- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 5, 2016

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - The Tar Heel State is having a bit of an identity crisis.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a half-million. Yet the GOP has controlled the legislature for six years - with supermajorities most of that time - and has pushed through a conservative agenda that has slashed taxes, redrawn voting districts and even banned the removal of Confederate monuments without legislative approval.

North Carolina is also dealing with an image problem, largely due to a new law dictating which bathrooms transgender people can use.

In a widening protest, several city and state governments banned travel to North Carolina, and it has lost business prospects and rock concerts. Perhaps worst of all in this basketball-obsessed place, it has lost NCAA tournament games - all over House Bill 2, known to many as the “bathroom bill.”

“We are no longer viewed as a progressive state but a backwards one,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht of Cary said in September after the town lost four NCAA events.

Of course, there are two people who can’t seem to get enough of North Carolina: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who have frequently visited the battleground. Recent presidential polls indicate the state is a tossup.

A former textile and furniture manufacturing powerhouse, North Carolina has built an international economy based on higher education, finance and cutting-edge technology.

But the state is a mix of Nasdaq and NASCAR, with an agrarian heart: Only Texas has more rural residents.

Of 6.7 million North Carolina voters, 2.6 million are Democrats, compared with 2 million Republicans. Still, nearly as many - just under 2 million - are registered unaffiliated

That makes the state neither stereotypically liberal nor conservative, says political scientist Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University.

“Of all the states that went for Obama in 2008, we went for him by the smallest margin,” Cooper says. “So we were kind of the reddest blue state in the country. Four years later, we’re the bluest red state in the country,” tipping to Republican Mitt Romney.

The right turn on public policy took root in 2010, when conservative donors helped Republicans take advantage of a disorganized state Democratic Party and win control of both legislative chambers for the first time since Reconstruction. In 2012, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory became governor.

What followed were these conservative measures:

-A law requiring women to wait 72 hours before having an abortion, among the longest waits in the country.

-Rules prohibiting state agencies from factoring long-term sea-level rise into their planning.

-Elimination of teacher tenure, although the courts later ruled it could apply only to future hires.

-Measures limiting early voting and requiring residents to present a photo ID at the polls.

Then, GOP legislators pushed through HB2 in a one-day special session earlier this year. It requires people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings and excludes sexual orientation and gender identity from statewide antidiscrimination protections.

Republican leaders say they’re doing what voters elected them to do. Senate leader Phil Berger has cast his defense of HB2 as a battle against meddling outsiders.

“Let me be clear. My job is not to give in to the demands of multimillionaire celebrities pushing a pet social agenda, liberal newspapers like The New York Times, big corporations who have every freedom to set whatever policies they wish under this law. My job is to listen to the people who elected us to represent them,” he told reporters in April.

However, a September poll by Elon University showed about 56 percent of North Carolina voters say the law should be repealed, compared to 34 percent supporting it.

LGBT activist Chris Sgro says these measures were not the will of voters, but the result of GOP gerrymandering.

“North Carolina IS a progressive state,” insists Sgro, the executive director of Equality NC and a member of the state House. “What really happened is that in a low-turnout year, Democrats lost in 2010, and Republicans slammed our state with the worst possible redistricting that turned everywhere in the state into unwinnable conservative districts.”

In July, a federal appeals court blocked the law requiring voters to produce photo identification and follow other rules that it said disproportionately affected minorities. Its GOP sponsors said it was meant to fight voter fraud.

Another panel of federal judges struck down two U.S. House districts as illegally race-based, requiring lawmakers to hastily redraw congressional districts for the current election.

Several months later, a separate panel ruled that 28 General Assembly districts were also illegally race-based. However, those will still be used in November.

Jasper Horne, a Vietnam veteran living on the outskirts of Greensboro in one of the overturned congressional districts, says he saw redistricting for a “ploy” to disenfranchise black voters.

“This is nothing new,” the 70-year-old black former Army engineer said, leaning against his pickup decorated with a huge bald eagle and the words, “Some Gave All.” ”This has been happening for centuries.”

Greensboro is taking a big hit from the NCAA’s pullout, losing an estimated $15 million in revenue this year.

But while many in Greensboro complain about the losses of games and concerts, Tammy Snow is not among them.

“Good riddance,” says Snow, a white independent voter. “Look. I have got six grandchildren. And the first time that I go in the bathroom and there’s a man in that bathroom, he’s gonna go from a rooster to a hen - REAL quick.”

Lori Cranford lamented the negative attention the state has received. She says it might be Election Day before she decides how to vote.

“Obviously, we’re very controversial right now, and it’s not how we’d like to be seen,” says Cranford, development director for a Greensboro-area council of the Boy Scouts of America. “I really wish that everyone would not see our state solely as these issues that are currently going on that not necessarily are in our control.”

___

Drew can be followed at www.twitter.com/jonldrew . Breed can be followed at www.twitter.com/allengbreed

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