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North Carolina State Profile
In few states today is the political climate more polarized between Democrats and Republicans--and between rural, urban and suburban areas--than in North Carolina. Bolstered by rapid population growth from other states, North Carolina, and particularly its suburban areas, has become a hard-fought battleground, especially over the direction of state government. Beginning in 2010, North Carolina Republicans enjoyed large legislative majorities and increasing success in winning races at all levels. But in 2018, after seemingly endless battles over control of the state’s levers of power, voters dialed back their support for Republicans, electing enough Democrats to break the GOP’s legislative supermajorities, and in turn bolstering Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s leverage in policy debates.
In the early republic, when Virginia and South Carolina produced statesmen and had grand plantation cultures, North Carolina was often called a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit. It joined the Confederacy only after those two neighbors did. After the Civil War, North Carolina developed its tobacco industry and enticed textile mills south from New England, while its hardwood forests produced raw material for furniture factories. Textile mills were prevalent in the Piedmont region as owners saw in the South an opportunity for cheap land, cheap labor and state governments eager to foster pro-business, anti-union climates. In the following decades, the industry continued to expand and drastically improved the economy of the South. The mill industry became the main source of industrial paid labor for white southerners. While it was one of the lowest paying manufacturing industries, the jobs were valued because there were few other options other than agricultural or service work.
The tobacco-textile-furniture trio enabled North Carolina to grow faster than the national average in the 1920s and 1930s, but the state began to lag in the 1950s. Then, two developments transformed the state. In 1959, Gov. Luther Hodges established Research Triangle Park between Raleigh and Durham. With synergy from nearby universities--Duke, North Carolina, and North Carolina State--the region became one of the leading research centers in the United States. The second development was Charlotte’s emergence as the No. 2 city in financial assets behind New York, a status that owes much to the state’s expansive banking laws.
These twin developments explain how North Carolina has become one of the fastest-growing and largest states. Its population more than doubled between 1970 and 2018, from 5.1 million to 10.4 million. In the same period, the city of Charlotte grew from 241,000 to 826,000 and Raleigh grew from 123,000 to 449,000. Since the 2010 census, the state as a whole has grown by a healthy 8.5 percent, probably enough to add another seat in Congress, but several populous counties have expanded by rates even higher than that: Wake County (Raleigh) grew by 20.3 percent, Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) by 17.2 percent, Durham County (Durham) by 16.4 percent, and Guilford County (Greensboro) by 8.7 percent, with Buncombe County (Asheville) not far behind at 8.2 percent. As the state has shifted from old-line manufacturing in textiles and furniture to fast-growing industries, including pharmaceuticals and aerospace, so have its exports. Fitting for a state that was home to the first flight at Kitty Hawk, the state’s top export is now civilian aircraft engines and parts. Just behind are various categories of medical exports; the Triangle, as the Raleigh-Durham area is commonly known, is one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and medical device centers. Highly skilled people from the Northeast have flocked to the state: The jurisdiction of Cary in the Triangle, jokingly referred to as “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees,” has grown 25 percent since 2010. High-tech firms are also sprouting farther west in the Piedmont Triad of Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point. In 2017, Site Selection magazine ranked North Carolina No. 1 in the country for its business climate, and in 2018, Forbes followed suit. North Carolina has the nation’s second-least unionized labor force, trailing only neighboring South Carolina, leaving its labor costs among the lowest in the nation. Immigrants seeking jobs in construction and in meat and chicken factories have pushed the Hispanic population up to 9 percent.
Urban, affluent, high-tech North Carolina, however, is not the only North Carolina: The state ranks second to Texas in its number of rural residents with 3.2 million. The state’s predominantly rural counties saw taxable wages decline by 3 percent in the past decade, compared with a 6 percent increase in suburban counties and a 15 percent increase in urban counties, the NC Rural Center calculated. Most rural jurisdictions lost population, which, combined with lower education levels, has made attracting business difficult. “Many rural counties in the eastern part of the state are 40 miles from a natural gas line, a non-starter for some corporations,” the Wall Street Journal noted. The 2018 federal approval for the $5 billion, 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, running from West Virginia to Pembroke, North Carolina, offered some hope for economic progress.
