Polarized electorate: The changing face of the 13th Congressional District

by Jordan Green

On a recent Friday morning, a thick fog shrouded the land east of Raleigh before a strong midmorning sun burned it off. The drive to Jessica Champion’s house from the state’s capitol city charts an eastward path on US Highway 264-64, exits onto Wendell Boulevard, strolls through the town’s tidy commercial district and heads out to a modest subdivision of wood frame houses near Wake County’s western corner.

Champion, a NC A&T University graduate who is employed by College Foundation of North Carolina, had a full house, with workmen unloading tools to begin auditing her family’s energy usage, and a small party of reporters, agency heads and a congressman crammed into her living room.

Employed by Sundogs Solutions, which sprang up in the Triangle in January, the workmen were setting up a mediumsized fan blade in the open doorway to bring the pressure of the house down to a level that would simulate a 20-mph wind and identify leakage points. A program administrator named Gerry Massey from Resources for Seniors, the agency approved by the state to administer federal weatherization dollars, was there. So was Rita Joyner, section chief of North Carolina’s Weatherization Assistance Program, and Rep. Brad Miller, the Democratic lawmaker who represents the 13th Congressional District.

Responding to a postcard received in the mail, Champion applied and qualified for free weatherization based on her household income. Suddenly, she found herself an exhibit in the Democratic Party’s public relations effort to highlight the positive impact of stimulus spending. Her living room had become a contemporary Norman Rockwell tableau describing the virtues of activist government.

“I’m hoping it will make a significant difference in my energy bill,” Champion said. “I paid a significant cost for cooking in the summer and heating in the winter. I have leaks in the ductwork. I was heating and cooling the crawl spaces, which is ridiculous.”

Beyond her family’s direct interests, Champion said she strongly supports the funding, part of $787 billion appropriation from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, because of the difference it is likely to make in the lives of the poor and elderly in particular.

“If your heating costs are not something you can negotiate, you may not have money for other things you need,” she said. “Seniors may need money for medicine and food. Each winter you hear the horrible stories, mostly up north, about somebody perishing.”

Prompted by a question from the congressman, Massey, with the local agency, said weatherization saves single-family residences on average more than $400 per year.

The money is supposed to increase monetary circularity in local economies and create a demand for goods and services that will encourage companies to hire more workers. Wake County’s unemployment rate compares favorably with other parts of the state. Unemployment there has been on a downward trajectory since the beginning of the year, but as in the state as a whole, that’s partly because the size of its workforce has shrunk. Across the state, according to seasonally adjusted data provided by the NC Employment Security Commission, 69,585 people left the workforce from January to October.

If an economic recovery is underway, voters apparently missed the memo. In the November mid-term election, North Carolina voters handed Republicans control of the General

Assembly for the first time since 1898 and flipped a Democratic congressional seat into the GOP’s column.

In the 13th Congressional District, Miller was cushioned from the Republican onslaught by a deep reserve of predominantly African-American and loyally Democratic precincts cherrypicked from Guilford and Alamance counties, along with Wake.

Still, a firebrand black conservative with ties to the tea party movement shaved 10 points off Miller’s 2008 numbers, when the Democratic base was flush with enthusiasm over its charismatic presidential nominee. This year, Republican Bill Randall swiped three out of four of the district’s Democratic-leaning rural counties along the Virginia state line from Miller.

Randall’s record-breaking performance — the best of any Republican challenger since the district was drawn a decade ago — coincided with energy and commitment in the GOP electorate that helped unseat Democratic incumbents in overlapping races, including NC Sen. Tony Foriest in Alamance and Caswell counties, NC Rep. Nelson Cole in Rockingham County and County Commissioner Pete Averette in Granville County.

Champion’s precinct in Wendell, which was narrowly carried by Randall, might provide the best demographic snapshot of a fickle electorate impatient for results and ready to change allegiances when a bumpy economy turns out to be a long stretch of trouble: Small-town and suburban, almost half of its registered voters are signed up with the Democratic Party. Half are white, and blacks and registered Republicans each command about 30 percent of the pie.

