Small town's culture wars spotlight North Carolina's deep electoral divide

One race became a telling example of culture war issues dominating politics.

Small town's culture wars spotlight North Carolina's deep electoral divide
ABC News
December 6, 2023, 6:09 AM

For Jack Turnwald, a transgender resident of a small, suburban town in Wake County, North Carolina, it was as if their life had become a movie -- and not in a good way.

Turnwald, who uses they/them pronouns, had recently moved from liberal Durham to more conservative Holly Springs to be with their wife and children. There, they became involved in a battle over a proposed ordinance to protect LGBTQ residents from discrimination -- an effort that failed.

"I joke that it felt a little like being in 'Footloose,' like I had danced on the wrong side of the railroad tracks," Turnwald said about speaking in favor of the measure at a town council meeting, comparing themselves to the character in the 1980s movie who tries to overturn a dancing ban in a small town.

"I was told that if people in this town didn't want to provide me with a service, that I should just go to the next town over," they said.

It was one reason Turnwald decided to run for a council seat this year, their first foray into politics as a candidate after decades as an educator. The experience, as they described, became a telling example of how culture war issues are dominating politics, even in America's idyllic suburbia.

PHOTO: Jack Turnwald, a Wake County resident and candidate for Holly Springs town council in the 2023 municipal elections.
Jack Turnwald, a Wake County resident and candidate for Holly Springs town council in the 2023 municipal elections.
ABC News

Turnwald was raised by very conservative parents in Lima, Ohio. Now 43 and a longtime registered Democrat, they'd seen how, as the country became more polarized, the more strained their family relationship had become. And relocating to Holly Springs was like going back to their Midwestern hometown. Some things, they realized, you're just expected not to talk about.

"It felt a lot more here like the price of safety was to be quiet," they said. "And I recently said to folks very openly, that's not safety, that's fear. And I don't want to live in a place of fear."

Battle for the suburbs

Municipal elections like those for town council are typically sleepy affairs. But not this year, not in Wake County. Both political parties got extremely involved in contests even for nonpartisan seats, viewing them as barometers for what will happen next November in the 2024 presidential election.

Home to Raleigh, one of North Carolina's biggest cities, Wake County has moved sharply Democratic over the past quarter century. In 2000, the area went for George W. Bush by seven percentage points. Twenty years later, it went for Joe Biden by a whopping 26 points. Biden ultimately lost North Carolina to Donald Trump by 1.34% -- his smallest margin of defeat in any state.

PHOTO: North Carolina - Wake County 2020 Presidential Election Results
North Carolina - Wake County 2020 Presidential Election Results
ABC News, NC State Board of Elections

But now, booming suburbs in Raleigh and Durham could give Democrats an opportunity to flip the 2024 battleground. Republicans, who overwhelmingly win the state's rural voters, are determined to limit any Democratic gains.

"We think it's important to set the tone here in Wake County," Steve Bergstrom, the chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, told ABC News as early voting kicked off in late October.

North Carolina's growing culture wars 

Standing outside an early voting site, Kevyn Creech, chairwoman of the Wake County Democratic Party, described what's motivating Democrats to go to the polls.

High on the list, she said, are "the wedge issues that have been made wedge issues like personal rights, whether it's abortion rights, whether it's LGBTQ rights -- just human rights -- are a big, big deal."

PHOTO: Kevyn Creech, chair of the Wake County Democratic Party at an early voting site in Apex
Kevyn Creech, chair of the Wake County Democratic Party at an early voting site in Apex
ABC News

In the nine months since a single member switching parties gave Republicans a supermajority in North Carolina's state legislature, lawmakers have passed several pieces of legislation over the vetoes of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

One measure limits abortion access to women 12 weeks pregnant or less. Another bans gender-affirming care for those under age 18 and still another mandates that transgender athletes compete on sports teams based on their assigned gender at birth.

Several conservative education policies also were implemented, including an expansion of school vouchers and passage of a parental "bill of rights" aimed at giving parents more say in their children's education. That law allows parents to access reading materials and school curriculum, limits the instruction of gender identity and sexuality in K-4 classrooms and mandates schools notify parents before a child can change their names or pronouns.

Republican leaders hailed the law as a "win" for parents, families and students, while Gov. Cooper declared North Carolina's public education system to be in a "state of emergency."

"The rights we're focusing on right now are the parental rights because they have been neglected for so many years," Bergstrom said.

Lynn Edmonds, who sits on the Wake County school board, said culture war issues are coming before the board despite it being relatively progressive. Edmonds said Moms for Liberty, a conservative group at the forefront of local battles over what children are taught in schools, will come to meetings and read aloud from books they find objectionable.

Moms for Liberty, which has seen tremendous growth across the U.S. in the past few years, has stoked controversy over its opposition to certain curriculum on racism, sexuality and gender identity. The Democratic National Committee has called Moms for Liberty "one of the nation's most notorious anti-freedom, history-erasing, book-banning groups," while the group contends its mission is to defend "parental rights at all levels of government."

