in a row that unemployment has been over 9 percent. It’s a long malaise.” Romney will exploit those numbers mercilessly—and he should.

The president’s defenders, as always, point to the state’s progressive yearnings and to the rapid demographic shifts that seem to be occurring here like clouds rushing by in a time-lapse film. “North Carolinians innately understand that this president walked into a buzz saw,” Foxx says. “And we have a large presence of military families [at Fort Bragg and elsewhere], who have sons and daughters fighting for our freedom overseas, who are grateful this president ended the war in Iraq and is bringing down troop levels in Afghanistan. We have one of the highest ratios of college students in the country, and three-quarters of that group hasn’t had a chance to vote before. And then there’s a demographic shift from Midwest and North bringing more progressive thinking people in the state. This is a state that has always had to reinvent itself, anyway. People are used to the tobacco planter, the mill closing down, and having to find a different way to make a living.”

In the end, the election will come down to, as it always does in North Carolina, a tale of two states—and to which of those two narratives prevails. Whatever the outcome, Charlotte’s story is, at long last, likely to be at the center of things.

A version of this story ran in the June 30 issue of National Journal.

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