The number of houses weatherized and jobs created as a result of this particular stream of stimulus funding from the US Department of Energy does not seem particularly dramatic. Joyner, with the state Weatherization Assistance Program, said that since the stimulus funding kicked in last year, about 6,000 houses across the state have been weatherized, and the agency hopes to complete 20,000 before the funding expires in March 2012. Resources for Seniors, the only agency approved to administer the program in Wake County, has engaged the services of five subcontractor companies, Massey said, and hired about a dozen people for its own staff, including part-time outreach coordinators, auditors, technicians, intake specialists and a funding coordinator. While anti-tax tea party activists and the politicians aligned with the movement rail about out-of-control spending and the exploding deficit, Miller frets that the money isn’t being spent fast enough, at least when it comes to funding for weatherizing homes. “Unfortunately, not as many people have applied as we had hoped,” he said. “We’ve had a significant increase in funding, but not as much money going to pay the contractors as we’d like. One of the reasons for the stimulus bill is to get money in people’s hands. The contractor goes out and buys meat from the butcher. The butcher spends money with the cobbler.” Three days earlier, Miller had been at a groundbreaking for a new community health center in Prospect Hill, an unincorporated community in the southeast corner of Caswell County. Piedmont Health Services is receiving $1.1 million to replace its current facility, which local board members say was shoddily constructed about 15 years ago. An additional $458,000 from a total grant of $1.6 million of stimulus money funneled through the US Department of Health and Human Services will be spent on a sister clinic in Yanceyville. Prospect Hill is part of a precinct that favored Randall by a 15.8-percent margin. A collection of buildings at a crossroads, the community includes a weathered antebellum mansion with a landscaping business advertising day lilies; Warren’s store with two antique gas pumps, which was closed at 1 p.m., but displays signage reading, “La Tiendita Productos Hispanos — Envios de Dinero”; a small brick post office with missing lettering; and a Dollar General store. The community health center employs almost two-dozen people. It provides medical services to 7,000 people and dental care to another 7,000 people, along with an onsite pharmacy that serves uninsured patients, CEO Brian Toomey said. “What’s frustrating is that people don’t seem to recognize the benefits of the stimulus funding,” said Miller, while waiting to be supplied with a shovel and a hardhat. “This new community health center is a good example of it. I visited an apparel manufacturing facility in Zebulon that had seen its line of credit disappear, and it was able to get credit because of the stimulus act.” Community health centers grew out of the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty that was launched by the Johnson administration to empower local communities. Prospect Hill, which began serving patients in 1970, was the first community health center to open in North Carolina. Until the late 1950s, board member Sandy Warren said, Prospect Hill had been served by a local physician, but afterwards residents had to travel to Yanceyville or Roxboro for healthcare. Warren’s mother mobilized the community to raise money to open the community health center in 1970. A strong supporter of Miller, Warren has observed Caswell County’s once-solid loyalty to the Democratic Party weaken. “They’re blaming the Democrats because they’re in office,” he said of Caswell voters. “Which is unjustified. Congressman Miller has been here a lot. You see him in the county all the time. He didn’t just go to Congress and forget about the people he serves.” The precincts that swung the hardest into the Republican column this year were located in the rural, border counties. Tally Ho in Granville; Western 0170, Rock Central and Hogans in Rockingham; and Mt. Tirzah, Flat River, Olive Hill and Bushy Fork in Person all were carried by Miller in 2008 on the swell of Obama’s charisma and revulsion against George W. Bush. This year, Randall garnered upwards of 60 percent of the vote in those eight precincts. The electorates of the precincts that swung from blue to red in the 13th Congressional District race, both in the rural northern counties and in Guilford and Wake, share some common attributes. They are almost all Democratic leaning, some with outright majorities, and all feature sizeable white majorities. “Rural voters were very inclined to vote Republican this year,” Miller said. “I did hate to not carry the rural counties. However visible you think you are, there are only a certain number of people at these events, and there’s a lot of people in the district.” Miller chalks up his uneven performance in the northern rural counties to the fact that the economic downturn hit them harder