North Carolina a Political Headache for Democrats

May 12, 2012 - 6:08 PM

Gay Marriage Protest

Forsyth County sheriff's deputies arrest Mary Lee Bradford of Winston-Salem and Mary Jamis of Mocksville after they refused to leave at the Forsyth County Register of Deeds office in Winston-Salem, N.C., Thursday, May 10, 2012. The two women staged a sit in at the office after some couples were refused a marriage license because they were gay or lesbian. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Once a bright spot for President Barack Obama, North Carolina is now more like a political migraine less than four months before Democrats open the party's national convention in Charlotte.

The causes are plenty.

Labor unions, a core Democratic constituency, are up in arms. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue isn't running for re-election; Democrats say she was likely to lose. The state Democratic Party is in disarray over an explosive sexual harassment scandal. Voters recently approved amending the state constitution to ban gay marriage, a position that runs counter to Obama's. And unemployment in the state remains persistently high.

"Nobody can sugarcoat the fact that we got problems here," said Gary Pearce, a former Democratic consultant who was an adviser to former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. Pearce was referring specifically to state party woes but could have been talking about any of the troubles here for Democrats.

But, he added: "I think the greatest strength that the party has is President Obama. And he's the thing that people will rally around."

It wasn't supposed to be like this — at least that was the hope — when Democrats chose Charlotte to host the national convention, where Obama will formally accept his party's presidential nomination for a second time, Sept. 4-6.

When Democrats announced the choice in February 2011, they said selecting the Southern city signaled Obama's intent to fight hard for the conservative-leaning state like he did in 2008. They also highlighted the economic transformation in the state and in Charlotte — from tobacco, textiles and furniture-making to research, energy and banking. Party leaders noted the state's strong political leadership and expressed hope that a Perdue re-election bid would get a boost from the attention that would be lavished on the convention.

Now traditional Democratic Party groups are threatening huge protests in part because they're deeply uncomfortable that the convention is being held in one of the least union-friendly states. And thousands of Democrats across the country are calling for the convention to be relocated because of the gay-marriage vote.

Democrats say that won't happen.

"Charlotte is going to host a great convention," insisted Mayor Anthony Foxx, who pushed to bring the event to North Carolina's largest city.

Said Democratic National Convention in Charlotte spokeswoman Joanne Peters: "The convention is staying in Charlotte."

Republicans point out the obvious.

"North Carolina is a mess for the Democratic Party and for President Obama," said Republican National Committee spokesman Matt Connelly.

Four years ago, Obama became the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. He did it by exploiting voter anger at President George W. Bush and assembling a diverse coalition of supporters, including huge numbers of minorities who had never been politically organized and young voters. State law allowed people to register to vote on Election Day, which also meant the large student vote could be tapped.

The campaign also targeted highly educated newcomers to the state.

Obama's team has been hopeful about replicating that effort, while mindful of the new challenges confronting him here. They note that there are enough states in play that Obama can find a strategy to get the necessary 270 electoral votes to win a second term without the 15 North Carolina offers, while Republican Mitt Romney's path to victory is more limited, meaning he's more likely to need a victory here.

Criticism began immediately after Charlotte was announced.

Many labor leaders were upset that the convention would be held in a state that offers few protections for workers and in a city with no union hotels. While some unions plan to attend, more than a dozen trade unions are boycotting. Union protests also are planned for convention week.

But unions aren't the only ones stirring trouble for Obama.

Politically, things are much different in the state.

State unemployment was 9.7 percent in March, well above the national average of 8.2 percent that month, and it's much higher in some rural counties.

There's also the fired-up Republican base that turned out Tuesday to approve the constitutional ban on gay marriage. The vote prompted more than 28,000 people to sign an online petition — by the New York-based Gay Marriage USA — to move the convention from Charlotte. Twitter also was flooded with similar sentiment from angry supporters of same-sex marriage. Obama stated his support for gay marriage a day after the vote.

Democrats want to include gay marriage in the platform to be adopted at the convention. That could create controversy at a gathering that's intended to promote party unity by drawing attention to a divisive social issue when the economy remains the most pressing concern.

What's more, the state Democratic Party is in disarray.

With sagging poll numbers, Perdue announced in January that she would not seek a second term. Her decision came on the heels of bruising budget battles with the GOP-controlled Legislature. Republicans in 2010 captured the Legislature for the first time in 140 years.

Then there's the sex scandal roiling the state party.

State Party Chairman David Parker submitted his resignation Saturday, after weeks of resisting calls to resign amid complaints about his handling of sexual harassment allegations by an ex-worker against former director Jay Parmley. But party activists meeting in Greensboro on Saturday rejected Parker's resignation, and Parker then said he would stay on the job.

Perdue and other elected Democratic officials had pressured Parker to step down, saying his presence leading the party had become a distraction. Executive Committee member Lloyd Scher said Parker did nothing wrong in following the advice of the party's attorney in settling the allegations confidentially.

Meanwhile, the state's former Democratic senator, John Edwards, continues to battle charges in federal court in Greensboro that he masterminded a scheme to use nearly $1 million in secret payments to help hide his pregnant mistress as he ran for president in 2008. He has pleaded not guilty in the case, which has painted an unflattering portrait of the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee.