Politics & Government

In North Carolina, talk of Obama, McCain and race

As a child growing up in Durham, Lonnie Torain remembers when he would walk past a restaurant, with the warm food smelling so good, beckoning him inside. He had to walk around back to get fed.This month Torain, 65, stepped into a voting booth in his hometown and cast his presidential ballot for Barack Obama.

"We've been waiting a long time," Torain said. "It really made me feel good."

In North Carolina, Obama is working to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Jimmy Carter in 1980, and to become America's first black president.

Conversations with voters this past week show that Obama's candidacy has led voters of many backgrounds to wonder about race in America. He has given blacks and other minorities pride in his achievements, made some whites uncomfortable and led voters of many backgrounds to question their own beliefs and motivations.

"Race is always going to be an issue," said Hunter Bacot, director of the Elon University poll, which surveys adults statewide on issues of society and politics. "I don't think it's going to be an issue of any significance. ... The demographics have changed so much in the last 20 years. Jesse Helms might have a hard time getting re-elected."

Race has not overtly dominated the campaign. In response to persistent questions about his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama made a high-profile speech earlier in the year about race in America. Republican candidate John McCain has not made race an issue, going so far as to ask the N.C. Republican Party in April to pull a TV ad that linked Democratic gubernatorial candidates Beverly Perdue and Richard Moore to Wright and Obama.

But four decades after President Lyndon Johnson told Congress, "We shall overcome," the history of racism still weighs heavily in the Tar Heel state, where Confederate monuments populate the lawn of the state capitol and people over 50 recall segregated schools and "colored-only" water fountains.

Pierre "Pete" Fournier, a retired jack-of-all-trades who now builds birdhouses at his Kenly home, considers himself a die-hard Republican. He's 72, was a Marine in Lebanon in 1958 and calls fellow veteran and Republican presidential candidate John McCain a hero. Fournier doesn't like Obama.

"I think he's a young punk and he's arrogant," Fournier said one recent morning outside the Pine Level post office. "I'm not ready for his type for president."

What type?

"I'm not a prejudiced person, but it's really going down to it, really, a black-and-white situation," Fournier said. "Between you and me, I'd rather see a woman than him."

Fournier thinks race is an issue — for black voters.

"They want to see a black president," Fournier said. "But we've always had a white president. I'm sure there's a lot of folks out there who're voting (for McCain) because he's white."

In southeast Raleigh, hairdresser Brandi Hunter, 28, waited for clients on a recent afternoon. She talked about the adjustable-rate mortgage she's struggling with on her house, how she gets behind on bills when fewer clients walk through the door.

On the wall behind her hangs a poster of Obama grinning from a barber's chair. "Our time is now," the poster reads.

"Now for us as blacks, this is a monumental thing to have a black man in office," Hunter said.

Bacot, the pollster, said polls in North Carolina show that about 5 percent of respondents will acknowledge voting for someone based on race. But ask whether the respondent knows someone who'll vote on race — often a more telling question — and the numbers rise.

"In general, race is going to make a difference to about 20 percent of the people," Bacot said.

Up the road from the Pine Level post office, Brady and Candace Warren of Micro, ages 22 and 21, settled in for lunch at the Parkside Cafe. They soon were joined by Brady's father.

"Chuck the plumber," said Chuck Warren with a grin, sitting down in his plumber's uniform.

Chuck Warren is a McCain man. Likes his experience. Figures he knows the ropes.

He likes Obama too. Likes his talk, but thinks he might promise too much.

Is race an issue in this election?

"It's a big issue," said Candace, who also supports McCain. "A lot of people are voting because we're going to have the first African-American president."

Chuck added: "Here's what I really think: Both of 'em will do a good job if they get in there."

He added more: "They need to leave the race issue out of it. Obama's a good man, I think."

On a recent day, just two houses in Pine Level appeared to have Obama signs in their yards. One belonged to Jane and Dick Hawk, 61 and 71, retired education professors from Troy University in Alabama who have lived here five years.

Both are white, and both fear racism could hurt Obama. But both have volunteered for him in Johnston County, and they stress there's plenty of white support for him, too.

"Coming from deeper in the South, we've observed that the racial climate here is much more friendly," Dick Hawk said.

He recently canvassed with his friend Nester McClain, a lanky, 79-year-old black man whose lawn displays the other Obama sign in town.

McClain, who played sandlot baseball here with white friends as a child, has already cast his vote for Obama.

"Oh, it was amazing," he said. "I thank God for letting me live to have the chance to see this."

'A million cultures'

At the State Farmer's Market in Raleigh, vendors sip coffee against the morning chill and offer a bounty of mountain-grown apples, potted mums, rows of fat pumpkins.

Pam Passey, 34, of Holly Springs keeps an eye on her girls, ages 2 and 4, while she pays for fresh pecans. Her cul-de-sac community is fun, she said, as households seem split between McCain and Obama. Neighbors tease one another about the election. She thinks McCain has more experience than Obama. As a child of the Deep South, she knows people still vote along racial lines.

Passey, who is white, wasn't raised that way.

"The color of your skin is like the color of your eyes," Passey said. "We're in the United States. You're going to have a million cultures. That's a beautiful thing."

A diverse and steady stream of voters wandered into Smithfield Town Hall this week, casting early ballots at one-stop voting.

Outside, Noble Judah Ali-Bey, 58, of Clayton, thinks Obama's candidacy has made some people think more about race, but maybe in a positive way. Racism still exists, said Ali-Bey, who is black. "But I think it's going to subside," he said.

A personal journey

A few feet away, Sheila DelGuercio, 67, of Benson emerged from town hall, an "I voted" sticker stuck to her jacket.

Her vote for Obama culminated sort of a personal journey. As a child, DelGuercio, who is white, attended integrated grammar schools in New Jersey, then a segregated high school in Johnston County.

"We're all part of our past," she said.

Does Obama's race matter?

"It matters. It certainly did to me."

She tells of how she recently went into a soul-food restaurant in New Jersey, hungry for collards and sweet tea, and found herself the only white person in the place.

She felt uncomfortable. It made her wonder, how must they feel, in opposite situations?

"I think I was on that road," she said. She meant, the road to thinking too much about skin color. "It has made me realize, who am I to judge?"