Economic anxiety frames election for Charlotte voters

Nearly two years into the President Barack Obama's administration, many voters in Charlotte are beginning to see the slightest hints of economic improvement.

However they remain angry — or at least disillusioned — about how Washington has handled the nation's toughest downturn since the Great Depression. In interviews around the county, they cite as irritants the government's increases in federal spending and a contentious health care reform law they don't understand.

"No one's feeling the turnaround yet," says Tony Crumbley, vice president for research at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. "I know it's turning around, but we don't feel it."

From Paul Skinner's office window at the Lake Wylie Pier 49 marina in Mecklenburg County's southwest corner, he can see autumn sunbeams glinting off the water, the far banks of South Carolina and, just a few yards away, a handful of half-million-dollar yachts bobbing at the dock, unsold.

Skinner can't even get Charlotte's wealthy financiers to take him up on boat club memberships. This year, he signed up just one new membership.

"Where is their money?" he asks, exasperated.

Behind Skinner and the empty yachts stretch 30 miles of roadway that bisects Mecklenburg County, with stories of frustration planted all along it.

Take a drive.

Beginning at the South Carolina line as York Road and continuing as Tryon Street, the blacktop runs from the suburbs of the southwest, through the Queen City's financial sector, past some of its poorest neighborhoods and on toward Mecklenburg's northeast corner, just shy of Charlotte Motor Speedway in Cabarrus County.

The Charlotte Observer traveled this highway recently, talking to folks in neighborhoods, shops and businesses. In interviews, the well-off and the working class offered much the same report on the economy: Many feel hints of improvement. Others say the economy feels worse than ever.

Some voters think Republicans would do better in charge; others want to give the Democrats more time to right the nation's listing economic ship.

"You know, you can't do everything in a day," says Luis Harry, 35, working behind the chair at the Nu-U barber shop.

He should know. Harry was laid off by Bank of America two years ago when his job went to India. He returned to school to train in air-conditioning repair and obtain a barbering license.

And he picked up a night job, working again at Bank of America. "I'm doing better than I was a year ago," Harry says. "Not two years ago."

Around the county, much of the political focus is on the House of Representatives. Incumbent Democrats Larry Kissell and Mel Watt, along with Republican Sue Myrick, all face challenges — though Kissell has the toughest fight.

In the U.S. Senate race, Republican incumbent. Richard Burr has burnished his conservative credentials and pledged to undo whatever possible on some of Obama's major successes, such as the stimulus bill and the health care overhaul.

His challenger, Democrat Elaine Marshall, said she supports the president. She wants to invest more money in public construction and end tax credits that she says encourage companies to send jobs overseas.

Harry, a Democrat, says he'll consider his options when he votes.

"Definitely the economy," Harry says, asked about his top concern as a voter. In Mecklenburg County, the unemployment rate is 11.2 percent, higher than the national average. And the financial industry feels battered and bruised.

"It's an interesting time to be a banker," says Palmer Wilson, a banking executive, as he strides uptown on Tryon Street. "I'm not thrilled with some of the recent laws that have passed."

So far this term, Democrats have passed sweeping credit card reform laws, a banking regulatory overhaul and a law to set up a new consumer financial protection agency. They're arguing now about whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the country's wealthiest earners.

Forty-six percent of Mecklenburg's registered voters are Democrats; 29 percent are Republicans. Most others are unaffiliated.

Nationally, Obama's approval rating is at 45 percent. In Mecklenburg County, which overwhelmingly voted for Obama two years ago, it's 49 percent, according to a recent poll. .

Mike Munger, a Duke University political scientist and former Libertarian candidate for governor, said the tea party movement has made a difference. Republicans have successfully made independents and Republicans who voted for Obama feel bad about it, he says.

"In a low-turnout race," Munger says, "it's true that people who are angry vote against, and not for."

In the Huntington Forest subdivision in southwestern Charlotte, siding repairman Neil Bundy scratches out a repair estimate and offers his assessment of the economy.

"It sucks," Bundy says, before handing the paper to homeowner Nick Starita and driving away.

Starita, 31, and his wife are moving. They're going to Massachusetts, where he found a new job in business development. They'll try to sell this house, but their street already has a couple of foreclosed homes on the market, depressing the values.

Starita laughs. "We're going to take it out on the sellers in Boston," he says.

At lunchtime in uptown, financial workers file in and out of eateries in near-identical blue shirts and pressed pants. Hot dog vendors do a steady business, and Jason Simpson, 28, scoots down the sidewalk on a Razor with his 4-year-old daughter, Addison.

The economy has picked up for Simpson, a product tester in the auto industry, but he thinks Washington is spending too much money - on the cost of health reform, on local congressional earmarks, even on auto-friendly legislation such as the Cash-for-Clunkers law.

"I'd like to see it flip (to Republican control)," Simpson said.

Other uptown workers, though, want to give Democrats more time.

Nearby, Jared Carpenter, 24, pulls a Marlboro from his shirt pocket and lights it. He just joined a small start-up hotel investment firm as a researcher, and he knows a turnaround is coming. Already, he says, business travel is up.

"I think we're killing jobs," Carpenter says. "I think raising taxes right now would be the stupidest thing in the history of the world."

Drive up Tryon Street a few miles to the Rosedale community, and truck driver Theodore Gaines, 57, doesn't buy all the trickle-down theory.

"We've been trickling down the last 20 years. It's not working," says Gaines.

The disaffection in North Carolina comes as the Obama administration is working to tell voters about its successes. The White House recently announced that North Carolina should see $460 million in new lending for small businesses, based on a $46 million federal investment in the Small Business Jobs Act that became law last month.

Michael Walden, a North Carolina State University economist, said the bank bailout under the Bush administration and the stimulus spending under Obama has helped the economy, but its improvement is "at a very, very slow pace."

"I think we're looking at two to five years of slow economic growth," Walden said.

Drive on up to the northeastern tip of Mecklenburg, where the Queen City's rural edges blend into Cabarrus County. There, Eddie Black pulls into his driveway after work and greets his wife, Becky.

Eddie works in computer systems at Wachovia. Becky lost her job in the county's financial department this summer. Both are in their 60s.

She hopes the economy's coming around. He says he hasn't been affected too badly. In the Senate race, they haven't decided whether to vote for Burr or Marshall.

But Eddie Black makes a point, one that gets to the frustration of voters on all sides of the issues.

"They say they're going to do X, Y and Z," he says. "And when get they there, they don't have the power to do what they say they're going to do."