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Home Sweet Durham bleeds blue, leans left

As Betty Humes stands on a busy corner on Main Street in downtown Durham, doling out Obama lawn signs, voting information and hugs to passersby, she explains that Durham County has been waiting for this election for years.

"Tuesday night, Durham will be the place to be-not Chicago. Durham," Humes said, smiling. "And I haven't ever seen Durham like this."

Humes has been living in Durham since the Civil Rights Era, raising both her children and grandchildren in the Bull City-one of the liberal strongholds in a traditionally red state.

Signs of Durham's progressive atmosphere can be spotted everywhere in the city, especially as the first Tuesday in November approaches-from the bumper stickers on stopped cars at a traffic light to the dozens of signs that litter a downtown sidewalk. The evidence is unmistakable: Durham is a liberal county. But it's not just liberal: With 68 percent of residents voting for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, it is the most liberal county in the state.

"You see the people in Durham County with very progressive concerns, whether it's environmental interest or ecological excitement, or fundraisers and support for public schools," said Kevin Davis, author of the Bull City Rising blog concerning Durham issues. "There are so many creative and interesting things happening. Liberalism extends beyond politics here."

But in a historically red state, sources point to several factors for widespread liberalism within Durham County, including the demographics of Durham. In the 89,000 or so households within the county lines, 39.5 percent of county residents are African American and 12.8 percent are between the ages of 18 and 24, according to a 2005 Durham population profile compiled from 2000 Census data. Most political indicators show that both these voting blocks have patterns of Democratic leanings.

But many other elements contribute to Durham's liberal leanings, County Commissioner Chair Ellen Reckhow noted. Another contributing factor, in addition to a strong local economy and diverse demographics, may be that Durham County and the Triangle area attract people from across the nation, she said.

"It has led us to be not typical of the state because we have a lot of transplants here, and it has led to a political philosophy that is indeed different from the rest of the state," Reckhow said.

Davis said the jobs available in Durham, with many of them tied to the University, attract Democrats to the area.

"Liberalism is correlated with higher education, and you can see that here," he said. "Durham and Chapel Hill have the highest percentage of Ph.D's per capita nationally. This area is just a natural base of liberalism."

David Smudski, chair of the Durham County GOP, said Republican campaigning in Durham County is usually geared toward state or national races because it is difficult to get Republicans elected closer to home.

"Even though we're only 15.1 percent of Durham, state-wide we have the 18th-largest number of Republicans," Smudski said. "We have more Republicans in our county than 82 other counties in North Carolina. That's a lot of votes that we bring to state and national elections."

He added that the comparatively small voter bloc in the county is strong-during the last election, 74 percent of registered Republicans turned out, compared to 73 percent of registered Democrats.

"That 73 percent of Democrats is still a lot more than the Republicans, but we do get out. We do get out. We do vote," he said. "Our votes count at the state level."

Davis, however, said Republican attempts to gain local political offices are ineffective.

"I was on the election bus tour with David [Smudski]," Davis said. "I just pulled him aside for a moment and asked, 'What are your chances at winning?' You know, he said all the right things. But [Republicans] know they can't win [locally]. It's mathematically extremely difficult."

Ultimately, reasons behind a liberal political and cultural atmosphere in Durham County are varied, Reckhow said.

"It's complex, I don't think we can cite one reason," she said. "It's probably a variety of factors-institutions of higher learning, the strong local economy, our jobs, the cultural amenities-they all attract certain types of people. And I think it's a very good thing for our community."

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