“The heart and soul of North Carolina’s industrial future is the Research Triangle,” said former Governor Luther Hodges. Hodges and several heavy-hitting Triad businessmen had the audacity to form a high-tech research park in the patch of hardwood forest lying in a triangular formation between UNC, NC State, and Duke University. RTP nearly went bankrupt before it was even a decade old and it took until the late-60s to attract a major corporate tenant. But 60 years after Greensboro developer Romeo Guest drew an isosceles triangle on a napkin in a hotel dining room with hope for an industrial renaissance, the industrial future of North Carolina draws its fuel from Research Triangle Park.
Over the last decade, the Triangle has been one of the few bright spots for progressive North Carolinians in an era otherwise dominated by right-wing Republicans. In 2014, Wake County Democrats swept the county commission and added legislative seats in a year that was otherwise a disaster for the Donkey Party. By 2022, only one Republican remained in the legislative delegation of the core Triangle counties and even the exurbs were trending modestly Democratic. If the Research Triangle was the heart and soul of the state’s industrial future, it is likewise the beating heart of hope for its hope for a progressive political future.
Little provides greater testament to this promise than the congressional primary taking place in NC-06, a district that covers much of the Triangle area. Yesterday, American Idol star Clay Aiken joined a field that already boasted a passel of strong and diverse candidates. Whatever you think of Aiken’s candidacy, he is a big name with a case to make for his prominence and the fact that he would be the first gay congressman from the entire South. The other candidates each bring certain strengths and backgrounds that make this primary a wonderful reflection of the district’s diversity and vibrancy.
In addition to Aiken, state Senator Val Foushee, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, state Senator Wiley Nickel and scientist Richard Watkins are running for the seat. Foushee and Watkins are African American, Allam is a Muslim American, and Nickel is a white man. The point here is to emphasize the rich multiplicity of backgrounds that this district domiciles. Diversity is the greatest strength of an information-economy hub, and it is the strength of the Democratic Party as well. Any progressive-minded person should be heartened and impressed by a Southern congressional district’s ability to draw strong candidacies from people with such varying identities and life experiences.
The problem with this otherwise wonderful development is this: Fortress Liberalism. In our state and across the country, liberals are increasingly dominant in urban areas to the point of being almost unrivaled. The same is true in college towns like Chapel Hill. But beyond the diverse cores of blue America–which, to be clear, encompass a majority of the country’s population–Democrats struggle more and more to regain viability and find votes. This is acutely true in North Carolina. Tar Heel Democrats should be proud of the primary we’re seeing in NC-06, but they shouldn’t forget that it will be hard to regain majority status as long as the party is persona non grata outside the urban cores.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.