RALEIGH – North Carolina’s large metropolitan areas are, it seems, coming into their own – promising to overturn political precedent in a state that has long been one of America’s least urbanized.
At a Tuesday meeting of urban chambers of commerce in Burlington, political analyst John Davis of NC FREE put the political rise of North Carolina cities in context. From 1993 to 2001, registered voters in the 15 most populous counties grew by nearly 800,000, or 46 percent. Actually, this differs only somewhat from the rate of increase in total state voters, 42 percent. But what’s important here is that, for the first time in our history, the urban counties enjoy a majority of the state’s electorate.
Moreover, the trend is likely to continue over the decade, as cities gain greater political market share at the expense of rural areas. Most legislative districts, for example, will encompass or at least touch these 15 counties.
Davis and other observers point out at least two possible impacts of these changes. First, on balance Republicans in North Carolina are gaining through urbanization, or more properly suburbanization. The 15 urban counties are less Democratic than the rest of the state, and Democratic registration is growing at a significantly slower rate there (25 percent) than are Republican and independent registrations (37-38 percent).
Second, many believe that the days of Marc Basnight – the powerful rural legislator, usually from the east but sometimes from the west (think former House Speaker Liston Ramsey) – are over. Lawmakers from urban areas are more likely to insist on leadership that thinks and sounds like them, the argument goes.
I think such predictions about the impact of urbanization may be premature, however. Although there are fewer Democrats in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem than there are in the rest of the state, registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans there. More importantly, Democrats in the cities are less likely to be conservative and thus less likely to cross partisan lines to vote for GOP candidates.
Second, North Carolina is currently governed overwhelmingly by rural and small-city politicians, mostly from Eastern North Carolina. Only House Speaker Jim Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, exercises significant power in Raleigh without such a pedigree. These folks, many elected statewide, won’t let go of the reins of power easily. So as urban lawmakers fight for equitable highway funding and other causes that matter to them, they will need to set their sights realistically.