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North Carolina's New Blues
In Insecure Times, a State Once Firmly Republican Now Wobbles

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

CHARLOTTE

The Queen City Motel sits barely noticed on this city's West Side, just seven minutes from the wobbly banks and new construction projects commanding the downtown skyline. At the Queen City, you find people who are living by day and by week, watching economic calamity from the outer edge of misery. Some have no cars, no cellphones, no steady work, no health plan and not enough food to fill a small fridge in a $160-a-week room. But in this political season of surprise and possibility, the presidential campaign has found an audience here even among the disheartened.

Warren Kent Vaughn and Brenda Williams were living in an empty 18-wheeler semitrailer not long ago, in love but homeless, their drug histories a drag on their dreams. Then they found salvation in Room 77 of the Queen City, Vaughn working as a live-in handyman, Williams as a maid. They worked seven days a week for chump change, plus room and board.

"It's been a struggle, but I ain't gave up, bro," said Vaughn, who was honorably discharged from the Army, got sucked into the dope racket, killed a man in a street scrap, served 14 years in prison, and on this recent day was tugging on his scraggly beard, work gloves in his back pocket. He was about to measure a window that needed repair, and then put in a smoke alarm, and then whatever. The Queen City is a low-slung, pale brick structure of 47 rooms and little charm. Renovations are underway, management says. The parking lot is nearly empty, and some residents keep their doors open so they won't miss the conversations that may come their way.

The gale forces of the economy are blowing people in different directions, driving them to their presidential choices with an intensity that this state has not seen in some time. Many North Carolinians are either running toward a candidate or running away from one, the candidates now surrogates for folks' fears and aspirations. Even with his consuming worries, Vaughn found himself drawn to Barack Obama's quest as a symbol of the change Vaughn envisioned for his own life.

He even volunteered to register the ex-hustlers on the streets he once ran. And when they shooed him away, he kept insisting. "There are no limitations," he'd tell them. "Stop saying, 'I can't.' Just try, instead of saying, 'I can't.' " After all, Vaughn had found a job and shelter that wasn't under a bridge. His prospects were on the upswing -- just like Obama's in North Carolina, he figured. Now, the one thing missing, what Vaughn craved most, was a change in how others saw him.

"I want people to stop looking down at me," he said, "and look up."

North Carolina is in the midst of a transformation its people are grappling to comprehend. The state long has been a fat red dot on the electoral map, voting Republican in every presidential election since 1976. Some believe it may be turning blue before their eyes; polls over the past month consistently have shown Obama and John McCain in a dead heat. Since January, approximately 550,000 voters have been added to the rolls, a third of them African American, and Democrats have won the registration battle by more than a 5 to 1 margin over Republicans. Pockets of political enthusiasm keep surfacing in the most unlikely places -- even at a motel for itinerants on Wilkinson Boulevard.

"If this were 2012, I'd be willing to say this is no longer a red state," said Ferrel Guillory, a longtime observer of the state's politics and director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina. "I don't know if North Carolina is as far along as Virginia is, but the Obama campaign may be accelerating that. We'll see."

Early voting began last Thursday in the state, and as of Tuesday, 543,004 had already voted -- 306,493 Democrats and 147,276 Republicans.

The Obama campaign, with the greatest resources, has opened 45 offices in the state, compared with McCain's 35. This past weekend, Obama made his sixth appearance in North Carolina since winning the nomination in late August, compared with three visits for McCain since May 6. Still, the state's political structure is notably bifurcated: conservative and progressive simultaneously, power concentrated in both parties. Democrats have controlled the governor's mansion for four consecutive terms, so now it is the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who is running on the change theme. Republicans occupy both U.S. Senate seats, but Elizabeth Dole is in danger of losing hers in November. Her enemy: change.

In the presidential race, the traditional divides -- blue and red, black and white, rich and poor -- live alongside struggles over faith and doubt. It is the faith that Warren Kent Vaughn has in an Obama-led future vs. the doubt that brought Pam Demarest to an outlying county Republican office in heavy rain to pick up a McCain-Palin yard sign. It was something she had never done before, done now because she was tired of passing so many Obama yard signs. It was visceral.

Demarest works full time as a nurse and teaches part time at a community college, while putting a son through college. "We're barely keeping afloat," she said. Her husband lost his job as a printer two years ago and was out of work for five months, and that "put us behind and we've never been able to keep up," she said. Her eyes filled with tears. "He says he's archaic." A husband who believes his worth has been drained from the marketplace? How does a wife deal with that? It was not that Obama was to blame. But her feelings were raw, and she didn't know quite where to take them.

