Economic Woe Has South Disillusioned With GOP

ROSS PEROT, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Pat Buchanan, David Duke, Jimmy Carter: These men have been, are, or would like to be president.

They come from six states in a 12-state region stretching from the Rio Grande to the Potomac, from the Oklahoma Panhandle to the Everglades. The ideological spectrum they represent ranges from extreme right to left of center.

Two potential aspirants to the Oval Office - Gov. Ann Richards (D) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R), both of Texas - fall within that range. The Southeast is politically fertile soil, but it does not readily yield an ultra-liberal such as ex-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California or Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.

Still, the Sunbelt has undergone immense economic, social, and demographic change during the 12-year GOP tenure, opening the door to new ideas. The economy - the key issue - has made voters more conservative, yet many are disillusioned with GOP stewardship. And social issues, which Republicans are viewed as neglecting, are a mounting concern, particularly to women and the soaring minority population.

It's not "morning in America" anymore. But that doesn't make it "twilight of the GOP," either.

Consider the Southeast's population: It shifted like a kaleidoscope from 1980 to 1990. In most states, Hispanic populations soared: by 78 percent in Georgia, 83 percent in Florida, 35 percent in North Carolina, 50 percent in Oklahoma, 45 percent in Texas, and 101 percent in Virginia. (The national increase was 53 percent.) But these populations declined by one third in Mississippi and one quarter in Alabama. Louisiana lost both Hispanics and whites, growing overall because the black population increased.

As a result, it lost a seat in Congress and was ordered by the Justice Department to increase to two its black-majority US House of Representatives districts.

Oklahoma also saw its white population shrink. Florida, with a 31 percent increase, led Georgia, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina as states with double-digit gains among whites. Florida also led with a one-third gain in its black populace, while Arkansas was last with no change.

Economically, energy and real estate industries collapsed, dragging down banks and thrift institutions. The end of the cold war took away military bases and defense-industry jobs. On the social front, drugs, gangs, and AIDS were on the rise in the region.

"The oil patch?" Jim East says. "The guys that are still in energy now call us `the gas patch.' They're all betting on natural gas."

Mr. East, a member of the Tulsa, Okla., Tribune editorial board before the newspaper closed, says that President Bush was expected to do more for the oil industry than he ended up doing. Consequently, he is criticized by independent oilmen. Larger oil companies still support him, but the industry's votes largely could go elsewhere, he says.

Republicans face the same situation in Louisiana. Difficulties have made the state more conservative, but not necessarily more Republican, says Tom Carlton, an associate history professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "Most people in Louisiana as I imagine throughout the South who vote Republican are still registered Democrat ... out of history and habit - if you're a white Southerner, that is," he says. The state hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1883.

Mr. Carlton calls Democrats who vote GOP "ideological Republicans," while East calls pro-choice Republicans who vote for tax hikes "social Republicans." Oklahoma also has "evangelical Republicans" - the religious right.

Mr. Duke, who ran as a Republican in Louisiana for the Senate in 1990 and for governor in 1991, got more than 40 and 30 percent of the vote, respectively. The former Ku Klux Klan member represents "far right, pro-Hitler, totalitarian," Carlton says.

"A lot of people voted for Duke because they are sick and tired of the way things are done," he adds. "And they want to move in Louisiana apparently to the right rather than the left. But that doesn't really mean that Bush is going to carry Louisiana, either."

In Texas, the Rio Grande valley has had double-digit unemployment through most of the past 12 years, never really sharing in the prosperity of the oil years, says Tucker Gibson, a political science professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. And when the oil bust caused the Mexican peso's collapse in the early 1980s, border trade was thrown into turmoil. To top it off, a freeze destroyed much of the valley's citrus industry.

NOW trade with Mexico is booming. It will really explode as the North America Free Trade Agreement, signed in San Antonio Oct. 8 and awaiting ratification, begins to take effect. Dr. Gibson doubts that rising prosperity along the border will convert Hispanics from the Democratic Party to the GOP. But the growth in business could draw in new residents who will bring their Republican affiliations, he says.

Looking to Southeastern states, "certainly the Republicans are competitive here," says Michael Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University. North Carolina's real personal income per capita grew 2.8 percent annually from 1980 to 1990. "A lot of states would love to have the economic conditions of North Carolina," Dr. Walden says. Traditional industries like furniture, tobacco, and textiles have declined in importance, but they have been supplanted by chemicals, and industrial and electrical ma chinery, he says.

Tom Cunningham, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, notes that incomes in his region are still below the national average, but are rising, he says. The Atlanta Fed covers Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

LOW wages and a low cost of living, though, have helped attract auto manufacturing to Tennessee and Northeastern companies to Atlanta. The aerospace industry has been moving into the South from Long Island, N.Y., and Los Angeles. Base closings are a worry that have not materialized, and may not, Mr. Cunningham adds.

George Serra, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, says Florida "is in bad times." Eastern Airlines, based in Miami, has gone bankrupt. Banks have failed. Elderly voters are worried that the government will take away some social security benefits, Dr. Serra says. South Florida's Hispanic voters are concerned about the spread of drugs, while other voters want the government to address the AIDS epidemic, he adds.

Louisiana is with the Republican right on abortion. Conservative Roman Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists, who are at odds on other issues, form an anti-abortion majority in the state. The state has one of the nation's most restrictive laws.

A similar law was nearly put to a vote in Oklahoma, but the state Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. Many people are sorry they lost the chance to vote it down, East says. "I would warn any politician that it's not enough to run on abortion in Oklahoma," he says.

Women's issues have become more important in this region because of the Clarence Thomas hearings. Anita Hill is from Oklahoma and teaches law there. Her treatment at the hearings caused many Republican women to switch parties.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.