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NPR Will Repeatedly Check In With Voters In Charlotte, N.C.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: At our member station WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., we are adopting this city - visiting several times this election year. Charlotte is in a big primary state. After South Carolina this weekend, North Carolina is one of the many states voting next week on Super Tuesday. This summer, Charlotte hosts the Republican National Convention. This fall, North Carolina will likely be a presidential battleground state.

We will be here for all of it, making Charlotte the first city we are adopting this year as NPR asks where voters are - where voters are on the issues, where they are on the candidates and also, simply, where they are because your community reveals much about how you vote.


INSKEEP: Charlotte is a basketball city. This week, in fact, it's hosting a tournament of historically black colleges. The opening games were last night. Charlotte is also a financial center, and its wealth is evident as we walk here along Tryon Street past luxury restaurants and skyscrapers. The Bank of America skyscraper has giant murals in the lobby that make you think of 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Decades ago, a Charlotte banker named Hugh McColl had a vision of a bigger bank, acquired Bank of America, brought the headquarters here, and that transformed this city. McColl is now in his mid-80s and we visited his home. He still lives here in Charlotte.

HUGH MCCOLL: Well, it's the only place you can go to the ballet, the symphony, the opera, pro baseball, pro basketball and pro football all in walking distance of each other.

INSKEEP: And this was by design.

MCCOLL: Combination of good planning and lots of money. And so today, young people pour into the city. This is a city of a million people. When I came here, it was roughly 100,000

INSKEEP: Yet Hugh McColl acknowledges it's also an unequal city. A study ranked Charlotte last among big cities for upward mobility, the chance for people on the bottom to move up. There is more than one Charlotte. So let's travel from the center out to the edge of the metro area. NPR's Sarah McCammon was in central Charlotte interviewing voters, and she's in the studios here at WFAE. Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Where'd you go?

MCCAMMON: So I spent an evening with a group of Democratic-leaning activists convened by the leader of the local NAACP here in Charlotte. And this group was mostly people of color, mostly African American. We met at a predominantly black church on the edge of downtown Charlotte, a church that's been here a really long time. You walk out the front door, you see the city, some of the skyscrapers.

INSKEEP: So they see the prosperity, but do they feel the prosperity?

MCCAMMON: Well, for some yes and some no. We met a postal worker, a banking analyst, a physician's assistant, among others - rather a nurse practitioner, among others. And they don't see Charlotte's wealth as necessarily good for everyone. They were talking a lot about gentrification, which is pushing some people out. And Reverend Corine Mack, who convened the group, said she'd like the presidential candidates to know what people in her community are facing.

CORINE MACK: Talk to folks who you know are hungry, who haven't eaten, who are making a decision whether they're going to buy food this week, gas, pay the electric bill or pay their rent.

MCCAMMON: And she says candidates who do come and listen will hear about things like health care, the need for criminal justice reform, better education.

INSKEEP: Well, how does all of that affect their presidential choices?

MCCAMMON: Everybody in the room was opposed to President Trump, but I heard a lot of division about who's best suited to challenge him in November. We talked to Maya Wells. She's a student at UNC Charlotte. She's 21, Iranian American - all in for Bernie Sanders. And she says she sees Sanders as the only person who can disrupt what she views as a system that's harming people both here and abroad.

MAYA WELLS: There are too many people hurting. There are too many people whose voices aren't being heard.

MCCAMMON: And I asked her if she would vote for whoever the Democratic nominee is, and that, Steve, provoked a giant sigh.

WELLS: It really depends. If it's Bernie Sanders, absolutely (laughter). But if it's Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Steyer - what have you - it really depends what their stances are on foreign policy because I've had it.


MCCAMMON: And that prompted a big response from the group. These were a lot of activists, some of them two, three, four decades older than Wells. They pushed back hard on this idea that she might not vote for anyone if it's not Bernie Sanders.

COLLETTE ALSTON: I'm Collette Alston, president of the African American caucus here in Mecklenburg County. At the end of the day, Maya, and what you're saying, it strikes, and I get it. But you're saying that you wouldn't vote or anybody else wouldn't vote, that's a problem because we're going to get into a situation where your children, Supreme Court - that's how all this trickles down. Whoever that president is, they're appointing Supreme Court people. And I understand you being upset about the structure, but if we don't understand the structure, we can't do anything to change it.

MCCAMMON: So that's the dilemma - right? - for Democrats, Steve. How do they capture that Sanders energy while also appealing to all those other voters they need in November?

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon is part of the team that has adopted Charlotte, N.C., this election year. Steve Harrison of our member station WFAE lives in this city, works in this radio station. Steve, good morning.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: You went a little ways out from the center city, which was where exactly?

HARRISON: So I was in south Charlotte, which people here often called the wedge because it's the whitest, most affluent slice of the city. This is where former Bank of America executive Hugh McColl lives. And it's pretty much always voted Republican. That started to change in 2016, and then in the midterms, almost every precinct went Democratic. Political observers here were stunned to see the entire city go blue.

INSKEEP: Wow, big change in what's now a swing area. So what are people thinking about the presidential primary?