North Carolina’s agriculture sector is significant -- the state is the nation’s third-ranking producer of broilers, the biggest producer of sweet potatoes, the second-biggest for Christmas trees. Notably, it ranks second in hog production, with big feedlots in the southeastern portion of the state. Hurricane Florence--which dropped a record 30-odd inches of rain in 2018 and ranked among the top 10 most expensive storms in U.S. history--spotlighted the problems of hog-waste lagoons, dozens of which overflowed amid the flooding. Concerns over the lagoons have become so contentious that neighbors have sued for damages to their quality of life--so the legislature, looking to protect the industry, enacted limits on such lawsuits. The psychic draw of rural North Carolina runs deep: If Charlotte is proud of its downtown bank towers and modern art museum, it is also proud of its Billy Graham Museum and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But all is not well in North Carolina. The textile industry largely moved offshore, although efforts are under way to promote a “dirt-to-shirt” movement akin to “farm-to-table” for artisanal food. Meanwhile, the federal government’s 2004 buyout of tobacco quotas greatly diminished that sector, with further concern generated by retaliatory tariffs by China, which buys more tobacco from the state than any other country. High Point still hosts annual furniture industry shows, but much of the production has gone elsewhere, including China. Median income remained in the bottom quarter of states.
Big-government liberalism provided an impetus toward spending on education, but by 2018 the publication Education Week ranked North Carolina’s public schools only 40th best in the nation, and teachers marched to the state capitol seeking higher pay and still more spending on the poorly performing public school system. The state has historically invested in highways and amenities, including the nation’s first state-funded symphony and state high schools for science, mathematics and the arts. A different philosophical strand, religious conservatism, has provided a communitarian spirit and charitable impulses, as well as a moral undertone that anchors those who might go astray. The state’s racial conflicts were never as intense as they were in Alabama or Mississippi, though the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960 were a pivotal, and effective, moment in the civil rights movement. Yet in a state with an African-American population of 22 percent -- the seventh-highest of any state -- the legacy of segregation persists. Racial tensions divided Durham in 2006, when its prosecutor wrongly accused three white Duke lacrosse players of raping an African-American dancer. Race has been an issue in the state’s moves to tighten its voting procedures and draw congressional and legislative district lines, and the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte heightened tensions in 2016. After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville Virginia, in 2017, vandals toppled a Confederate statue at a courthouse in Durham. The “Silent Sam” confederate statue on the University of North Carolina campus was also toppled by protesters. It was moved to storage, the subject of negotiations between a largely Republican-appointed governing board and campus officials.
During the latter part of the 20th century, Republicans tended to win federal elections in North Carolina, and Democrats tended to do well in state elections. The exemplars of these traditions were Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, each of whom was elected to statewide office five times. But in the first two decades of the new millennium, a polarized, increasingly party-line politics evolved, waged partly on economic issues but even more on cultural attitudes. Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2008, bolstered by high turnout by minorities and affluent whites. But conservatives fought back. Aided by Democratic sales- and income-tax increases in 2009, the Great Recession and fatigue from 20 years of Democratic state government, the Republicans achieved big legislative majorities in the 2010 election, the first period of GOP control since Reconstruction. Two years later, Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor. He ran as a centrist, pro-business mayor of Charlotte, but the legislature produced a virtual assembly line of conservative legislation and dared McCrory to use his veto. Despite some tensions and a few vetoes, McCrory mostly acceded to their wishes.
Over the course of several years, the GOP enacted a partisan redistricting map, a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, cuts to unemployment benefits, a tax overhaul that eliminated elements of progressivity in the code, a law requiring voters to show ID along with a shorter early-voting period, an increase in the waiting period for abortions, and a repeal of a state law to commute the death penalty if racial bias in sentencing could be shown. It didn’t take long for a liberal backlash to coalesce--a running series of protests known as “Moral Mondays,” led by Rev. William Barber III of the state NAACP. In the meantime, federal court decisions invalidated all or part of some of the laws passed by the GOP, including the redistricting and voting measures.
