by Tilly Gokbudak
Since leaving Reidsville, a small city in Rockingham County where I resided because of a job as a reporter at the Reidsville Review in April 2006 (that gig lasted a mere seven weeks), I have returned to my hometown of Roanoke, Va. It is a city of 100,000 people in close proximity to Virginia Tech.
After voting Republican for every presidential election since 1964, Virginia voted for Obama in both of the last presidential elections. Some Virginia cities like Danville and Harrisonburg leaned blue even though the rural areas around them went vastly red.
North Carolina voted for Romney after going blue for Obama against John McCain in 2008. Caswell County, a racially divided rural area that includes Yanceyville, was among the jurisdictions that switched from Obama to Romney.
Similarly, the geopolitics of our two states are also strikingly similar. Most small towns in rural areas like Mocksville in your state and Galax, Va., (due north of Mount Airy), go red. Most college towns like Durham and Charlottesville, Va., go blue as is the case with major cities. Thus, in many instances suburbs like Cary and Arlington, Va., as well as turnout, become crucial factors for the campaigns of both political parties.
During the nationally covered upheaval over the North Carolina Senate’s passage of the HB2, I was never surprised by how contentious the issue became.
The state Senate in Virginia, which narrowly leans Republican, also had a similar bill due to a court case filed by Gavin Grimm, 16, born female, who wants to use the boys’ bathroom at his school in Gloucester County in rural eastern Virginia near Williamsburg. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that Grimm has the right to use the bathroom of his choice.[pullquote]We are a divided nation; no two places reflect that more than North Carolina and Virginia. [/pullquote]
To me, Reidsville was always a microcosm of small towns not just in North Carolina, but also Virginia. This is reflected by Rockingham County’s most recognized public official, state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger Sr., who leads the chamber.
Berger, a resident of Eden, which is similar to nearby Reidsville, seems like an exceptionally unlikeable person unless you fully agree with his views.
In my opinion, Berger Sr., represents everything that is wrong with today’s political climate in that it often rewards those who are most uncompromising. They rise to power for their stubbornness, but those same traits in party leaders cause fervent partisan gridlock both in state legislatures and in Congress.
As a former resident of Reidsville, one other factor about the community sticks with me. Even though Greensboro is a mere half-hour drive away, it feels as remote as Princeton, W.Va., a full hour and a half west of Roanoke, Va. As I imagine is the case in Princeton, many Reidsville residents are fearful of change and the outside world as a whole. There are impressive aspects of the town; many long-standing establishments, such as Short Sugar’s Bar B Que, which has been open since 1949, have impressively withstood competition from major commercial restaurants on the other side of town.
But, on the ugly side, there were also major protests when a Confederate monument in downtown Reidsville had been knocked over by a freak vehicle accident and was not returned to its foundry. Dozens of residents waved rebel flags and dressed like Confederate soldiers with the least bit of respect or concern for how uncomfortable those protests might make the town’s many African Americans feel.
Similarly, Berger Sr., has been vocal in his stern support of HB2 even as major industries, Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr have each decided not to come to North Carolina. He seems more entrenched than Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, which may help Berger become more popular with small-town conservatives across the state. But McCrory seems to be more aware of the stark reality that the law could help swing voters in suburbs to vote not only for likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but also for his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Roy Cooper for governor in November.
We are a divided nation; no two places reflect that more than North Carolina and Virginia. In your state, it can be seen in Madison or Asheville. In my state, it can be seen in Martinsville and Harrisonburg. HB2 and its aftermath will likely continue to remind us of that political divide and of that old Carpenters’ song “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
Tilly Gokbudak is a former newspaper reporter who won six Virginia Press Association Awards in his career. His Twitter handle is @Tilly70.