CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Purplish-red North Carolina is hard to figure out. That may be why national eyes tend to watch local, state and federal races for clues of political trends, particularly whether or not the Donald Trump phenomenon is fading. Or perhaps it’s just the state’s unpredictability and the entertainment value of its outsize personalities who make news, even when they wish they had not.
Take the long-shot candidate in Charlotte’s upcoming mayoral primary. While it’s pretty certain that city council member Kenny Smith will be representing the Republicans in the November election against one of the Democrats fighting it out, one GOP candidate, Kimberley Paige Barnette, earned a rebuke from her state party when, on social media, she listed her qualifications as being “REPUBLICAN & SMART, WHITE, TRADITIONAL.” In a race that has drawn national money and will probably still turn out an embarrassingly low number of voters, it managed to be a lowlight.
While Charlotte backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump pretty handily won the state, though Democrat Roy Cooper managed to squeak into the governorship over incumbent Pat McCrory. That the veto-proof Republican majority in the state Legislature has done everything since then to limit Cooper’s power has only made the aftershocks of the race more of a spectacle — along with court decisions that keep going against everything from North Carolina’s voting laws to the way its congressional and state districts are drawn.
Foot in mouth
The congressman in my own reliably Republican 9th District, Robert Pittenger, won in a district reconfigured for 2016, and has carved out a special public space for himself with a series of startling statements: that the protesters of a Charlotte police shooting “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not,” that those who had a problem with a provision on pre-existing conditions in a Republican health care proposal “can go to the state that they want to live in,” that Trump was getting unfairly attacked for his Charlottesville, Virginia, comments equating neo-Nazis and those who protested against them when liberals were not pressured to denounce the “hate and violence” of Black Lives Matter and other groups.
Pittenger recently held a series of raucous town halls, where — at Charlotte’s Providence High School — he was given credit for at least showing up before being questioned on his positions on everything from health care to climate change to race.
While “Indivisible” signs opposing the “Trump agenda” were plentiful, outnumbered supporters of the president and of Pittenger spoke up for him and yelled “fake news” at criticisms. When asked if he approved of Trump’s more divisive statements, Pittenger said he supported the president’s policies. He called President Barack Obama “very smooth,” but said his policies “were an abysmal failure.”
Pittenger’s Trump allegiance will be tested in 2018, maybe on the right, and also by Democratic challengers.
While his 2016 Democratic opponent Christian Cano is running again, newcomer to politics Dan McCready is gaining some political and financial support. (Full disclosure, McCready, 34, went to high school and college with my son.)
McCready served as a Marine in Iraq, and, with another Marine, later founded a company that invests in solar farms in North Carolina; he is one of the veterans running for office backed by Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, also a Marine veteran. (He and McCready also have Harvard Business School in common.)
When we talked in a side room at a Mexican restaurant in Charlotte, McCready tried to explain how he would navigate the complicated landscape of North Carolina and Washington politics and why he is running.
He said he has been on a listening tour of the sprawling district that extends from more affluent areas of Charlotte that have done well in the new economy through eastern counties and cities, areas once dependent on textiles and tobacco that have been “just devastated,” he said, by everything from trade deals to automation.
McCready was a registered independent before he decided to run as a Democrat, and said he sees opportunities to work across the aisle.
“We’ve seen a lot of promises out of last year’s presidential campaign and out of Washington that really would help this district,” he said. “The infrastructure bill could go a long way toward jobs, right here, right now.”
He said he agrees with the president on the need to take a close look at trade deals.
“In the same way that I will stand up to President Trump on matters of our constitution and ethics, I will work with him on something that will benefit folks in this district,” he said. Expect to hear more about trade and clean energy.
McCready also criticizes his own party. “I think the Democratic Party is viewed right now as the party of the coastal elites and has forgotten how to connect with folks in places like this,” he said. “My job is to make the case that I’m there to fight for folks and for their interests, and help North Carolina lead in our 21st century economy.”
His message of the “new” also includes advice from those who have been there, including former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who hosted a fundraiser at his Charlotte home, and former Charlotte Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, who lent his name as a co-host at a McCready kickoff event.
McCready often returns to his military experience, leading a platoon of 65 Marines in Iraq during the surge in 2007, when, his website says, “his fellow service members helped him find his Christian faith.”
“Young veterans running on the Democratic side — a lot of those like me — really love this country and care about what’s happening,” McCready said. “You have to imagine there’s a bunch on the Republican side and that’s something that gives me a lot of hope.”
“I don’t know what the magic number is but I know we’re not going to change what’s happening in this country until we get new people in,” he said.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.