HARRISON: So first of all, no one - or at least no one that I talked to during early voting - has complaints about the economy. They're all doing well. But Debbie Kidd, a retired chaplain from the Air National Guard, and her friend, Billie Hutchinson (ph), a nurse, are turned off by what they hear from President Trump.

DEBBIE KIDD: I feel good about the country. As far as, like, the economy, I'm in good shape. But I guess I'm more concerned about the trend of name-calling - not really talking about the issues but talking about people. That's a nutshell.

BILLIE HUTCHINSON: That's a very good way to put it.

KIDD: Yeah.

HUTCHINSON: Because that's what I would say, is that I just don't like - I don't like the image we're presenting for my grandchildren.

HARRISON: And both women also said they don't like Bernie Sanders' tone, but they will support him if he wins. And that leads me to a young mother, Colleen Willis (ph), who's in her early 30s and works part time at home in market research. She's one of those Republicans who's been swinging Democratic. She says the economy is doing well and specifically mentioned the stock market, and yet...

COLLEEN WILLIS: Personally, I'm voting for whoever can get Trump out of office, as long as they're moderate.

INSKEEP: As long as they're moderate.

HARRISON: And she's always objected to the president's behavior, specifically what he's said about women. And for her, voting Trump out would be easy unless the Democratic - Democrats nominate the candidate who is currently leading.

WILLIS: I would vote for Trump over Bernie. He's about the only one who would - maybe Warren as well. If Warren or Bernie are the Democratic ticket, I'll vote for Trump. Otherwise, I'll vote Democratic.

HARRISON: And voters like her, they really terrify Charlotte Democrats because I heard from so many voters who were worried about losing new converts like her. So I went back and visited her again yesterday at her home in Beverly Woods, an upper-class neighborhood that's pretty close to the city's upscale mall, and she'd had second thoughts.

WILLIS: I actually thought about it more yesterday. I could be convinced to vote Bernie. That's how much I dislike Trump. But it would be a lot harder decision. Most of the other Democratic candidates would not be a hard decision for me.

HARRISON: So Steve, that says a lot. Democrats here are obsessing over whether never-Trumpers will stay that way, and the never-Trumpers aren't quite sure themselves.

INSKEEP: Glad you went back and talked to her a second time to get that nuance. Steve Harrison of WFAE, thanks for hosting us here.


INSKEEP: Appreciate it. Now, we also drove out to the edge of the metro area. We drove westward on Interstate 85 to where North Carolina's mountains were in view, and we stopped at a town called Kings Mountain, which has the same name as the site of a Revolutionary War battle. It's a town of about 10,000. And we visited a little brick restaurant called the Chat-n-Nibble, which is a place where we did a little bit of both.

Check one, two. Check one, two. It smells good going in here. You can smell breakfast.

Now, the first person we talked with was Doug Lawing (ph), who's a retired executive for Duke Energy, and we swiftly got a very different perspective on the world than in central Charlotte.

DOUG LAWING: I'll be honest in telling you that Kings Mountain is mostly a very conservative town. We still care about the things that matter in this country - freedom of religion, for one thing, to be able to worship how you want to worship.

INSKEEP: We should mention, conservatives sometimes talk of freedom of religion when it comes to gay and transgender rights, which are big issues in North Carolina. Lawing also says this should remain a capitalist country.

LAWING: I do not see this country surviving in a socialist environment.

INSKEEP: So you're a big Bernie Sanders fan, is what you're saying?

LAWING: No, I'm not.


LAWING: No, I'm not

INSKEEP: He supports President Trump. He likes the direction of the country. But Mary Brock, who works in the kitchen at that restaurant, sees something she would like to change.

MARY BROCK: The economy, I hope it gets a little bit better. I wish that minimum wage would go up because it's hard to live off what would live off of in this small community.

INSKEEP: Now, President Trump's administration has so far opposed raising the minimum wage, although she still stands behind him.

What about health insurance? Do you have health insurance?

BROCK: No, I don't have health insurance. I do not. I had health insurance before I come here, but right now, with me buying my house, I cannot. I have to put that on hold right now, just for a couple years.

INSKEEP: There are those Obamacare subsidies that can help you get health insurance. Does that not appeal to you or - still doesn't make sense?

BROCK: No, nothing from Obama appealed to me.

INSKEEP: You weren't an Obama fan?

BROCK: No, I'm not. I was not.

INSKEEP: How about President Trump?

BROCK: I am, totally - 2020, make America great again.

INSKEEP: You're doing V for victory signs.

BROCK: Yes, because we're going to win. He's going to win again.

INSKEEP: Now, it would be easy to say that people here are voting against their own economic interests, but they see it differently; they see a strong economy. And it's true - you don't see a lot of vacant stores in this small town. We met workers turning an old pharmacy into a brewery. There's talk of development. And people also vote on culture, issues like abortion and gun rights. I want to tell you that one family at the restaurant said they were carrying concealed weapons for safety. And later, they slipped around behind us and paid for our breakfast and had the waitress tell us, the conservatives paid for you.

So this is an opening view of metro Charlotte, N.C., one of the cities we are adopting in this election year, as we hear where voters are. We will hear more from Charlotte in days to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.