The backlash mushroomed in March 2016, when Republicans passed a bill known as H.B. 2. The measure had been spurred by Charlotte’s enactment of a non-discrimination ordinance on sexual orientation. The state bill preempted local ordinances and required people to use bathrooms that coincided with one’s birth gender. This time, allies of the LGBT community peeled off sizable portions of the business community, who feared, with reason, that national groups would boycott the state. Indeed, PayPal and Deutsche Bank were among those to pull out of projects in the state, and the NCAA and NBA canceled major events; the Associated Press projected the full economic hit to be $3.76 billion over 12 years. Democrats--including McCrory’s Democratic challenger, Cooper--hammered away at Republicans for inviting economic hardship. In time, the law became an albatross for McCrory, and after the election, the two sides agreed to repeal the law in March 2017. On the upside, the compromise brought back the NBA All-Star game and generally kept the issue from hindering economic development.
The drama over state government at times overshadowed the 2016 presidential election in North Carolina, but it too was hard-fought and close. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton returned again and again to the state, and key surrogates such as Barack and Michelle Obama stumped there as well. Trump ended up winning, doubling Mitt Romney’s two-point winning margin in 2012 to four points, thanks to a strong showing in rural areas. But in addition to Cooper’s victory, the Democrats held the attorney general seat he had vacated and seized a majority on the nominally nonpartisan Supreme Court. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats finally won enough legislative seats to break the GOP’s supermajority, and voters rejected the two most controversial Republican-backed constitutional amendments, which would have weakened the governor’s hand in filling judicial vacancies and the state election board. (Voters did support a Republican-backed amendment to require a photo ID to vote.) A Democrat won a state supreme court seat and the court’s Republican chief judge resigned. Cooper filled the vacancy with a Democratic appeals court judge, giving the Democrats a 6-1 majority. Despite Cooper’s increased leverage, the rest of his first term promised continued partisan battles among the legislature, the governor and the courts.
North Carolina's Governor's Race
Roy Cooper, a Democrat who had served four terms as North Carolina’s attorney general, narrowly ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016 amid public dissatisfaction with H.B. 2, a bill that preempted local non-discrimination ordinances on sexual orientation, requiring, among other things, that people use bathrooms corresponding with their birth gender. In his first two years in office, Cooper fought seemingly endless battles with the GOP-controlled legislature, including against repeated efforts to strip his powers as governor. But Cooper achieved an important victory in the 2018 elections, as Democrats broke the Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, making it easier for Cooper to make his vetoes stick, starting in 2019.
Cooper was born and raised in a rural portion of east-central North Carolina. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science and a law degree at the University of North Carolina. While Cooper was still in law school, then-Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, named him to a state goals and policy board. Upon graduation, Cooper joined the family law firm, handling civil suits and personal injury and insurance cases; he also served as a Sunday school teacher and deacon at his Presbyterian church. Cooper served in the state House from 1987 to 1991, and in the state Senate from 1991 to 2001 -- part of that time as majority leader. In 2000, Cooper ran for attorney general against Republican Dan Boyce. It was a hard-fought race, with Cooper airing ads accusing Boyce of overbilling in a class-action lawsuit against the state. (The overbilling allegation prompted a 14-year legal battle that ended with Cooper apologizing.) After outspending Boyce four-to-one, Cooper won the race by five points. He later won reelection three times, serving 16 years. As attorney general, Cooper oversaw the increased use of DNA testing and sought tougher sentences for child predators and pornographers. He took over the bogus Duke lacrosse rape case after Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong recused himself; Cooper re-investigated the allegations and cleared the players of all charges.
In 2013, Cooper actively opposed a voter-ID and election overhaul law driven by the Republican legislature. This and other stances made it increasingly clear that Cooper was aiming for a gubernatorial run against McCrory in 2016. McCrory, a seven-term mayor of Charlotte, had run for governor in 2012 touting a pragmatic, “middle way” philosophy based on pro-business policies and little emphasis on social issues--an approach that had worked for him as a Republican serving on the city level, and that embodied the kind of centrism that had historically carried both Republicans and Democrats to the governor’s mansion. (Indeed, Cooper’s rise to prominence came as a mirror image to McCrory’s--he was a moderate Democrat able to win rural and small-town votes.) Once in office, however, McCrory had to work with a Republican-dominated legislature that had little interest in pragmatic centrism and a strong desire to control the agenda, which often included socially conservative issues. McCrory sometimes clashed with GOP legislators and vetoed their bills, but more often he signed them, including the election overhaul bill (later overturned in the courts), a tax overhaul that flattened brackets, and an abortion waiting period.