"I don't like Obama," she said. "When you look at him, when you see him speaking, some of the looks he gives are condescending. He doesn't come off as somebody I would trust. He just doesn't. Sometimes you can't give a reason for that."

The state of Vaughn's and Demarest's struggles is one of the fastest-growing in America, set to be No. 7 in population by 2030, according to Census projections. Once reliant on tobacco, textiles and furniture, the economy fueling growth today is built on high-tech research, pharmaceuticals and a banking industry now reeling. Charlotte is the No. 2 banking center in the nation, but watching one of its financial pillars -- homegrown Wachovia -- crumble and get eaten up by outsider Wells Fargo was a karate chop to the psyche.

"There ain't nothing you can do about it," said a resigned but angry James Woods, who has worked for Duke Energy, another local pillar, for 36 years. He had been on the verge of retirement, "but it keeps getting further and further away." He's unsatisfied with his choices for president. He has linked the economic crisis to government failure, and government failure to the politicians running government, and that is bad news for both Obama and McCain. "I don't think either one of them can do anything."

The change they talk about inside North Carolina can be seen in the demographics, diversifying the state's culture and stirring up its politics. Blacks, who had been leaving the South, are returning in big numbers and finding comfort in the metropolitan areas. Affluent, well-educated whites have flocked to the Research Triangle Park of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. And good job opportunities have made North Carolina a new destination for Latino and Asian immigrants. Ten percent of residents 5 years and older now speak a language other than English at home, according to Guillory.

It was this kind of environment that persuaded Jeffrey Watson, 33, to open a business he called the first of its kind here: a black barbershop combined with a Vietnamese nail salon called So Sharp. Lien My Thi Le grew up in Vietnam and has been in Charlotte for six years. Her English is not great, but one word rolls off her tongue effortlessly: "Obama!" She is a manicuring wizard, carefully painting nails in colors and stripes. Howard Sanders is a haircutting wizard, sculpting and lining and giving hard-luck parents breaks on their kids' cuts. Now 42, he has been cutting hair since he was 13 and is wondering if his dream to own a chain of mainstream salons can be realized.

"To tell you the truth, I live in my segregated box," Sanders said. "I have a fear of going outside the box and being rejected. By no means do I want to be segregated. I want to be integrated. I have had many chances that I just don't know how to embrace." Sanders has the swagger inside the barbershop. You can tell by the way he wields the clippers, cool in baggy jean shorts and an orange Nike shirt, an earring in his left lobe. But outside the shop, his confidence often wanes. He doesn't follow up on contacts he meets, or pursue financing that might get him where he wants to be. "It's me not knowing how to ask the right questions," he surmised. "Most importantly, it's my lack of self-esteem."

Watching Obama navigate political minefields this year has made Sanders rethink what he could become. If only he could push past his trepidations. He is almost there with his confidence, but not quite. "I would like to see Barack Obama win, but I don't think this society is ready for it."

King Carter is ready. He and his recording team from YoungSouth Entertainment pulled up in front of So Sharp one evening in a van emblazoned with his name, music blaring from the speakers, his music. He had just released his first rap CD at age 24, with a marketing approach tied to Obama's campaign. On one of his tracks, he calls himself "the young Obama," and his promotional material included several hundred red-white-and-blue yard signs with his name and "No Choice '08," which he quickly spread around town. No other choice for the White House, and no other choice for your iPod. It just made sense to him. "Seems like all the young people are involved in this election," said Carter, and those are his listeners. "I see a lot more people of color taking pride in what they do. I think Obama inspired that."

Faith and doubt.

Vaughn's good fortune at the Queen City Motel lasted but a month. He was kicked out, his minister said, and he and Brenda Williams were back on the streets without a home. "I told him that sometimes you have to go through what you have to go through, to get where you need to go," said Derrick Moore, who presides at his grandfather's Pentecostal church, Bread of Life Deliverance. "If you glorify God, He'll provide for you."

* * *

In the tall, gleaming buildings downtown are thousands of workers who are now jittery. Even the young ones. "It's not fear for the market," said 22-year-old Alexandre Adam, who is in retail finance at Wachovia. "It's more fear for my job. I'm just starting. The worry is about a job."

There is a strangeness now to the downtown landscape, or "uptown," as it's called here. The country is said to be in the deepest economic ditch since the Great Depression. Bank of America, another pillar of financial Charlotte, swallowed up Merrill Lynch in a $50 billion takeover that was part of this mess. Wachovia is waiting for its demise to become official, its employees so pitied that the upscale restaurant Carpe Diem is offering them a $30 three-course meal called the "Wachovia Employee's Recovery Package." Meanwhile, the cranes keep churning, and they are everywhere. Construction continues on a Wachovia skyscraper that was slated to be the new corporate headquarters, on the NASCAR Hall of Fame, on the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture. Construction work in uptown is plentiful, even as the statewide jobless rate rose to 7 percent in September, the highest since January 2002.