than urbanized Wake, Guilford and Alamance, which lie along the Interstate 40 corridor. Rockingham County is still reeling from a loss of its manufacturing base, which began long before the economic downturn that gathered force as Obama was taking office. The congressman uttered a piece of conventional wisdom that is equally ubiquitous among Republican strategists looking for political gold amidst the economic wreckage: “For most folks, if it’s not working they want to try something different.” While many precincts in the northern rural counties showed signs of defection, the swing in the Wake County precincts that make up the bulk of the district can probably be chalked up to the 10-point shave experienced by Miller as a result of the Republican surge — a pattern the candidate said holds across the nation for Democratic incumbents. The Wake County precincts and even many of the rural precincts that favored Randall could swing back to Miller in two years. In many instances, voter preferences in the 13th Congressional District reflect established patterns. Randall won large majorities in precincts located in affluent Republican-leaning suburbs and some rural precincts populated by conservative Democrats, while Miller found his largest reserves of support in predominantly African-American precincts in northeast Greensboro and central Raleigh. Bernie Reeves, a conservative publisher with longstanding ties to Raleigh, notoriously told the News & Observer after losing the runoff to Randall: “The people have spoken. It’s sort of like anarchy out there, where qualifications and credentials don’t matter.” An African-American retired Naval officer, native of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward and born-again Christian, Randall moved to North Carolina from southeast Wisconsin after an unsuccessful run for Kenosha County Board of Supervisors. As such, he is part of a demographic with increasing political clout in North Carolina: conservative transplants from the Midwest and Northeast attracted not only by the state’s copasetic climate, but also by a pro-business culture woven through with a mix of low taxes, anti-union policies and relaxed government regulation. Cutting his political teeth with a run for chairman of the NC Republican Party last year, Randall quickly aligned himself with the nascent tea party movement. At a tea party rally in Raleigh this past April, Randall appropriated the mantle of the civil rights movement in a fiery rhetorical performance that thrilled his conservative audience. “Back in the sixties with the civil rights upheaval, those things were wrong and you know that’s a scourge on America,” he said. “That’s not the condition of today. The thing I want to tell you is, that situation has been pretty much turned on its head when you have freedom-loving, Constitution-abiding citizens that say, ‘We will not take it,’ and, ‘You will not take this great republic,’ to turn around and be called racists and bigots and every other name. I want equal treatment like white people. Call me a racist. Why don’t you call me a bigot?” Credit voters in the 13th Congressional District at least for colorblindness. Faced with a choice between a conservative black Republican and a liberal white Democrat in a highly polarized election, whites in both parties enthusiastically backed the black candidate, while black Democrats demonstrated solid support for the white candidate. The 25 precincts where Randall won his largest majorities were places where African Americans make up less than 25 percent of the electorate, while the 10 precincts where Miller saw his best returns were areas where blacks comprise upwards of 65 percent of the electorate. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of the Republican candidate. Randall said he visited black churches and advertised on black media outlets. His campaign distributed a handbill in black neighborhoods that showed photos of Randall and Miller side by side so no one would confuse which was the black candidate. Randall blamed his poor performance with black voters on his inability to get his message out due to fundraising limitations and an unsympathetic media, assailing the News & Observer for reports about alleged voter intimidation by his supporters at Wake County polling places. “The real story was when I blew the cover on eugenics and Planned Parenthood,” Randall said. “The media didn’t follow up, and that was true. That would have resonated across the black community.” Randall’s remark was made during a candidate forum with Miller at the Greensboro Historical Museum hosted by the Guilford County Unity Effort. Throughout the event, statements by the candidates had been greeted with derisive laughter by their opponents’ respective supporters. As a gauge of the emotional temperature of the room, Randall declared, “If you have a party that wants to take this country towards socialism and getting away from individual responsibility, from responsible, limited government, I am not going to be part and parcel to go along to get along.”

