North Carolina’s transformation alters political picture

The uptown Charlotte, N.C., skyline is illuminated on Dec. 8, 2015.
The uptown Charlotte, N.C., skyline is illuminated on Dec. 8, 2015. Charlotte Observer

In 1972, North Carolina was home to about five million people, a quiet, bucolic state stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains to coastal fisheries, along the way dotted with textile mills, hardwood forests that fed a thriving furniture industry and eastern plains filled with tobacco crops.

The state’s one large minority population was its more than a million African Americans, many of whom lived in rural areas.

Just as it did in 1968, North Carolina delivered its electoral votes in ’72 to President Richard Nixon, who vanquished his Democratic rival, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” emphasizing states’ rights drew allegations he was exploiting racism among whites, but it broke decades of Democratic triumphs in North Carolina and throughout the South. It also launched an era in which Republican candidates have won North Carolina in 10 of the past 12 presidential elections.

More than 40 years later, the state has transformed to a starkly different place, built around two economically booming, multi-ethnic urban centers that offer skilled jobs to droves of young people.

It’s a state that’s ripe for a fierce battle in this year’s presidential race.

The state’s population has doubled to 10 million, putting it among the fastest-growing in the union.

“It’s as if the entire population of South Carolina had moved to North Carolina,” said Ferrel Guillory, who founded the University of North Carolina’s Program on Public Life.

Where North Carolina was largely comprised of whites and blacks, it’s now an ethnic cauldron, due to the influx since 1990 of more than 820,000 Hispanic migrants, more than a quarter-million Asians and hundreds of thousands more African Americans, some of whom migrated to the North and decided to return to the Sunbelt.

“Well over a majority of the growth is from net migration,” said Rebecca Tippett, who heads the University of North Carolina’s demography center in Chapel Hill. “We get more immigrants moving here from other states.”

One survey showed that 70 percent of native North Carolinians still live in the state, widely considered to be one of the most attractive places in the nation to live.

The state’s explosive growth has occurred mainly in its two biggest metro areas – Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham.

Charlotte, home to the headquarters of Bank of America, has emerged as the nation’s second-biggest banking center behind New York and has become a magnet for job seekers. Bob Morgan, president of Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce, said Bank of America and a large part of Wells Fargo’s operations account for many of the banking sector’s 55,000 jobs, while the energy sector, anchored by the headquarters of Duke Energy, provides another 25,000 jobs.

The Charlotte Douglas International Airport is the nation’s sixth busiest, a major hub with flights to destinations around the world. The city has three professional sports franchises, topped by the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers, who lost only two games last season, the second in the Super Bowl.

The metro area’s population has more than doubled, to 2.5 million, since 1990.

“We think our population of 2.5 million today is going to double in the next 20 to 30 years,” Morgan said. The city and surrounding Mecklenburg County have planned for the future, winning federal subsidies for a $1 billion, nine-mile light rail project that opened in 2007 and has attracted $3 billion in private sector development, he said. Another 12-mile extension that would connect the line with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte is in the works.

“You don’t need a car anymore to live in Charlotte,” Morgan said.

Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill have parlayed the proximity of the University of North Carolina, Duke University and North Carolina State University into a major force.

Research Triangle Park, in the heart of the region, is home to high-tech and pharmaceutical companies.

The Triangle Park’s web page declares: “We convene, inspire and celebrate the bold ideas of North Carolinians. We move humanity forward.”

Since 1990, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metro area has mushroomed to 1.25 million people from 855,000.

The state’s economic transformation is all the more extraordinary given that its once-flourishing tobacco, furniture and fabric industries are a shadow of what they were in their heydays. Many surviving textile mills are outfitted with robots that make thread and prepare fabrics to be sewn for dirt-cheap wages in Mexico, China and elsewhere. Most of today’s North Carolina tobacco harvest winds up in cigarettes peddled overseas. Most remaining furniture makers design products for sale as high-end luxury items.

Today, North Carolina is the nation’s No. 2 turkey producer and boasts a thriving hog-farming industry.

Through it all, Republicans have retained a tight grip in the last several years on political power in North Carolina, a state that elected a onetime television commentator, Jesse Helms, who defected from the Democratic party and won five terms in the Senate despite charges he engaged in race baiting. In 2010, they captured control of both the state House and Senate for the first time in more than a century. They now hold the governorship, state Supreme Court, both U.S. Senate seats and 10 of the state’s 13 U.S. House seats.

The new legislative majority soon enacted a series of tough election laws, shrinking the allotted time for early voting and, effective this year, requiring all voters to produce a driver’s license or other valid photo identification card before they can cast their ballots. Civil rights groups have charged that the law is aimed at suppressing votes by low-income minorities who lean Democratic, for example those who don’t have a driver’s license and won’t understand the new requirement before showing up to exercise their right to vote.

Whether it will impact this year’s election remains an open question.

Despite Republicans’ control of state government, Barack Obama scored a stunning, 14,000-vote victory in the 2008 presidential election. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney barely won the state.

Said Carter Wrenn, a longtime North Carolina Republican political consultant, “The demographic changes have led to a state where the base vote for Republicans and Democrats is equal.”

Not even the infusion of Latinos is likely to change that equation. A study by the Pew Research Center found that only 131,000 of the nearly 900,000 Latinos in the state have registered to vote.

Greg Gordon: 202-383-0005, @greggordon2