Dawn Cruz was outside One Wachovia Plaza on a cloudy day recently, working her Green's Lunch hot dog stand, a satellite of a longtime local institution known for having the best hot dogs. Cruz has worked there for 11 years. Typically, she'd sell 300 hot dogs a day. "Now, I'm lucky if I sell 100. . . . Some of the bigger people in the bank, they don't come out here and get hot dogs. Maybe they're too good for hot dogs."

She worries she might be out of a job when Wells Fargo comes along. "I don't know how to do nothing but hot dogs," Cruz said.

The craziness of these times can get you to thinking. The recent gas shortages, a carryover from hurricanes Gustav and Ike, led to long lines and fights at the pumps and finger-pointing at local officials.

All this drama over gas.

"I sold my vehicle and started walking," Cruz said. And walking can make you wonder. At some point, in her mind, the bigwigs not buying dogs, the depressed economy and the looming presidential election all sort of congealed into one big thought: "It is time for a change." That's what she concluded. "Anybody has got to do better than the Bushes, and I'm a Republican."

A Republican? For John McCain? "No. Because he worked under the Bushes. I'm for Obama."

* * *

There aren't many Republicans like Dawn Cruz to be found once you head over Highway 74 into Union County, 25 miles outside of Charlotte. Traffic is annoyingly slow, as the once-sleepy county, which had one stoplight between it and Charlotte 50 years ago, is now connected by a Rockville Pike-like stretch of mattress factories, car dealerships and chain restaurants. Union continues to be the state's fastest-growing county, anchored by Jesse Helms's home town, Monroe. Right off the highway is the tribute to his legacy, the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate.

For most of the past three decades, the polarizing GOP senator shaped the state's national political image. But Helms, who died this summer, hasn't been on the ballot in 12 years. He no longer defines the state or Union County. "It's not clear that Jesse Helms could be elected in this state today," said Guillory.

Not that there aren't fierce opinions among Union County Republicans about what's at stake in this election. Maryan Handy manages the small GOP headquarters in Monroe. "You're looking at the Republican Woman of the Year," she said by way of greeting, alone in the office one late afternoon. "When they leave me here by myself and I get bored, I make my own signs." She pointed to one behind her desk. "I like my dog with the lipstick best of all. I went on the Internet and put in 'pit bull' and that's the first thing that came out" -- a photo of a white pit bull whose lips Handy colored red, a tribute to Sarah Palin.

All of a sudden, she had some customers, coming in for yard signs and McCain-Palin bumper stickers. Process engineer Jeff Roberts and cattle farmer Lonnie Carpenter both were work-dusty and tired but boisterous, Roberts a certified Republican who brought Carpenter with him. He boasted of turning his Democratic buddy to the other side, but it wasn't clear that had taken much of a push.

"I don't think he has the guts to handle the job," said Carpenter. "I think he is a mouth full of 'gimme' and a whole lot of 'much obliged.' He hollers 'changes, changes,' and you never hear what the change is."

Take the war in Iraq, he said. "I think wanting to cut back troops, setting a deadline, that's bullcrap."

Roberts agreed. "War is ugly," he said. "War is dirty. You level the city, they learn. I don't think that country knows what freedom is, so they don't know how to accept freedom. McCain has been there and done that. He knows what it is to be locked up. I think McCain will fight for his people."

And if Barack Obama is indeed elected?

"I'm not going to like it," said Roberts.

"It'll be what we got," said Carpenter. "I just hope and pray that the man has not been planted here by a foreign country. I just hope he is not the kind who flew those planes into those towers. . . . We got rid of one Hussein. We don't need another."

Faith and doubt. Whose will prevail in North Carolina on Nov. 4?

Is it the faith Jeff Roberts holds that McCain knows how to fight? Is it the doubt Lonnie Carpenter has that Obama can protect and represent America?

Is it the faith Monroe Mayor Bobby Kilgore has that Obama's race won't be a barrier in North Carolina?

"If he has done anything across this country," Kilgore said of Obama, "he's helped bring people together." Kilgore had just left a Rotary Club meeting and was sitting on a patio facing a golf course. His is a nonpartisan office, and he wasn't speaking as a declared supporter of any candidate. He was speaking as a representative of Monroe who had faith against doubt.

"I hear no negativism on his race," said Kilgore. "I don't think people care. I think they just want someone to lead us. Lead us into the promised land."

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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