The biggest threat to McCrory’s hopes for reelection came from H.B. 2. The types of business interests who had historically aligned with McCrory were unhappy, fearing boycotts and economic pullouts that indeed materialized within weeks. In the campaign, Cooper made opposition to H.B. 2--and particularly its effect on the state’s economy--a cornerstone of his message. He also advocated increased funding for K-12 education. Cooper’s approach resonated--at least, enough to defeat McCrory by a little over 10,000 votes. Donald Trump carried the state, but McCrory underperformed the top of the ticket in some of the industrial areas of the Piedmont and western North Carolina. The McCrory camp raised the specter of election fraud, but election boards headed by Republicans disagreed. In December, the incumbent conceded.
Even then, it wasn’t over. In an echo of the then-Democratic legislature’s actions to remove the governor from the redistricting process in the 1990s, Republican legislators passed laws to strip some of Cooper’s powers. In December 2016, the two parties failed to come to agreement on how to repeal H.B. 2. Finally, in March 2017--after Cooper had become governor and after the Associated Press had estimated that the state would suffer $3.76 billion over 12 years in lost business--the two sides agreed to a repeal. However, the repeal measure contained a provision sought by Republicans that continued for three years a restriction on the types of local ordinances that had precipitated H.B. 2 in the first place. The three-year moratorium was a bitter pill for LGBT advocates, and Cooper signed it unhappily, saying it wasn’t his “preferred solution.”
Rhetorically, Cooper came out in favor of removing Confederate monuments after the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, writing, “Some people cling to the belief that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. But history is not on their side. We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery. These monuments should come down.” A year later, Cooper pulled back North Carolina National Guard members from serving at the U.S.-Mexico border in protest of the Trump administration policy of family separations; he also spoke out against Trump’s trade policy, saying that retaliatory tariffs would put millions of dollars of North Carolina agricultural exports at risk.
On a few limited issues, Cooper was able to act without being blocked by the legislature. He pledged to oppose a Trump administration proposal to drill for oil and gas offshore, reversing the position previously articulated by McCrory. He also signed an executive order setting a state goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025, effectively keeping North Carolina within the terms of the Paris climate accord, which Trump had pulled the U.S. out of. In September 2018, Cooper led the recovery from Hurricane Florence, which left some three dozen North Carolinians dead and caused widespread damage. Meanwhile, Cooper saw two of his vetoes sustained--one of a bill that would have let nonprofits hold gambling fundraisers, and another of a bill that critics said would have permitted the spraying of “garbage juice” at landfills.
More often--much more often--Cooper’s efforts were stymied. His campaign pledge to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act stalled, and his vetoes of budget bills were overridden in both 2017 and 2018. The 2017 bill, he said, “prioritizes tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations and comes up short for education and the economy.” (The spending plan cut his office budget by $1 million.) Cooper criticized the 2018 budget on similar grounds. Both measures were enacted with strong Republican support. By January 2019, Cooper had vetoed 28 bills, including several that sought to limit the governor’s powers. Many of the bills about gubernatorial authority went through various stages of vetoes, overrides, lower court decisions and judicial appeals. One that became law after an override was a bill to make judicial elections partisan. Another reduced the number of Court of Appeals judges from 15 to 12 through attrition, although by early 2019, Republicans were considering scrapping it.
The voters spoke on Election Day 2018, when they rejected--by solid, 3-to-2 margins--a pair of legislature-backed ballot measures to weaken the governor’s powers. One would have given legislators the power to appoint election board members, while the other would have enabled legislators to fill judicial vacancies. All five living former governors, including McCrory, joined with Cooper in opposition. In an even more important Election Day development, Democrats won enough seats in the state House and Senate to break the GOP’s veto-proof supermajority, giving Cooper crucial leverage despite continued GOP majorities. As the 2020 election cycle began, a Public Policy Polling survey found Cooper leading in head-to-head matchups against five possible GOP challengers, with McCrory the closest at 45%-41%. With North Carolina likely to be a presidential battleground state, the 2020 gubernatorial election is expected to be closely watched nationally. Republicans plan their national convention in Charlotte in August 2020.
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