Miller riposted, “I think Mr. Randall has just provided us with an excellent example of the kind of belligerent, scorched-earth, partisan politics that undermines our political system and even, I think, threatens our democracy.”

In Randall’s closing statement that night, the candidate asked what his opponent’s parents might think if they knew “an organization that was founded for the express purpose of getting rid of undesirable races and calling black people ‘human weeds’… gave Congressman Miller its highest mark in Congress.”

Randall’s statement did, in fact, instigate comments on a couple local blogs, and was cited in the News & Record’s editorial endorsement of Miller, which characterized the charge as “obtuse, racially charged and factually challenged,” adding that there is no evidence that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger used the term “human weeds” or founded the organization “for the express purpose of getting rid of undesirable races.”

Ray Trapp, a longtime Democratic Party activist in Greensboro’s G06 precinct, said Randall was mistaken if he expected black voters to make their decision at the voting booth based on racial solidarity. G06, which is home to some of Greensboro’s most prominent black political leaders, including Councilman Jim Kee, former Mayor Yvonne Johnson and former Councilwoman Goldie Wells, favored Miller by a 92.1-percent margin.

“He came out to the Guilford County Unity Effort,” Trapp said. “Besides the A&T forum, that was the forum that was most likely to be attended by voters in G06. A lot of the things he said didn’t resonate with African Americans. He brought a lot of his white conservative supporters with him, and the things he said seemed more geared to them.”

Randall resists the notion that many of his positions, such as privatizing Social Security, eliminating the minimum wage and capping unemployment benefits based on what individual workers pay into the fund, are unlikely to appeal to the vast majority black voters based on individual economic circumstances. Rather than addressing perceptions, he tends to argue his principles.

“There are people, the overwhelming major ity of them that can work, but stay on unemployment because it’s easier,” he said. “The overwhelming number of people on unemployment can get a job; it’s just that they’re not willing to settle for the job that’s available. I, Bill Randall, had a situation where I lost a job. I went out and got a paper route.”

If racial identification played any role at all in the race, it appears to have benefited Miller over Randall.

“I was at an NAACP dinner and one of the organizers of the event got up and spoke,” Randall said. “She said, ‘We don’t take too kindly about people talking against our president, because when I look in the mirror he looks like me.’ I’m just contrasting: There’s no consistency to the argument. On one hand you support the president because of his skin color, but then you vote against me because of party affiliation.”

Miller observed, “African-American voters did feel very much the attacks on Obama, and they took it personally.”

The facts of race and electoral math are well known by both candidates, including Miller, who helped draw the district 10 years ago as a member of the NC General Assembly. For his part, Randall all but implied that black voters were a liability to his electoral prospects.

“Miller knew what he was doing when he gerrymandered the district,” he said. “Every county that Miller won had a disproportionately high number of black voters in the county.

The overwhelming majority of those voters vote straight Democrat. The three counties that I won did not have disproportionately high numbers of blacks in those counties.

“In Guilford County, the number of black voters in that county is outrageously high,” Randall added. “So he intentionally drew it down into Guilford County to pick up those black precincts.”

Registration statistics provided by David S. Robinson, Republican chairman for the 13th Congressional District, indicate that 51 percent of voters in the district are registered as Democrats. That number proves unreliable as a predictor of voter behavior considering that many registered Democrats cross party lines to support Republican candidates in national elections. More telling is the statistic that about 28 percent of registered voters are black, the vast majority of them Democrats. Registered Republicans’ share of the electorate is 25 percent. Those are the respective pools of voters the two major political parties can rely on as the basic foundation of their electoral coalitions.

While Randall’s candidacy failed to gain traction among African-Americans, the candidate has inspired near fanatical support among some whites.

“I have never participated actively in anybody’s campaign,” said Donna Parham, who lives in the Wilton precinct in southeastern Granville County. “I can’t remember the very first time I heard Bill Randall. I was very impressed… and saw that this was a genuine person. This wasn’t a so-to-speak politician. This is a person who genuinely cares. He is ethical. He knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t change his speech depending on the crowd he’s talking to.

“I’m still actively involved in his 2012 campaign,” she added. “I got all plans on him running again…. He has a lot of support, and we really need him in Congress.”

Randall said he and his wife have prayed about a second run for Congress, she has pledged her support and he is considering the possibility.

A lifelong Democrat, Parham switched her registration this year so she could vote for Randall in the Republican primary. Unlike many voters in Wilton precinct and residents of Granville County, Parham is a native.

