North Carolina’s political climate is more tumultuous than ever. Controversy and economic fallout from the state’s House Bill 2, which in part states that people must use the public bathroom of the anatomical gender they were born with, shows no signs of abating. There have been days of protests stemming from the police-involved shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court blocked an attempt to re-introduce stricter voting laws that would disenfranchise black citizens, an especially important development considering that North Carolina has emerged as a battleground in the upcoming presidential election. It’s a deeply significant time for the state and the people who live there.
In order to get a better sense of what it feels like to be in North Carolina right now, as well as what to expect in the coming months, we spoke to Nick De La Canal, a reporter for radio station WFAE in Charlotte.
North Carolina is facing a lot of pressing political issues right now, do you feel like there’s an underlying factor that’s causing all of thems to converge at this moment?
That is the question, isn’t it? I think part of it, and this is more House Bill 2 related, is our general assembly right now is overwhelmingly Republican. We have Pat McCrory, who is the governor, who is a Republican, and so this is like the first time our state government has been controlled by Republicans in a very long time. Once they had all the Republicans in, they started passing a lot of things that were part of their agenda. You saw HB2, they did redistricting—which ended up being struck down by the courts [after] finding that it was discriminatory toward African-Americans, the money quote was “with surgical precision.” They pushed a lot of social issues through, and I think that that really ignited their base and the Democratic base too. Democrats were feeling like, “Oh my gosh, this isn’t what we’re used to in North Carolina.”
As far as the police killing, it just came at the perfect time, right on the heels of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, shooting. Right as everyone’s attention was on that issue, [the Charlotte] shooting happened. It just exploded from there.
Do you feel like the national coverage is missing anything that North Carolinians who are more familiar with the issues are aware of?
As far as context, I feel like the national stories usually give a pretty good sense of it. Sometimes they’ll simplify the issues a little much. For instance, [with] House Bill 2, pretty much the entire conversation has been about transgender bathroom access, but of course there’s a lot more to that bill. It makes it so cities can’t raise the minimum wage, it struck down the ability for individuals to sue for discrimination in state courts. I don’t know how important those issues are to the average voter, even in North Carolina, but sometimes the national coverage will not even mention those.
How do you see what’s happening in the state right now affecting the outcome of the November election, not just on the national level, but also on the state and local levels?
Pat McCrory, who’s been the Republican governor, is up for re-election, and his whole campaign strategy has been, “Carolina Coming Back.” That’s been his catchphrase. Sort of like Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together.” He’s really been running on the premise that since becoming governor, he has turned the economy around. He’s given teachers raises and built business up in the state. And I think the recent kerfuffle over House Bill 2 has hurt him in that respect, because there’ve been so many news stories coming out about businesses boycotting or leaving the state because of it. Those businesses have made the news, and I think people’s perception is that House Bill 2 is completely destroying the economy in North Carolina. I think that might exaggeration, there are still a lot of other businesses that are still here, still doing business in North Carolina, but that’s not really what matters. It’s the perception that matters, of course. I think the voters do have a perception that maybe House Bill 2 has not been good for business or for North Carolina. I think that’s why, at least in recent polls, you’ve seen his democratic opponent Roy Cooper up over him by a wide margin. I think there was a recent poll that showed them closer together.
[Regarding the national election], that’s a little more difficult. I know people were saying that with Trump at the top of the ticket that was going to hurt Republicans further down the ballot, and our governor has been pretty chummy with Trump. He’s appeared at Trump’s campaign stops and has welcomed him to the stage, but I do think that voters are able to separate Trump from the down ballot Republicans. It’s hard to say exactly how much it will affect the vote. I’m not really sure how much local politics will play into that.
There’s also a senate seat up for grabs in North Carolina this election, right?
Yeah. Richard Burr is the incumbent, he’s a Republican, and Deborah Ross is the challenger. When that race was starting off, Richard Burr had a lot of name recognition, people knew who he was. I don’t think that people thought that seat was actually going to be that competitive, but the polls have shown that race pretty tight, actually. I think Richard Burr is still ahead, but it’s tighter than people expected.
Can you describe the atmosphere in Charlotte right now? How are people feeling, what are they talking about?
I’ll tell you this, Charlotte is kind of the one liberal oasis in North Carolina. There’s Charlotte and then the research triangle, which is Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, where you have the big universities. And I think what is really becoming clear just over the last couple years is how big of a difference there is, at least in the mentality, of these big cities versus the rural areas in North Carolina, which are very red. People in Charlotte live in a bubble. A couple of years ago we had Amendment 1 up for a vote, and that was the amendment to our constitution that was basically going to state marriage is between one man and one woman. I think if you asked the average voter in Charlotte if this was going to pass they’d say, “Heck no. We won’t allow it. People in North Carolina would never.” But then it passed by a landslide. It was something like 60/40. I think that may have been the first instance where people in Charlotte were like, “Oh, we actually don’t represent everyone in North Carolina.”
