Durham political distinctiveness sharpens

Jul. 26, 2014 @ 10:38 PM

A snippet in D. G. Martin’s column on our editorial page Wednesday caught my eye, and sent me to his topic – the latest issue of N. C. Data Net – to drill a little deeper.

First, a word about Martin, and about DataNet. Martin, who I’ve known since my Charlotte days, is a former Senatorial candidate, a key lieutenant of C.D. Spangler during Spangler’s decade-long presidency of the UNC system and an astute observer of state politics.
If you missed his column this past week, “So many new voters, where did they come from,” you can find it here: http://bit.ly/1nFggod.

DataNet is published by UNC’s Program on Public Life, headed by Ferrel Guillory, a former journalist often sought by media outlets for his insights into the state’s politics.

What captured my attention in Martin’s column was the fact that between 2004 and 2012 Republican registration actually shrank in Durham. Statewide, as Martin noted, the two major parties roughly kept pace, with Democrats up 20 percent, Republicans 18.5 percent. (The real surge, which DataNet and Martin both think has long-term implications, is in unaffiliated voters – their number nearly doubled.)

But in Durham County, where Republicans were a beleaguered minority at the beginning of the period DataNet analyzed, registrations dropped by 11.6 percent. That happened even as the county’s population was growing by nearly 19 percent and the number of registered Democrats surged by one-third.

Democrats outnumbered Republicans here by less than three-to-one in 2004. In 2012 (fueled, no doubt, by enthusiasm for the Obama presidential campaign) Democrats had a better than four-to-one edge over the 30,332 registered Republicans. Another way to parse those numbers: The Democrats’ increase – 30,833 – exceeded the Republican total at the end of the period.

Unaffiliated voter registration grew substantially here, by about 88 percent, a slightly slower rate than statewide.  Unaffiliated voters – 56,773 in 2012 – had a nearly two-to-one edge over Republicans, who they had trailed eight years earlier.

(A similar but less dramatic pattern played out in Orange County. There, Democratic registration grew 24 percent, faster than overall population growth of 16 percent but less pronounced than Durham. And Republicans eked out a small growth in registration, adding 102 new voters to the GOP rolls. Unaffiliated voters doubled, to 17,908. )

It’s no revelation that Republicans have far less sway in local government affairs here than in many parts of North Carolina. The registration numbers, at least, suggest that the sense that Durham is a political bubble is only growing.

Coincidentally, I’d had lunch the day before Martin’s column with Frank Hyman, a longtime Durham activist and former city councilman.

We had been talking about Durham’s political distinctiveness and some of its roots – racial diversity, a prosperous black middle class, a stronger union tradition than most North Carolina towns, among others.

Hyman mentioned, with a blend of humor and truth, a couple of decades of an “anti-marketing campaign.”  I don’t remember his exact words, but basically it was all those years when there was an undercurrent that Durham was dangerous, crime-ridden, racially troubled  -- go to Cary, go to Raleigh, potential newcomers heard.

The people who didn’t listen to that, he laughed, were liberals and blacks.

There’s probably something to that.

Whatever the case, the registration numbers paint a distinct picture of recent trends. As we continue to be a migration magnet and our population continues to surge, it will be interesting to see if those trends continue or if, now that we’re a success story, our political mix will begin to more nearly mirror the state.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.