Floyd Adsit, the Republican precinct chair for Wilton, describes it as a “bedroom community” demographically shaped by “the splashover of the dramatic growth of Wake County.”

Randall’s strongest precincts mark a line along the northeastern fringe of Wake County — including Rolesville and the candidate’s hometown of Wake Forest — stretching up into southern Granville County.

Adsit, a military veteran who commutes to Research Triangle Park for a job with a biotech company, said most of the white electorate in the county seat of Oxford and other parts of Granville County are what used to be called Dixiecrat people with longstanding relationships to the Democratic Party.

“In most of central and north Granville County, people have roots going back at least to the Civil War and the Revolutionary War,” Adsit said. “Most of the people in the southern tier except for Butner tend to be transplants.”

Randall commanded 69 percent of the vote in Wilton, making it his fourth strongest precinct. He benefited from a synergy of Republican motivation by the circumstance of running alongside Michael Schriver and Tim Karan, candidates respectively for state senate and county commission. Schriver narrowly lost his race to Democrat Doug Berger. Karan will be sworn in as the only Republican on the Granville County Commission on Dec. 6.

Adsit and other volunteers distributed a “dream team” pamphlet containing biographies of all three Republican candidates in their overlapping precincts.

“Being a transplant and a Republican, I’ve gotten to know a lot of other Republican voters,” Karan said. “We’ve all come from primarily the North, where we’ve seen oldschool, bare-knuckled Democratic machines and unions drive employment out of business.

“As I was gaining support,” he added, “I found that people were fed up with what they grew up with in another place and came down here to start a new life in business or to retire. And they want those old ways to stay up there, including those cold winters.”

A native of Buffalo, NY, Karan recalled, “As soon as I was old enough to fill out my Selective Service card, I registered as a Republican. I grew up in a union household, and I didn’t make it out of high school before my father got screwed by the union and the employment center that pulled up and left for Mexico.”

A different kind of synergy worked for Brad Miller in Greensboro’s G05, a precinct whose electorate is 95.2-percent black. G05, whose polling place is Peeler Recreation Center, gave Miller 97.4 percent of its vote, making it the Democratic incumbent’s strongest precinct.

Maurice Warren, a Vietnam war combat veteran who is the Democratic precinct chair, described Miller as a fighter who is accessible and listens to his constituents’ concerns.

Warren spoke highly of President Obama, and indicated voters in G05 were also mobilized by anxiety that Trudy Wade, a white conservative Republican, would walk away with the NC Senate District 28 race because Bruce Davis, a black Democrat running as an independent, siphoned off votes from the black Democratic nominee, Gladys Robinson.

As it turned out, Robinson handily prevailed. Warren said he called 300 to 400 voters in his precinct, urging them to get to the polls.

“There’s a guy in this neighborhood named Maurice Warren,” he said. “On the second day of early voting he walked through his neighborhood passing out sample ballots, talking to people, making sure they knew to vote. This precinct came up quite well. You have to work and beat the drums to vote. This election is just as important or more important than the presidential election.”

Even a police roadblock near the polling place in the late morning on Election Day didn’t dampen turnout for G05, whose poll ing place is Peeler Recreation Center. Warren said he considered the checkpoint to be “a racially motivated roadblock.” He called the Democratic headquarters, and shortly afterwards the Greensboro Police Department agreed to end the operation. (Representatives of the police department and senior city staff have said the checkpoint was set up to enforce seatbelt usage and there was no intent to discourage residents from voting.)

“What people mean for bad, God means for good,” Warren said. “When people meant bad, God made it good. More people turned out to vote because they saw this as a ploy, so they forged ahead…. God made it good. God made it good. I’m really thankful for my God that he did it. I was in the precinct all day long. It was just beautiful to see all these people come out and vote.”

Warren is proud to have helped Miller secure his victory. A Republican, even a black Republican, would have to be pretty compelling for him to consider abandoning the man who currently holds the seat.

“He’s the kind of person who can run for president. Yes, I, Maurice Warren, said that. He may not have aspirations to go that way, but he might find himself pushed in that direction. As long as he doesn’t run against Barack Obama, I’d vote for him.”