A Look at North Carolina

Posted March 1, 2004 at 6:52pm

This is the second of a two-part series examining the future of North Carolina politics. This article looks at eastern and central districts.

Despite the state’s recent Republican lean in federal races, Tar Heel Democrats continue to dominate in eastern and central Congressional districts, where they hold five of the six seats.

[IMGCAP(1)]That dominance is born of a Democratic-led redistricting process in 2001 designed to solidify the re-election prospects of the party’s five incumbents as well as 3rd district GOP Rep. Walter Jones Jr.

The most competitive of the Democratic-held seats is the 2nd district of Rep. Bobby Etheridge, which takes in the southern suburbs of Raleigh in its northernmost extension and swoops down to pick up a piece of Fayetteville in its southern extremity.

The district’s population is roughly 30 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic — the largest Latino presence in any of the state’s 13 districts. Both are reliably Democratic constituencies, although President Bush would have won the district by 7 points in 2000.

Etheridge has held the seat with relative ease since 1996 when, after eight years as state superintendent of education, he unseated freshman GOP Rep. David Funderburk.

He has twice seriously considered running for Senate and both times decided against it.

In 2002 Etheridge was seen as an all-but-announced candidate for the open seat of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R) but backed out; this cycle he flirted with the race less seriously, as the prospect of challenging 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles in a primary made the race less attractive.

House Republicans no longer seriously target Etheridge but will likely compete for the seat when he either retires or runs for higher office.

State Sen. Fred Smith is the leading candidate to run in an open-seat situation, said informed Republican sources.

Smith served as Johnston County commissioner for two years before he was elected to the state Senate in 2002.

Smith spent more than $250,000 — most of it from his own pocket — to unseat a three-term Democratic incumbent in the Senate race. A former real estate developer, Smith has considerable personal wealth.

Among Democrats, three potential candidates are mentioned.

The first is Etheridge’s son, Brian Etheridge, who is currently the chief fundraiser for the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. He also is a past president of the North Carolina Young Democrats.

State Sen. A.B. Swindell, who also carries a well-known last name in North Carolina political circles, would look at the race, said several knowledgeable operatives.

Swindell was elected to the state Senate in 2000, filling the seat vacated by Roy Cooper, who won the state attorney general’s office.

His father, Russell, was a longtime state legislator and lobbyist widely credited with developing the community college system in the state. Swindell’s son, Russ, is Etheridge’s district director.

A.B. Swindell served as district director for former Rep. Tim Valentine, who held the 2nd district from 1982 until he retired in 1994.

Another name in the mix is former state Sen. Oscar Harris, who was redistricted out of the Legislature last cycle.

Harris has personal money and is looking for a re-entry into politics, according to state Democrats. Harris was the mayor of Dunn before spending two terms in the state Senate.

In the nearby 4th district, which includes the rapidly growing Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, Rep. David Price (D) has held the seat for 16 of the past 18 years.

First elected in 1986, Price lost to former Raleigh police chief Fred Heineman (R) in the 1994 Republican tidal wave election.

Undeterred, Price sought a rematch in 1996 and won 54 percent to 44 percent.

Republicans made semi-serious attempts to unseat Price in 1998 and 2000 but he took 57 percent and 62 percent, respectively.

The odds-on favorite to succeed Price is state Sen. Wib Gulley.

From 1985 to 1989 Gulley was the mayor of Durham, home of Duke University; he was elected to the state Senate in 1994 and is now in his sixth term.

He has been a major backer of the public financing of elections in the Legislature and is viewed as a progressive within the party.

While the 4th was made increasingly Democratic in redistricting, Republicans believe state Rep. David Miner could run a serious race when it comes open.

Miner is in his sixth two-year term in the state Senate representing Wake County, and is one of the most aggressive fundraisers in the Legislature. He is also on the national finance committee for Bush’s re-election.

The other four districts that make up eastern North Carolina are less competitive at this point.

Rep. Mike McIntyre’s (D) 7th district, which spans from Wilmington in the south to Fayetteville in the north, is potentially vulnerable to a party turnover when the four-term Member eventually departs.

Bush won 52 percent there in 2000, but that same year Gov. Mike Easley (D) also carried the district overwhelmingly.

The district’s black population (23 percent) and American Indian population (8.5 percent) — the fifth highest of any Congressional district in the country — still make this a difficult seat for the GOP, however.

Republicans believe that state Rep. Danny McComas could give McIntyre a real race and be extremely competitive in an open-seat scenario.

McComas was first elected to his state House seat in 1994, the first Latino Republican elected to the North Carolina state Legislature.

In the 1st district, Rep. Frank Ballance (D) has been dogged by controversy but does not appear ready to leave the House after just one term. Any competition for his seat would come in a Democratic primary. Ballance, a former state legislator, was essentially willed the seat by then-Rep. Eva Clayton (D) before she retired in 2002.

The neighboring 3rd district, which includes the Outer Banks, is Jones’ for as long as he likes, both Republicans and Democrats admit. Jones was seen as a possible 2004 Senate candidate but was subtly edged from the race by Rep. Richard Burr’s (R) strong fundraising.

Rep. Brad Miller (D) won the new 13th district in 2002 and is not expected to leave it for the foreseeable future.