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Key backing for Obama slips in N.C.

Mayor William Bell, shown talking with voters as he exited a Durham polling station last week, was the first black mayor in North Carolina to publicly endorse President Obama in 2008. Mayor William Bell, shown talking with voters as he exited a Durham polling station last week, was the first black mayor in North Carolina to publicly endorse President Obama in 2008. (Travis Dove for The Boston Globe)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / October 17, 2011

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DURHAM, N.C. - When Lucille Richmond cast her ballot for Barack Obama three years ago, she, like many African-Americans, embraced the historic opportunity to help elect the nation’s first black president.

But waiting in line at the county employment security commission last week, the 52-year-old grandmother - who lost two food preparation jobs and is searching for full-time work - can’t muster the will to support Obama for a second term.

“I don’t see what he’s done,’’ said Richmond, a Democrat. “I’m not even going to waste my time and vote.’’

The president will visit North Carolina today in an attempt to stem such sentiments as he promotes his jobs bill. Obama’s most ardent supporters in Durham’s black community worry that waning enthusiasm among African-Americans may prevent him from repeating his razor-thin North Carolina victory of 2008.

The trip reflects the importance of a critical southern swing state to the reelection campaign. The Tar Heel State will also be in the national spotlight next summer, when Democrats converge on Charlotte for Obama’s nominating convention.

But unless the country begins a more rapid climb out of a stubborn recession that has left more than 14 million Americans out of work, the convention’s location may only serve as a poignant reminder of 2008, when Obama’s campaign inspired millions of African-Americans across the South to vote.

In Durham County, nearly 20 percent of African-Americans are unemployed, higher than the national rate and more than triple the rate of whites here, according to Census data.

“We may not be able to generate the enthusiasm we did in 2008,’’ said William Bell, mayor of Durham and the first black mayor in North Carolina to publicly endorse Obama in the last election. “The issues on people’s minds the most are the economy and jobs. He’s got to be more specific about how he’s going to turn this economy around, specific enough that the man on the street understands why he should vote.’’

The ambivalence about the upcoming election stands in direct contrast to the fervor and excitement that swept Obama into office in 2008, the first time a Democrat had carried the state since Jimmy Carter won in 1976. Obama’s message of hope and change resounded with a wide electorate and drew many first-time voters, minorities, and young people to the polls.

But the momentum appears to be lost. Obama’s job approval rating has dropped - even among African-Americans, a critical demographic whose overwhelming support in 2008 helped him win North Carolina.

Some Democrats here who campaigned and fund-raised heavily for Obama in the last election say they remain undecided - and are even considering voting Republican for economic reasons, if the nominee is Mitt Romney or Herman Cain.

Others who elected Obama with high hopes that he would help lift the black community say he has failed to deliver on that expectation and has not demonstrated that he cares about their concerns. The Obama campaign here said it is focused on expanding its base across all demographics.

“North Carolina truly is a battleground state,’’ Lindsay Siler, the Obama campaign’s North Carolina state director, said during an interview in its Raleigh field office last week. “It was a tremendous victory in 2008, but Obama won by only 14,000 votes.’’

That was when a record 74 percent of African-Americans who were registered to vote in North Carolina cast a ballot, compared to 59 percent in the 2004 presidential election, said Paula McClain, a Duke University political science professor. Half of the blacks who participated in the 2008 election voted early, she said, a testament to the organization of the Obama campaign, whose army of volunteers had made a large push to register voters and drive them to the polls.

Durham County, where blacks make up nearly 40 percent of the electorate, boasted the highest percentage of votes cast for Obama in the state, Bell said.

Obama came to Durham, home to the “Black Wall Street’’ in the early 1900s, to court early votes four years ago. Now marked by mostly empty storefronts, the historic Parrish Street had housed a proliferation of financial institutions such as North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., the country’s oldest and largest black-owned insurance firm. Bronze sculptures and wall plaques in front of the last remaining business from the time, Mechanics & Farmers Bank, pay tribute to the era - “a black capital for the world to see’’ that Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois once held up as a model for the black middle class.

Some executives who enthusiastically embraced Obama after meeting the young, charismatic senator now say they are not so sure.