Even with House Bill 2, it was the city of Charlotte that passed a nondiscrimination ordinance. It was controversial to an extent, but the year before we passed [it], city council had voted on a similar measure, and it didn’t pass. Then when we were holding our elections for city council and mayor, that was a big campaign issue, and many of the candidates who won had been on the record saying that they supported passing a nondiscrimination ordinance. I think the voters knew that and they elected them into office and then they passed the ordinance. When the state passed House Bill 2, it kind of changed that for the entire state. A lot of people in rural areas were totally fine with that, and they wanted that, and they supported their representatives who voted for that, but the mood was very different in Charlotte.
That’s where the real split comes in North Carolina, urban versus rural. There are a lot of people who’ve moved down here from New York, especially in Charlotte, because we’re such a big banking city. My parents moved down here from the Northeast to be with the banks. In fact it’s very hard to find a native Charlottean, they’re like unicorns, if you can find them. That’s part of why we’re so blue, because people are coming here from big cosmopolitan cities with liberal ideologies. But the people who are in rural areas are the more traditional North Carolinians who have lived here all their lives, and their families before that. I think that they are very happy that Republicans are in power now because for the longest time when we had Democrats, they didn’t think that that was representative of their state.
Given the amount of activism taking place there, do you predict that policy changes are on the horizon? And if so, where are we likely to see them coming from?
It does look like the legislature is considering repealing House Bill 2, or at least maybe changing it. That’s based off of Governor McCrory’s words though. The week before last was when we had two punches. The NCAA announced that they were pulling out of the state [for college sports championship events], and then the ACC a couple of days later announced that they would pull out of the state [for the college football division championship]. When both of those organizations announced that they were pulling out, obviously Governor McCrory was under pressure to say something. So he sent out a statement saying that if Charlotte’s city council voted to repeal their nondiscrimination ordinance, then as an act of good faith, the general assembly would repeal House Bill 2 and start on a clean slate.
Now there’s been some speculation about how serious that was, because we didn’t actually hear from representatives saying that they would repeal HB2 if the nondiscrimination ordinance was repealed. It does at least show that there is some feeling of remorse, at least with Governor McCrory, for House Bill 2. I don’t think that we would see any policy changes before the election, because this has riled up both Republicans and Democrats, and these issues will get them to the polls and get them to vote. After the election, sure, I think there are changes that could be made, especially if Democrats win. A lot of the Democrats that have been running have been saying that they will repeal House Bill 2, and Deborah Ross is one of them. It may have propelled her a little bit closer to Richard Burr than she would have been otherwise.
I’ll say this too, Charlotte Gay Pride had their biggest attendance ever this year. The pride festival parade was in late August, they had a record crowd. I was there and they made sure they got every festival goer registered to vote. That was a big thing. They had a legion of people out there with clipboards and voter registration applications. Throughout the weekend I must have been asked at least two dozen times whether I was registered to vote. So they’ve really been mobilizing, even at the big protests this weekend. On Saturday there were close to one thousand people gathered in Marshall Park protesting the shooting death of Keith Scott and again, dozens of people were out there with clipboards getting people registered to vote, making sure that they knew when and where to vote. If you look at voter registration information, Latinos have actually been registering to vote at an incredible rate in North Carolina. I think it’s up seven to 10 percent compared to the last election. [That’s] compared to white people, who are only up four percent. In the grand scheme of things, there’s not enough Latinos in the state to actually swing the vote at this point. They will have a say, but I don’t think enough to actually swing it. But still it shows that they are getting registered and becoming involved. By the time the next election rolls around, who knows?
Do you predict any issues regarding voters getting access to the polls in this election?
The federal appeals court just ruled that the 2013 voter overhaul that the Republican legislature passed was unconstitutional because it was targeting African-Americans, and that made a lot of news. Parts of that bill were just classic voter ID laws. You couldn’t register to vote on the same day; it stopped pre-registration of voters at, like, high schools, so high schoolers couldn’t be pre-registered to vote; that kind of thing. I think we’ve seen before that nothing quite gets people out to vote like a voter ID law. African Amnericans will feel like they’re being targeted, and because of that, be more motivated to actually go out and vote. I think that will definitely have some effect on the election.