In 'Mayberry,' a glimpse of why a Washington crisis is hard to crack

Residents hate the Affordable Care Act, the debt and government dysfunction; they like their congressman

The town of Mount Airy, N.C., is known not only for Andy Griffith but also for its classic architecture.
Xiaomei Chen/The Washington Post/Getty Images

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — In this picturesque town of 10,000 people near the North Carolina–Virginia border, the inspiration for the fictional Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show” where people tend to pepper their sentences with “honey” and “sweetie,” residents are angry.

They are angry that the government is still shut down.

“I’m disgusted that they can’t get a handle on it and they can’t cooperate with each other to get the Americans’ needs met,” said Dennis Williams, 56, a retired CIA agent who works at Talley’s Custom Frame and Gallery downtown.

They are angry about the fiscal state of affairs in the country.

“In my opinion, the president, the vice president, all the administrators, all of the federal judges, every congressman, every senator should do without their pay until we have reduced the debt,” fumed Sylvia Lowry, 56, a voice teacher at Olde Mill Music. “When I was in debt, you know who paid it back? I stinkin’ did, and you know how I did it? I cut back. Every nincompoop can tell you what to do. They’re just not willing to do it.”

They are angry at President Barack Obama and about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which most confess they do not fully understand.

“Obama’s not willing to do anything. It’s almost like he’s a dictator,” said Janan Blankowski, 50, a sales associate at the general store. “(House Speaker John) Boehner and the Republicans only want to extend it a year so normal people can figure out what it is and what they want. What’s the rush?”

They’re so mad that sometimes they tune out the other side completely.

“It takes two to make such a big mess,” Evelyn Newman, 67, confessed while Fox News played on the television in her restaurant, the Blue Bird Diner. “I don’t like Obama very much, so I don’t listen to him a lot.”

Watch parts two and three of Adam May's report on redistricting in North Carolina's 11th District.

Pundits and political analysts have long bemoaned the seemingly intractable differences between the two parties, exacerbated by gerrymandering, which preserves safe House seats so they remain uncontested. But to understand why members of Congress seem hellbent on digging in their heels, it’s instructive to observe how their own constituents have also dug in their heels, something you can do well from a place like Mount Airy, nestled in North Carolina’s very red Sixth Congressional District. 

Recent polling shows that nationally, congressional Republicans are bearing the brunt of the blame for the shutdown and their favorability rating is at an all-time low. (Democrats and President Obama are feeling the consequences, too, but are doing slightly better.)  

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

But in the Sixth District, while constituents are frustrated with Washington, they are more or less in sync with their congressman, Republican Howard Coble, who has been serving in the House since 1985 and has won his last 13 elections with more than 60 percent of the vote. They are unlikely to throw him out of office anytime soon, even if he voted against a “clean” spending bill that would have funded the government and if he cosigned the letter that urged attaching a budget to defunding the ACA.

Phil Berger Jr., district attorney in neighboring Rockingham County, who pays close attention to politics and is a loyal GOP voter, is thrilled that House Republicans, like Coble, are standing resolute for a change.

“Obamacare is an absolute nightmare, our premiums are going up, the website that they set up to funnel people into the system is sort of a paradigm of government in and of itself — it just doesn’t work, and the American people don’t want it,” he said. “So the ability to mount an effective fight against this failed legislation further had to come at some point. The reasonable position is, ‘Let’s delay it, let’s continue to find out where the trap doors are in this legislation and let’s negotiate our way through it,' but the president is refusing to do that.”

Berger dismissed the notion that the bruising budget and debt ceiling fights are taking their toll on the party that vowed to rehabilitate its image after the losses of the 2012 election.

“The Republicans cannot survive as Democrat-lite,” he said. “The face-lift that’s needed for the Republican Party is more conservatives who are willing to speak up and not fall prey to the inside-the-Beltway echo chamber.”

That synergy of views makes it unlikely that Coble or any of the other conservatives driving the House GOP strategy will cave to mounting political pressure across the country.

Some say creative redistricting is at fault. Indeed, to preserve the maximum number of “safe” House seats, state lawmakers cut a snakelike sliver out of the Sixth District to exclude chunks of Democratic-leaning urban Greensboro and added it to the district of Democratic Rep. Mel Watts, another longtime incumbent.

The composition of the Sixth District is now significantly different from the rest of the country. In 2012, 58 percent voted for Republican Mitt Romney, according to data compiled by the Almanac of American Politics. Over three-quarters of people are white, and 43 percent of the district is rural.   

Bill Bishop, an journalist based in Austin, Texas, who wrote the book "The Big Sort," about the geographic, demographic and political shifts taking place in the United States, said that something more profound than gerrymandering is at play. For the last three decades, Americans have been sorting themselves into more ideologically, politically and racially homogeneous communities. Their politics, in turn, have become more hardened and reflexive.

“It’s not only an echo chamber of belief in what your guy says, but there’s a tribal reaction against what the other side says, and part of it is because people don’t live in mixed company ideologically,” said Bishop. “Representatives are always more extreme than their constituents, but they’re not cross-pressured anymore — there’s less of a call to compromise.”

Of course, even those in the Sixth District who identify as conservative Republicans have complicated views toward government. Evelyn Newman, the diner owner, worries about what will happen to her daughter, who relies on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and likes the part of the health care law that bans discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. Jenny Lowry, who owns Old Mill Music, relies on Medicaid for herself and her children.

Dennis Williams, the retired CIA officer, thinks there’s no need to bicker over a law that’s already been passed.

“Why are these guys, even though they’re my party, why are they blocking this?” he said. “Fellas, get over yourself. You lost the first fight, now you’re about to lose the second.”

Williams also has a novel solution.

“Why do senators and congressmen get to stay forever?” he asked. “Time to go.”

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