When GOP strategist Jack Hawke ran Jim Martin’s campaign for governor in 1984, one of the first things he did was make sure the former Mecklenburg County commissioner wasn’t branded as the candidate from Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Martin, he told reporters, lived on Lake Norman.
“They laughed at me,” he recalls. “They said, ‘There’s no such place as Lake Norman, North Carolina.’ ”
“My stock answer was, “Yes there is. It’s where Jim Martin lives.’ And it stuck.”
Now Hawke is the top strategist for Pat McCrory, who is trying to become the first Republican governor since Martin and the first Charlottean to win the job in 92 years. The former Charlotte mayor also is trying to do what his four immediate mayoral predecessors tried and failed to do seven times: Win statewide office.
Polls show him with a double-digit lead over Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and suggest that any Charlotte stigma, or curse, is about to be erased.
“A McCrory victory clearly would dispel any lingering notions that Charlotte can’t produce statewide leaders,” says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill.
McCrory’s home county has often been derided in Raleigh as the “Great State of Mecklenburg.” Critics saw it as self-centered and parochial, focused more on its own interests than the state’s.
A McCrory win also would reflect the new political balance of a state where power is shifting increasingly from rural to urban areas.
Just 13 counties now account for half of all the voters in North Carolina, according to John Davis, a Raleigh-based political analyst. That means 87 counties have the other half. That will be evident when the new General Assembly convenes next year.
“North Carolina for the first time will have a majority of legislators from … urban areas,” says House Speaker Thom Tillis, himself a Republican from Mecklenburg.
While much of that urban core leans Democratic, McCrory is expected to get his share.
In 2008, Mecklenburg voters split their tickets. While Barack Obama was carrying the county by 100,000 votes over Republican John McCain, McCrory came within 337 votes of beating Democrat Bev Perdue.
“You are going to see a lot of people vote for Obama and McCrory and I think you’ll see those voters clustered in the urban areas of the state,” says Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling. “There’s a perception that McCrory would be more attuned to urban interests than our last two governors.”
In 2008, most of Eastern North Carolina voted for Perdue, who’s from Craven County, over McCrory. So did a swath of western counties.
Now, Jensen says, McCrory is “winning every part of the state except the Triangle.”
That might include Wayne Count, about 50 miles southeast of Raleigh. In 2008 the county went for Perdue 52 percent to 46 percent.
“I think he has a good chance of carrying Wayne County,” says Goldsboro Mayor Alfonzo King, a Democrat who says he’s leaning to McCrory. “Perdue is Eastern North Carolina and she had a lot of friends here. Dalton is a good man. But he’s not Perdue. And he doesn’t have the connections in Wayne County that Perdue had.”
Rural history vs. urban future
But in a state long dominated by rural interests, both in the governor’s office and the legislature, the looming shift of political influence is causing some angst.
“Folks in Eastern North Carolina are concerned about kind of the balance of political power in the state swinging not just geographically away from (the east) but toward the more metropolitan areas,” says D. Jordan Whichard III, former publisher of Greenville’s Daily Reflector and former chairman of the North Carolina Economic Development Board.
“That is not just about the prospect of Pat McCrory’s election. It has to do with some of the evolving transition of political power.”
The last three Democratic governors – Perdue, Mike Easley from Rocky Mount and Jim Hunt from Wilson – hailed from the east. So did powerful General Assembly members, such as longtime state Senate Leader Marc Basnight of Manteo. Now, says Whichard, as state budgets get cut, rural voters are afraid of bearing a disproportionate share of the pain.
Some Republican lawmakers from Mecklenburg are quick to say a new legislature, even if dominated by urban interests, will be sensitive to all parts of the state.
“All of us have to keep in mind what’s best for the whole state,” says Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and a GOP leader in the House. “We are consciously trying to make sure that none of us forget that we are a state of urban and rural interests.”
McCrory’s predecessor in Charlotte as mayor was Republican Richard Vinroot, who ran for governor three times starting in 1996. He expects McCrory to win.
“I know we’ve had a string of losses,” Vinroot says, “I think it’s more reflective of bad campaigns or, in my case, bad campaigns and a bad candidate.”
He says McCrory, like Republicans Martin and former Gov. Jim Holshouser of Southern Pines before him, has the advantage of good timing. Holshouser was elected in Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide. Martin won rode Ronald Reagan’s 1984 coattails. Now, Perdue’s popularity is low. State unemployment is high.
Hawke, who also worked on Vinroot’s and Holshouser’s campaigns, agrees.
“Can someone from Charlotte win?” he says. “Sure. It takes a real good candidate, a good campaign and enough money to get your message out. McCrory’s got all that. … He’s the type you can sell in any part of the state.”