'Terrifying' personal attacks amid policy choices

Turnwald was a teacher for nearly two decades before leaving to work in diversity, equity and inclusion. They said they always enjoyed working with students but felt that after they came out, their experience was questioned, and they were less respected. To be an out trans educator in today's climate, they said, was "terrifying."

Some parts of being a candidate were amazing, they said, such as meeting people who told them they were glad to see an LGBTQ person run for local office.

"Those conversations mean so much to me, and they remind me constantly that even when this is super-hard that I'm doing the right thing," they said. "And the parts that are super-hard are the folks who are adamantly against me running."

PHOTO: Jack Turnwald, a Wake County resident and candidate for Holly Springs town council in the 2023 municipal elections.
Jack Turnwald, a Wake County resident and candidate for Holly Springs town council in the 2023 municipal elections.
ABC News

Sitting in their home, which they said had been vandalized weeks before, Turnwald described messages they've received online. Some were attempts to poke fun at their gender. But others were more insidious, they said, like suggestions to "pluck the eyes from drag queens."

One email sent to voters by the Wake County GOP area chair suggested that if elected to the Holly Springs town council, Democrats would "try to normalize sexuality and pedophilia to our children." Another flyer sent out by the Wake County Republican Party said Turnwald was focused on "social agendas" rather than being a town council member, citing campaign literature that included their support for the non-discrimination ordinance.

Bergstrom, the Wake County GOP chair, addressing the party's message, said Democrats were focused on issues that weren't a priority for most residents.

"It's important for us to realize what the Republican Party in Wake County focuses on is policy, not on any one individual," he said. "The policies that we are against are policies that this candidate specifically states on their website and in all their literature ... Number one focus on all legislation when elected is equity."

PHOTO: Steve Bergstrom, Wake County Republican Party chairman.
Steve Bergstrom, Wake County Republican Party chairman.
ABC News

"That's not what Holly Springs residents are concerned with," he continued. "That is not an issue for Holly Springs. What is an issue is ensuring that we keep Holly Springs safe, ensuring that the economy continues to grow and ensuring that we have great schools in that area."

Bergstrom said he believed residents would "see the difference."

Voters' voices spotlight cultural, political divide

The weekend before Election Day, candidates and party leaders gathered at scenic Sugg Farm in Holly Springs for the town's annual fall festival. Thousands of residents attended the lively event featuring vendors, food, rides and more.

It was one of the last major outreach opportunities for candidates before the voting started.

There, the political divide was clear.

"It's very conservative. That's why we love it. We want to keep it that way," said Linda Harding about Holly Springs, as she stood beside her husband, Brian. Both were in their 70s and donned Western Wake Republican Club stickers after visiting the party's booth.

Another couple, a younger one, enjoying the same fair, saw the choice much differently.

"We support the Democratic ticket," said Ron Wilkes and his wife Stephanie Rodriguez-Wilkes. "But we do look at what the candidates' records are … We vote for good people that hopefully will do, you know, will serve our needs as well as others."

Amanda Lunn, a resident of the area since 2006, said she feels the divide, too.

"Not with everybody," she clarified, "but for those who are loud and vocal, I definitely see that. I definitely feel that. And it can make conversations sometimes a little tricky, or just interactions in general, because if you don't know somebody, you don't know what their intent is. You don't know where their hearts are coming from."

PHOTO: Amanda Lunn, a Wake County resident and business owner.
Amanda Lunn, a Wake County resident and business owner.
ABC News

Lunn, a busy mom, business owner and podcast host, spent a sunny Sunday afternoon in late October volunteering to canvas on her own the suburbs of Wake County. As she walked through neighborhood after neighborhood, Lunn knocked on many doors without getting a response. She left campaign brochures about the candidates on the doorsteps instead.

Lunn, 40, said she wasn't raised in a political family. She was a registered Democrat and typically voted in major elections but said it was the 2016 election, seeing Hillary Clinton defeated by Trump, that really "kicked me into gear" to get involved.

As a voter, Lunn said the most important issues to her are "basic human rights" and ensuring no one is being discriminated against or having their bodily autonomy taken away – the exact kind of suburban voter Democrats want on their side in 2024.

This fall she canvassed 2,001 homes and plans to do it again for next year's election. Her main goal is to get people out to vote, no matter who they support. There's so much work to do, she said, to make sure people don't turn apathetic or believe their voice doesn't matter.

At one door, her luck changed when a woman answered.

"Are you planning to vote?" Lunn asked her.

"Absolutely," the woman responded.

A future in local politics? 

Turnwald lost their town council race by a few hundred votes. But Democrat-endorsed candidates did win two of the three open seats on the five-person council.

Despite how they said the race had turned "ugly," they said they aren't done with politics. They're already working with a group to plan the first Holly Springs Pride celebration and will keep going to local meetings to speak out.

Asked if they would consider running for election office again, Turnwald didn't close the door: "We'll see what happens in the future."

"We did a lot to change the conversation here in our small town," they said.