Attention North Carolina is getting isn't quite what it wants

McClatchy NewspapersMay 25, 2012 

— When civic leaders boasted that having the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte was a chance to showcase the great things about living and working in North Carolina, they probably didn’t have recent events in mind.

A planned Ku Klux Klan “cross lighting,” a misinformed teacher who suggested that her student could be arrested for criticizing President Barack Obama and a pastor who wants to round up gay people and leave them to die have played into stereotypes that the Tar Heel State has long sought to leave behind.

“Recent national coverage has not been particularly flattering at a time when the state is supposed to be reveling in national attention,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. “What it isn’t good for is it seems to reinforce some stereotypes that perhaps the rest of the country has about North Carolina.”

North Carolina is in the spotlight. The Democratic National Convention is coming to Charlotte in September. It’s the most politically competitive state in the South. The president, a member of his family or a member of his administration is in the state every few weeks. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was in the state two weeks ago.

The state likes to bill itself as a forward-thinking, economically and culturally vibrant place where people and companies should want to move.

Many do.

For the past two decades, the state’s biggest metropolitan areas, around Charlotte and Raleigh, have been some of the fastest-growing parts of the country. Newcomers from the Northeast and around the country have been flooding in, seeking finance jobs in Charlotte or high tech and pharmaceutical work around the Research Triangle – not to mention great weather, beautiful mountains and long beaches.

But it’s still the South – and 85 of the state’s 100 counties are considered rural, according to the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center – and therefore it shares some of the region’s strong beliefs in religion, guns and skepticism about the government.

Plans for a KKK cross burning this Saturday on private property about an hour north of Charlotte in Harmony capped a tough week. On Monday, a Rowan County teacher, Tonya Dixon-Neely, was suspended from North Rowan High after she was caught on video warning a teenager that he could be arrested for criticizing the president.

On Tuesday, another viral video captured a Catawba County pastor, Charles Worley, preaching about homosexuality who says he’s figured “a way out.” He suggests building a 150-mile-long fence and putting all the gays and lesbians inside it.

“And have that fence electrified till they can’t get out,” he says. “Feed ’em. And you know what, in a few years, they’ll die out. Do you know why? They can’t reproduce."

Each case made national news and drew attention to the Tar Heel State.

The response on Twitter has been harsh: “Come on North Carolina! IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT REPRESENTING YOUR STATE?! DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!”

Protesters will hold a demonstration against the pastor’s church on Sunday.

“I think a lot of people have looked down on our state,” said Laura Tipton, who’s helping to organize the event. “People need to know that not everyone in North Carolina thinks like this. Not everybody supports these messages and this way of thinking.”

In the age of smartphones and YouTube, so many unsuspecting moments can turn into a scandal. But analysts say that what’s happening in North Carolina also might be a byproduct of the stresses due to the dramatic demographic changes the state has undergone as its urban areas encroach on more traditional rural areas.

Like the Roman God Janus, who has one face looking to the future and another looking to the past, North Carolina has two distinct perspectives: One sees future opportunities while the other longs for the comforts of the past.

The same state that’s home to the leader of the national conservative movement, the late Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, also has ushered in new progressive leaders such as Terry Sanford, a Democratic governor who twice ran for president.

The state’s two factions are divided by “modernizers and traditionalists,” according to North Carolina state Rep. Paul Luebke, a political scientist and the author of “Tar Heel Politics 2000.”

The modernizers are made up of the bankers, developers and other urban interests that support growth. The traditionalists are rooted in small-town North Carolina, steeped in religion and agriculture and threatened by social change, he said.

In an interview Thursday, Luebke, a Democrat, pointed out that rural counties overwhelmingly voted for the recent state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions. Only eight counties, most home to the state’s urban centers, voted against the measure.

The state is much bigger, the views more diverse, than some people in other parts of the country realize, said Brian Nick, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff to then-U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

“If you’re in the furthest points of the mountains of North Carolina, it’s pretty amazing the difference between talking to people up there and what’s on their minds as it is if you’re in the Outer Banks,” Nick said.

The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte has studied the multiple transformations of the region since the Civil War. Its core exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers,” is all about reinventions and the accompanying growing pains.

“We are a state that in many ways has embraced change,” said Tom Hanchett, the museum historian. “From fields to factories to finance. We went from being the epicenter of textile America to being the epicenter of banking of America – in less than a generation. Talk about embracing change – we’re doing that. But change is painful.”

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @francoordonez

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