“I wanted to see an African-American become president before I die, and I never thought I’d see it,’’ said Maceo K. Sloan, chief executive officer of the money management firmNCM Capital and whose family started North Carolina Mutual in 1898.

But Sloan, a 61-year-old Democrat, said he is disappointed that Obama has not done more to address problems affecting the black community, especially when it comes to inequities in education and the criminal justice system. He was surprised, given Obama’s background as a community organizer, that the president appears to be “somewhat disconnected from the average trials and tribulations of African-Americans in this country.’’

“Obama got elected on the platform of hope, that things are going to be done differently,’’ Sloan said. “But it’s the same old same old.’’

He also criticized Obama for filling his administration predominantly with Ivy Leaguers - “nobody with any street sense’’ - and for spending his political capital during his first year in office on health care reform when what people needed more were jobs.

Sloan attended Obama’s rallies and fund-raisers in 2008 and donated $2,300. He has not decided whether to contribute again.

“We want to see what else is on the menu before we choose,’’ Sloan said. “There are some Republicans with good ideas.’’

Obama’s defenders say there is a disconnect between the president’s genuine efforts on behalf of urban and disadvantaged populations and perceptions in the community. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank in Washington, said the president’s initiatives such as health care reform, the stimulus package that kept many public workers in their jobs, the extension of unemployment benefits, and grants to historically black colleges as well as increase in Pell grants benefited many African-Americans.

“If I were to criticize the Obama administration, it has a very good record with regards to African-Americans but it does not boast about it,’’ said David Bositis, senior political analyst.

Many African-Americans in North Carolina say they still sense a loyalty to Obama among black voters, of whom more than three-quarters identify themselves with the Democratic party. African-Americans in this state are more than twice as likely as whites to approve of the way Obama is handling his job, said Mileah Kromer, assistant director of the Elon University Poll, the most comprehensive public opinion polling of North Carolina. Obama has an 81 percent approval rating among blacks here compared to 31 percent among whites.

The kind of grass-roots fervor that drives voter turnout is in shorter supply. At North Carolina Central University, a historically black public college in Durham, a 2007 Obama campaign rally had to be moved from an auditorium to the football stadium because so many students sought to hear him speak, many shelling out $25 a head for the opportunity.

“I wish we had been able to keep that same momentum,’’ said Brianna Hargrove, a history and political science major who as a freshman in 2008 volunteered on the “Obama Squad’’ to canvass the neighborhood and register voters. “A lot of people looked at his victory as ‘Oh, we got Obama in the White House. We’re going to be okay.’ But we should have been focused also on getting the people into Congress that Obama needs to get things done.’’

At the White Rock Baptist Church, Pastor Reginald Van Stephens is struggling with an internal moral battle over whether to support Obama in 2012. Raised as a Democrat but now unaffiliated, Stephens voted for Obama in 2008 and would like to support him again.

“But I can’t automatically decide I’m going to give him my vote. I have to keep myself in check and not let my heart run wild because he’s an African-American and he’s smart,’’ Stephens said. “I have to consider if someone else can break the gridlock and lead the country.’’

If Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, ends up the Republican nominee, Stephens said, “here’s a man who can help the economy recover. Not because he’s smarter than Obama, but because he may be able to get those forces in Congress who are staunchly opposed to Obama to actually do what’s better for the country.’’

Community leaders here who support Obama say it is critical that they fight voter apathy. The North Carolina NAACP, which does not endorse candidates, trained county leaders during its state conference last week on drawing African-Americans to the polls.

“It’s about invigorating the black folks to say, ‘Hey, our guy has the ball. He’s running with it and he’s gaining yards. We’ve got to block for him because he’s going to score for us,’ as opposed to saying, ‘God bless him but come November, if I don’t have a job, I can’t be bothered to get out and vote for him. Que sera, sera,’ ’’ said Raymond Pierce, dean of North Carolina Central University School of Law who served as a deputy assistant secretary for civil rights under President Clinton.

The “whatever will be, will be’’ sentiment, he said, “that’s what Barack Obama should fear, and the opportunity to ensure that it doesn’t go that way is slipping.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.