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Charlotte offers promise, pitfalls for Democrats

State has little union strength, high jobless rate

Mitt Romney held a o.7 percent lead over President Obama in an average of recent North Carolina polls, according to RealClearPolitics.Madalyn Ruggiero/Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the Democrats arrive here to renominate President Obama, they will gather in a city where hotel and restaurant workers are not unionized, bailout recipient Bank of America has its world headquarters, and unemployment is a hefty cut above the national average.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has urged her colleagues to stay home and campaign, and even a Democratic congressman from a neighboring district is planning to skip the convention.

So, why Charlotte?

Democrats must have believed that choosing the largest city in North Carolina might help them duplicate their jolting 2008 victory in a state that had not tilted blue since Jimmy Carter won in 1976.


But that was four years ago, when a frightening economic crisis and an unpopular president gave Obama a rare opening. And this is now, when Republicans have recaptured the House and are threatening to reclaim the Senate, and when GOP nominee Mitt Romney has an edge in recent North Carolina polls.

"The circumstances surrounding the 2008 election were so perfect for Democrats in so many ways, and they squeaked by with 14,000 votes," said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "It will be tough to duplicate those conditions again."

Romney held a o.7 percent lead over Obama in an average of recent North Carolina polls, according to RealClearPolitics.

If the president is to reclaim the state, he will face a confluence of headwinds, both practical and symbolic: North Carolina voters this year overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions, only days before Obama declared his support for gay marriage; former Senator John Edwards, a 2008 presidential contender, was embroiled in a sex scandal; and Obama is scheduled to deliver his acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium, whose name is inextricably linked with the financial crisis.


In addition, only two years after the president's landmark victory here, Republicans took control of the state Legislature for the first time since the 19th century. The state's unemployment rate stood at 9.6 percent in July, significantly above the national rate of 8.3 percent.

Even the Democratic base has been grumbling about the choice of venue. Contributions from labor to help defray the $36 million convention price tag are lagging behind the 2008 level. And workers are lamenting the party's selection of a state whose proportion of union labor — 2.9 percent of the workforce — is the lowest in the country. "It's disgusting," said Ben Childs, chief steward of the union that represents 600 food-service workers at Harvard University.

Childs recently visited Charlotte to help local organizers prepare for a protest march and demonstration during convention week. To him, Charlotte is a symbol of contradictory indifference by a party that, at least in its campaign message, is championing the economic concerns of the middle class.

"For any organization — Republican, Democratic, or any political organization — to go to Charlotte to basically cuddle up with Bank of America" and area firms such as Wells Fargo and Duke Energy "cannot be on the side of the workers who are trying to change their plight."

Despite some ominous trend-lines, Democratic convention officials argue that Charlotte continues to make sense as a venue.

"Charlotte was the right choice to host the convention when the selection was made in February 2011, and it is the right choice now. Anyone who's spent time in Charlotte knows it's a dynamic, diverse, and vibrant community that reflects America in the 21st century," said Joanne Peters, a convention spokeswoman.


Gathering in North Carolina, she said, sends "a message that we are not going to cede any ground we gained in 2008, and that we are committed to expanding the map and playing in competitive states."

Indeed, some union organizers see the convention as a chance to spread a message that labor rights can be compatible with good business.

"For us, it's a golden opportunity to bring unions to light in this area," said Scott Thrower, president of Local 379 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, based in Concord, N.C. Because of the controversy, he said, "For the last 18 months, unions have been all you've heard. Before that, unions were never brought up."

About 60 of the local's 500 members have been hired to prepare the convention center at Time-Warner Arena, Thrower said. The union's international leaders, however, have not always been as upbeat.

"Having the convention in Charlotte was kind of a wake-up call to that fact that really no one's paying attention to the middle class and to working people in this country," Ed Hill, the IBEW president, said this summer.

Organized labor in the South has been linked with trouble, including violence, in textile mills before World War II. That history, Thrower said, has remained vivid. "It's hard for someone from Boston or New York to understand the mentality that we've had to deal with down here. People just don't want to talk about it. And when you do talk about it, they look at you like you have the plague," Thrower said.


Democratic officials said national labor groups will be closely interwoven with convention business, including briefings, training sessions, meetings, and receptions. James Andrews, president of the AFL-CIO in North Carolina, serves on the steering committee of the local host committee.

For convention planners, however, a headache could come from demonstrations planned by The Coalition to March on Wall Street South. The coalition, whose name reflects Charlotte's status as a financial center, includes veterans of the Occupy movement whose presence could be a dissonant note here.

Dinan, the Wake Forest political science professor, said Democrats must have calculated that any public-relations hit they take from a convention in Charlotte will be outweighed by the benefits. Although "there are no clear signs that hosting the convention in the state will shift things one way or another," Dinan said, "at the end of the day, I don't think the Democrats are believing those union votes are going anywhere else."

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.