Petitions by gay groups this week aimed at plucking the upcoming Democratic National Convention out of Charlotte, N.C., and plopping it elsewhere after the state convincingly passed a gay marriage ban are unlikely to succeed.
But stirring discontent with North Carolina, punctuated by Obama’s reversal on gay marriage and declaration of support a day after the state referendum, isn’t the only red flag that’s whipping around a year after Democrats picked Charlotte as their 2012 convention site, partly as a symbol of Obama’s outreach to Dixie and to highlight the economic and demographic transformation of North Carolina from Mayberry quaintness to harbinger of a 21st century knowledge economy.
Since Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to prevail there since Jimmy Carter in 1976, the state has come to symbolize many of the Democrats’ challenges as they seek Obama’s reelection: stubborn economic hardship (9.7 percent unemployment), culture war battles on the ascendant, and a scandal-riven state party that has struggled to reassemble and excite the mosaic of voter groups that backed Obama in 2008.
That battle heated up this week after the gay marriage ban was approved by a 61 to 39 margin along neat geographical lines, making North Carolina the 26th state with such an amendment.
Solidly in favor were the state’s vast rural tracts, where the state’s political power still resides. Solidly opposed were the state’s growing urban areas, like Raleigh and Chapel Hill, which have come to define the transformation of North Carolina from an agrarian, tobacco-growing backwater to a polyglot society of immigrants and newcomers, where about half the populace hails from somewhere else, often from another country.
In 2008, Obama managed to exploit anger at George W. Bush while rallying young people, many of them first-time voters, to the polls. But this time those voters may be harder to reach.
Young people, especially, are bearing the brunt of economic hard times. And blacks in North Carolina, who came out in force for Obama in 2008, overwhelmingly supported the gay marriage ban, highlighting the hazards of the President’s political high-wire act on gay marriage.
That stance may become even more complicated as many Democrats are now pushing for gay marriage to become part of the Democratic platform to be approved in Charlotte, which could turn out to be divisive and distracting, especially given that the majority of voters in North Carolina remain, at least on the books, Democrats.
The Charlotte pick for the convention has also angered many union workers, who complain that there are no unionized hotels in North Carolina’s banking capital. Some of them plan to join gay marriage advocates in protest at the convention.
The President’s North Carolina woes don’t end there.
The state has also become a nexus of Obama backlash. Since 2008, Republicans took over both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who had hoped that Obama’s presence in the state could elevate her own campaign, has decided not to run for reelection amid widespread speculation that she’d have little chance of winning.
To make matters worse, her decision not to seek reelection came after she admitted to being aware of an attempted cover-up of sexual harassment allegations involving the state Democratic party executive director. The scandal has demoralized state Democrats and left the party in bitter disarray.
In the end, North Carolina may be more problematic for the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, than Obama, whom political experts say can more easily cobble together an electoral college victory without the state’s 15 presidential electors.
Even on that front, North Carolina symbolizes national voter excitement ahead of the election. More than 40,000 more people voted in this year’s primaries than in 2008, even though the national contest had largely been settled.
But while the North Carolina convention has suddenly come to represent Democrats’ complicated path to victory in November, others believe the big party in Charlotte in August will become a clarion call for Obama’s campaign.
“I think the greatest strength that the party has is President Obama, and he’s the thing that people will rally around,” Gary Pearce, a former Democratic consultant in the state, told the Associated Press.