Workers bustle about during preparations for the Democratic National… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)
SANFORD, N.C. — Polls may show President Obama with a fighting chance of winning North Carolina for a second time, which would be a bad omen for Mitt Romney on election night.
But sitting in his office in this county seat in central North Carolina, Charles C. Staley, chairman of the Republican Party in Lee County, sees signs of hope for the GOP.
In 2008, Obama narrowly defeated Republican nominee John McCain in the state. But Lee County — where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans — went to McCain.
Since then, according to the State Board of Elections, Democratic registration in the county has dropped by 1,009 to 15,670 people, while Republicans have added 206, for a total of 9,697 people. The biggest shift, 1,091 voters, identified themselves as unaffiliated, for 7,714 in all. Total registered voters in Lee County rose by about 4,000.
Like much of the state, this rural county originally named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has seen its nonwhite population increase. It’s largely due to an influx of Latinos, who now make up about 20% of the population.
Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, an independent polling firm in Raleigh, said the demographic shift could cause the state to maintain a “newfound swing status” in future presidential races because Latinos, and Asians — another growing group in North Carolina — generally vote Democratic.
But Staley argues that Latinos are “natural Republicans." He blamed the media for portraying the GOP as “anti-Latino,” and said he has spoken to Latino neighbors about the Republican Party.
Staley, a retired probation officer, showed off some of the Spanish he has learned, and which he said he would use to reach out to Latinos. He said he first learned the language to help Latinos who got in trouble with the law.
“Some of them would get in trouble because of cultural differences between here and the country they came from," Staley said. "In the foreign country, the husband, it’s OK to hit your wife. It’s not OK to do that here."
He continued, “The husband would get paid, he would go to the tienda (store), he would get drunk and he would drive home. It was OK there, and it’s not OK here.”
“It’s OK in Mexico, it’s not OK here,” he said he told some Latinos he encountered as a probation officer. “You need to learn to learn the culture."
But Staley said he respected Latinos because most were not asking for a handout.
“The Latino population that is here, they did not come here, even though you hear people say it, they did not come here to get on welfare,” he said. “They came here to work.”
Staley said the “mainstream media” has unfairly portrayed the Republican party not just as anti-Latino but as “anti-black” and for “the rich white man, and not there for the poor people who don’t have a job.”
He said nothing could be further from the truth, pointing out that the Republican Party had been anti-slavery and had been supported by blacks for about 100 years until the 1960s. To be sure, many states, including North Carolina, enforced laws that effectively restricted blacks from voting until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
African Americans largely switched loyalties to the Democrats when President Lyndon B. Johnson championed major civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and pushed through Medicare, Medicaid and other “Great Society” programs to help the poor and elderly. Many white Southerners who had supported the Democratic party began their shift to the Republicans soon afterward in a historic political realignment.
Staley offered his own version of that history.
“Lyndon Baines Johnson gets in there, there’s riots in the streets, so they decide, we need to keep these black people in their place,” Staley said. “So, well, one way we can do it is to form this Great Society and make sure everybody gets some money and if they get in trouble, we’ll stop giving them money. That was the foundation of what we call social services. Up unto that point, the black population voted Republican.”
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