How the GOP Is Shredding North Carolina’s Moderate Image – and Threatening Its Economy

When it comes to attracting businesses and jobs, the state’s far-rightward shift is simply bad branding

Scene from a “Moral Monday” protest in Raleigh, 2013

Republicans in North Carolina have been busy remaking the state in the last three years, slashing education spending, restricting rights to voting and abortion, and curbing environmental regulations. Yet nothing has captured international attention quite like HB2, a law that bars local communities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances and denies transgender people access to the restroom of the gender they identify with.

Such legislation is part of a nationwide movement to roll back LGBT rights, but not every state has responded in the same way. For instance, Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, bowed to pressure from companies such as Disney and Apple that they would withdraw business from the state if a similar bill was passed, but Republicans in the Tar Heel state were undeterred. Condemnation fell swiftly on North Carolina, and economic consequences were felt immediately—PayPal, for instance, cancelled plans to bring hundreds of jobs to Charlotte, and the governors of New York and Washington banned all nonessential travel by public employees to the state.

At risk in this far-right turn is a reputation for moderation that has helped North Carolina prosper since the 1950s. For decades the state attracted jobs and migrants through policies that supported the arts and higher education while subsidizing new industries like biotechnology.  While North Carolina had more than its share of conservative voices—it was represented in the Senate by archconservative Jesse Helms for 30 years—leaders at the local level pursued a “middle way” on issues ranging from civil rights to education that appealed to both companies and workers considering a move to the South.

That approach paid off: the Carolinas’ largest city, Charlotte, became the second largest finance center in the nation (after New York), while high-tech companies flocked to Research Triangle Park, a cluster of research laboratories between the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.  

Persuading corporations like IBM to come to the South was no easy proposition in the 1950s and 1960s, when conflict over school desegregation and civil rights threw the region into turmoil.  Watching from New York or Boston, corporate leaders were understandably concerned about life in the South when police in Birmingham, Alabama were firing water hoses on black schoolchildren who demonstrated against segregation.

North Carolina set itself apart from firebrands in neighboring states by taking a cautious approach to conflict over civil rights.  Gov. Luther Hodges (1954-1961) did not force the federal government to send the National Guard to integrate schools, like Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus.  Gov. Terry Sanford (1961-65) did not rally to Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s cry of “Segregation Forever!” but rather took the symbolic and politically sensitive move of sending his own children to a desegregated public school in Raleigh.

1963 - Our schools are integrated - Durham Morning Herald June 9th

This was crucial at a time when politicians sought to woo high-tech corporations to place facilities in Research Triangle Park.  Scientists and engineers were in high-demand and short supply at the height of the Cold War, and businesses feared that these educated workers would balk at the idea of moving to the South.

To assuage such worries, the state adopted an early version of the “creative class” strategy advanced by urban theorist Richard Florida, who argues that cities and states must emphasize cultural amenities and quality of living to attract citizens with high levels of education and earning potential.  Beginning in the late 1950s, the state dispatched politicians, business leaders, and even university professors to extoll the virtues of the Research Triangle area as a cultured, sophisticated place to live.  

They plied executives at Northern firms with brochures about local ballet and theater, and the intellectual “atmosphere” generated by nearby colleges like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham. Boosters also emphasized the value of the area’s universities to business, as a source of talented young graduates and a resource for older workers seeking to upgrade their skills through continued education.

IBM, GlaxoSmithKline and other companies ultimately opened major facilities in the Research Triangle, and North Carolina went on to secure its progressive reputation in numerous ways, with innovative education projects like the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and Governor’s School, a summer program for talented high school students that has been copied by other states. State leaders also ignored right-wing nostrums about the ills of governmental intervention in the economy by providing public support for programs like the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which has invested over $184 million in new high-tech industries since 1984.

This legacy of pragmatism is under serious threat today.  Gov. McCrory and his GOP allies have pursued an agenda that endangers everything that made North Carolina an appealing place for both businesses and workers to set down roots.  The Biotechnology Center has lost funding, while cuts to the state’s public university system totaled $400 million in 2011 alone, undercutting one of the strongest selling points that state leaders previously used to lure high-tech industry.  

The state also risks projecting an image of intolerance, as lawmakers weighed a number of anti-immigrant measures and passed legislation to make it more difficult for the poor and minorities to vote.  The GOP even overturned the landmark Racial Justice Act, a 2009 measure whose sole purpose was to provide recourse for individuals on death row who may have been wrongfully convicted due to racial bias.

Meanwhile, conservatives took control of Raleigh’s Wake County school board, undoing school-assignment plans that helped the system achieve far better success at desegregation than most Northern cities. (Historian Matthew Lassiter tells much of the story in his seminal 2006 book The Silent Majority, and the subtitle of Gerald Grant’s 2009 book—Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleighsums up Wake County’s accomplishment neatly.) Indeed, the controversial “religious freedom” is only the latest—and perhaps most damaging—blow to the state’s reputation.

All of that is bad news for North Carolinians and the state economy.  Past efforts to market the state as a tolerant and pragmatic place to live and do business helped bring nearly 40,000 jobs to Research Triangle Park alone, where scientists and engineers work for global giants like Cisco, Dupont and Sumitomo.  National media have long praised the Triangle as hip and innovative, with Raleigh regularly placing high among “best places to live” in the United States.

For better or worse, cities and states in today’s world have to “brand” themselves to attract jobs and investment, and North Carolina’s reputation has already taken a hit. In 2013 the New York Times noted that the state “was once considered a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness,” but its turn to the right is putting that cherished image at risk.

Mississippi just passed a similar anti-LGBT law, but the Magnolia state has never attracted the kind of high-wage, professional employment that North Carolina has since the 1950s. This owed in large part to the fact that highly educated professionals—Florida’s “creative class”—could imagine living in Chapel Hill or Raleigh, but perhaps not so much in Jackson or Hattiesburg. The question today stands: does North Carolina want to be more like Mississippi, or more like the rest of America?

The author is working on a book about the history of Research Triangle Park and the tech economy in North Carolina. For more ToM coverage of North Carolina’s culture, history, and politics, see the following: