At the top of the ramp at the busy Mebane exit – No. 154 off Interstate 40/85 – sits a retro-style diner, a curvaceous little building that shimmers with glass, steel and chrome. Visitors catch glimpses of themselves as they approach, their shapes slightly altered in reflections from the building’s skin.
In a larger way, all of North Carolina can see itself in Mebane, or at least, within a section of the former textile and furniture town. A voting precinct here, known to election officials as South Melville, has chosen the winners of all races for president, governor and U.S. Senate since 2000. It’s one of only four such prescient precincts in the state.
As stock brokers always caution, past performance is no guarantee of future behavior; South Melville’s 6,097 registered voters could go to the polls this year and blow their perfect record. But politically, the precinct still is a near mirror of the state as a whole. Of North Carolina’s nearly 6.5 million registered voters, 40.5 percent are Democrats, 30.4 percent are Republicans and 28.4 percent are unaffiliated. In South Melville, 39.5 percent are Democrats, 29.7 percent are Republicans and 30.2 percent are unaffiliated.
The largest precinct in Alamance County, South Melville reaches from the interstate to the well-traveled railroad line that runs through downtown Mebane, whose early-20th-century brick buildings have been rescued from dilapidation to house new restaurants and funky shops. Like its host city, the precinct is home to a population that is slightly better educated than average for the state and has a slightly higher household income. It also has residents whose low income qualifies them for housing assistance, some of it in the form of rent-subsidized apartments in a renovated yarn mill on the precinct’s west side.
It has residents who were born here and never really left, some who left and came back, and many who have moved here in the past decade from other parts of the state, or from Northern or Midwestern states. Mebane is one of the fastest-growing towns in the state with a population of about 13,500. It has retirees as well as college students. Many of its residents are only in the precinct at night and on weekends, spending their days at jobs in the Triad or the Triangle 30 to 40 minutes away.
What makes the people of the South Melville precinct most like their neighbors throughout the state has more to do with what’s on their minds than what’s on their voter registration cards. It’s a familiar list: jobs and the economy; health care; education; security; and social issues, including notions of religious freedom.
As the state’s primary election approaches, here is what South Melville is thinking.
Focused on the local
Andy Champion moved to Mebane with his family in 1996, when he was 5, and except for the years he spent at UNC-Chapel Hill getting an art degree and studying urban planning, this is the only place he says he ever hopes to live.
“It’s just a great little town,” he said.
Champion commutes daily to a new job at an art company in Carrboro. At 25, he says he’s still “learning to be an adult,” but he pays close attention to local and state politics.
He is interested in infrastructure and investment in projects that make his town more inviting to new residents and new businesses. He notices sidewalks that make it easier for people to get downtown without a car. He wants to see more low-income housing and help for those who can’t afford to bring their own homes up to standard. He doesn’t want to see taxes increase to the point where the poor can’t afford to live in Mebane anymore.
“What happens at the state and local level affects us faster than what happens in Washington,” Champion said. As a young gay man, he says he is frustrated by actions in recent years by the Republican-led legislature. He is pulling for Roy Cooper against Pat McCrory in the governor’s race.
A regular voter and a Democrat, Champion hasn’t yet made his choice for the presidential primary. He’s leaning toward Hillary Clinton, because he thinks Bernie Sanders’ policies might take some control away from local government.
“But we don’t hear about the issues right now,” he said. “It’s all about the personalities.”
Unaffiliated and worried
James Vanderling is one of the fast-growing number of North Carolinians who doesn’t want to be identified with either major political party. Many say being unaffiliated affords them more objectivity as they look at candidates.
Vanderling believes the choices in November will be Trump and Clinton, “And I don’t like either one.”
Vanderling, 40, an account manager with an industrial janitorial service, is especially uncomfortable with Trump. “He gambles. He’s had all these affairs. He’s so money-hungry,” Vanderling said. Worse, he says, Trump seems reckless.
“He will have us in World War III within two years,” most likely, Vanderling believes, involving Russia, North Korea, or both.
Vanderling worries about the economy as well, he said. In a downturn, the auto-parts manufacturers whose plants his company maintains would cut back production. That means canceling contracts. That means he’d have to let people go.
Despite Trump’s claims, Vanderling doesn’t believe the candidate’s business experience would serve the country well.
“I think Hillary (Clinton) would be better on the economy,” Vanderling said.
Education is another important issue to Vanderling, whose wife had to leave teaching because state funding cuts resulted in the loss of her classroom aide, and the stress became overwhelming.
He’ll vote for McCrory as governor, he said, because, “I think he’s doing the best he can with what he’s got.”
Wants proven leader
Kimberly Martin grew up in the Piedmont, left for 20 years and came back about 18 months ago, landing in Mebane near her father’s Occoneechee roots. Martin, 46, hopes to start a new job this fall teaching special education in a local school.
As an educator, she hopes the next governor will lead state legislators to invest in schools, making sure all children have a fair chance at success. That includes increasing teacher pay so North Carolina can attract and keep good teachers, whose presence in the classroom helps communities attract residents and jobs.
Martin wants a president who has experience in politics and in foreign affairs.
“Bernie Sanders is too old,” she said, and she is not convinced he could achieve many of his goals, which include free universal preschool and free tuition at public colleges and universities.
“Hillary 2016. That’s me,” she said.
Martin says the country needs a woman president, and believes Clinton has “been in the trenches,” proving her mettle over and again as critics have attacked her for her handling of Benghazi and her use of private email while she served as secretary of state.
Sees need for business sense
William Barrens hears people in his apartment complex joke that they’ll move to Mexico if Hillary Clinton gets elected president. The 73-year-old says he wouldn’t go that far, but he hopes Trump wins the presidential election.
Barrens, who moved to Mebane from New Jersey a couple of years ago so he could be closer to some of his grandchildren, is retired, so he has a fixed income and an interest in the economy and Social Security. He’s also a cancer survivor who wants to know he can continue to get the medical care he needs.
If Trump wins, Barrens believes he will bring experts from business into government, which would improve the climate for American entrepreneurs and make government work more efficiently.
Struggling with choices
When Andy Dunkerton moved to Mebane more than two decades ago, the town had a Hardee’s, a fried-fish restaurant and a congregation at Grace Reformed Baptist Church that had relatively unified ideas about abortion, gays, national defense and other matters where faith and politics often collide.
Now, the town has dozens of restaurants and has residents from all over the country. And the church where Dunkerton is now a pastor has younger members with very different political priorities, such as government policies toward the poor and the immigrant.
Dunkerton, 47, who is quick to say he does not speak for the church, is a Republican. He is struggling with his election choices this year. As Trump appears to be closing in on his party’s nomination, Dunkerton said, “it’s really hard for me to explain Trump as the frontrunner. It must reflect on people’s frustration with the current situation.”
Dunkerton is bothered by what he sees as a willingness by Trump to say what different audiences want to hear. He also disagrees with some people’s assessment that Trump’s business experience would serve well in government.
“The president is not a CEO,” he said.
Concerned with character
Michael Lopes, who has worked at Grace Reformed Baptist Church along with Dunkerton, also is a Republican and a conservative. He says he sees people around him who feel disaffected and frustrated, who are looking for a strong leader. Some of them, he says, think they have found one in Trump.
“He says things that are atypical” for a politician, Lopes said, and that attracts followers.
Lopes, 33, wants a strong leader, too, he says, but Trump is not the one he would choose.
“He has taken advantage of people through gambling,” Lopes said of Trump, who has operated casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. “My concern is that character doesn’t matter anymore in leadership,” he said.
Lopes also says he doesn’t want a political leader who believes he can speak for entire groups of Americans, including Christians. Faith is much too complex, he says.
Health care a priority
Pat Scheible says she doesn’t fall for politicians’ attempts to emotionally manipulate people.
“I’m a scientist,” said Scheible, who left her first career as a molecular biologist after 25 years to become a fulltime artist. She still hunches over test tubes at a work table, but now she’s turning the glass beakers and other found objects into lamps.
“I like data. I like numbers. I like history,” Scheible said. “And I believe in sin.”
Scheible calls herself “a strategic Democrat.” She has a conservative Republican’s fiscal sense but registered as a Democrat because locally, she says, the most effective office-holders tend to come from that party.
At age 73, she is interested in health care and the economy, but worries that health care reform under President Barack Obama has been a costly and inadequate attempt to provide benefits the nation cannot afford.
She also worries that the generation now ruling the country is not leaving things in good shape for the next. Young Americans are not being taught how to nurture and maintain a civil society, she says, and it doesn’t help that they have poor examples in their politicians.
“Trump has the soul of a tyrant,” she said.
“She is dishonest to the core.”
How South Melville voted
2000, 2004: George W. Bush (R)
2008, 2012: Barack Obama (D)
2000, 2004: Mike Easley (D)
2008: Bev Perdue (D)
2012: Pat McCrory (R)
2002: Elizabeth Dole (R)
2004: Richard Burr (R)
2008: Kay Hagan (D)
2010: Richard Burr (R)
2014: Thom Tillis (R)