Tuesday's gubernatorial election was a watershed for North Carolina, but for a reason that's gotten a lot less ink than the Red State-Blue State lines. For the first time in the history of this once-rural state, a big-city mayor moves into the Governor's Mansion. Pat McCrory's election may well mark North Carolina's transition from rural to urban.
To have elected the mayor of the state's biggest city – whose whole political career has been in Charlotte city government – is a huge transition. It's bigger, in my view, than the state switching from red to blue (in 2008) back to red in the presidential election, as N.C. this year went narrowly (by 96,600 votes) for Republican Mitt Romney.
McCrory will be North Carolina's first Republican governor since Jim Martin was elected in 1984 and only the third since since Reconstruction. And it's a big change, too, that for the first time since the 1880s, Republicans will hold the governorship and both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly. But for one party to control all three is not new; Democrats did that for decades. It's also noteworthy that McCrory is the first Charlottean elected governor since lawyer Cameron Morrison in 1920. Among a string of Charlotte mayors who tried for statewide office – Eddie Knox, Harvey Gantt, Sue Myrick and Richard Vinroot – only McCrory succeeded. "The curse is over," he joked election night. (Aside: Martin was a Davidson College professor and a Mecklenburg County commissioner but campaigned as, and governed as, a resident of "Lake Norman.")
Sitting around after midnight on election night, waiting for the Romney and Obama speeches, I started digging into N.C. history to see if I could find any mayor of a sizable city elected governor. The closest I found was Raleigh's Joseph Melville Broughton, governor 1941-45. In 1940, Raleigh had 47,000 people. That's not a big city. (Gregg Cherry, a former Gastonia mayor, was governor 1945-1949. Wikipedia tidbit: "It was joked in Gastonia that he was the best lawyer in town when sober, and the second-best lawyer in town when drunk.") Otherwise, nada.
While the rest of the country probably still thinks of North Carolina as a land of tobacco farms, sharecropper shacks, textile mill villages and kudzu – with a lone, high-tech splotch of intelligentsia in the Triangle – we who live here know better. This state has more urban/suburban residents now than rural ones. We're a large state, so we have plenty of rural areas, but the urban crescent that follows I-85 from Gastonia through Raleigh-Durham is large and growing in clout – not to mention problems of transportation, sprawl, housing and the usual assorted urban problems.
Because of the state's history of rural poverty, rural areas are the focus of numerous initiatives to provide economic development, and rightly so. Yet traditionally, the state's cities have had little clout in state government. And while individual projects can win state blessings, the idea of an "urban strategy" has been MIA. If there are any holistic efforts to address urban poverty statewide, I have not heard about them. Yet urban poverty here is a huge problem, and a growing one.
With help from my colleague Laura Simmons, we pulled some census numbers. Looking only at the four most populous of the state's 100 counties (Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford and Forsyth) you find 390,238 people living in poverty. Then we looked at the same data for rural Eastern North Carolina, which I calculated as all 38 counties east of, or touched by, I-95. It's more than a third of the state. Those numbers are higher, but not dramatically: 489,318. In other words, the number of poor people in four urban counties is 80 percent of the total in 38 other counties. And that tally does not even include Durham, Fayetteville, Asheville or Wilmington.
|Charlotte's light rail line. Photo: Charlotte Area Transit System|
He is also one of the founders of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, a group of mayors from the state's larger cities that "promotes the interchange of ideas and experiences among municipal officials for the continued development of urban areas." He won national fame as a strong champion for Charlotte's transit system, which led to the 2007 launch of the Lynx light rail line. He took a courageous stand to battle the city's influential subdivision developers by pushing for sidewalks to be required on both sides of new subdivision streets. He battled NCDOT over the lack of bike lanes or sidewalks on NCDOT highway bridges.Unless he was asleep for 14 years as mayor (and trust me, he was not) he understands how the end of annexation has the potential to gravely damage N.C. cities' financial stability.
None of those things necessarily predicts how he'll govern. After all, there is this legislature over on Jones Street that decides budgets, programs and a gazillion other matters large and small, even dictating the public school calendar. All you have to do is glance south to Columbia to see that party affiliation does not guarantee intraparty harmony. Further, a Charlotte transit champion in 1998 might find Raleigh in 2013 to be a steep, rocky and barren landscape.
But when cities head to Raleigh to try to pitch their causes, for the first time, they'll have a governor who – even if he may not give them what they want – when he says, "I feel your pain," they'll know he really does.