CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Democratic Party and some of the nation's largest banks greeted each other uneasily Tuesday at the start of a week of partisan festivities in this banking mecca.
The Democrats in Charlotte resemble an ex-lover who still wants to be friends, even though the relationship ended badly.
"The relationship, if you put it in a politically correct way, is strained at best," said Anthony Plath, a finance professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. "There's just no love lost between those two groups."
Caught in the middle this week are local officials such as Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat in a city where Bank of America and Wells Fargo are two of the largest employers.
Asked if he worries that speakers at the Democratic convention will be critical of banks, and that the message will reflect negatively on Charlotte, Foxx responded tersely. "No, not at all," he said.
Charlotte's history as a banking center dates back to 1799, when gold was discovered in the area, and today the city is the nation's second largest banking center by assets, after only New York.
But Charlotte is more than a banking town, despite the prominence of Bank of America and Wells Fargo, Foxx said.
"Our city has been built by a variety of different people and different business coming together to help build the city that you're now standing in," he said. "And those two companies have been very much a part of the story of our city, but not the only parts of the story."
As recently as four years ago, the relationship between the Democratic Party and the nation's largest banks was strong. Charlotte is the largest city in Mecklenburg County, which voted for Obama 62%-38% in 2008.
But bankers have taken umbrage with President Obama's regulatory policies and some of more populist remarks, leading to a shift in industry support to Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
In early 2011, when the Democrats announced plans to hold their convention here, the decision reflected Obama's narrow win in North Carolina four years ago and the state's electoral importance again this year.
The awkwardness of that choice will be most acute on Thursday, when Obama delivers his speech from Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers. The convention's host committee has betrayed its discomfort by repeatedly referring to the venue in emails as "Panthers Stadium," rather than its actual name.
It is anyone's guess whether any convention speakers will be critical of Wall Street.
But it would not be surprising if tough words came from Rep. Barney Frank, who co-authored the law that has angered so many in the industry; Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Senate candidate who is the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; or California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who drove a hard bargain with the nation's largest banks in mortgage servicing settlement talks.
Throughout Charlotte, meanwhile, signs of the banking industry are everywhere. Visiting air travelers are greeted by B of A ads with the tagline "Strengthening Charlotte."
One of the city's most prominent cultural institutions, the McColl Center for Visual Art, was founded in the 1990s with money from Bank of America, and is named after one of its former chief executive officers, Hugh McColl.
(McColl, incidentally, is a prime example of the industry's souring on Obama. In 2008, he wrote an op-ed in support of the Illinois Democrat, but earlier this year he reportedly co-hosted a Romney fundraiser.)
Wells Fargo is a relative newcomer to Charlotte, but has been working to establish itself as part of the local community since acquiring Wachovia during the 2008 financial crisis. The San Francisco-based bank gave $7.6 million to Charlotte-area schools and non-profit organizations last year, according to a spokeswoman.
The arena where most of the Democratic convention is being held stands in the shadows of numerous bank towers — not just B of A and Wells Fargo, but also BB&T, Fifth Third and Ally Bank — that define the city's skyline.
On Sunday, a group of protesters calling themselves the Coalition to March on Wall Street South marched on some of those buildings to protest foreclosures and student loan burdens.
Ben Carroll, an organizer of the protests, said that neither political party has been tough enough on the big banks following the bailouts of 2008 and 2009.
"And since then, they've all returned to profitability," he said. "But the experience for everyday working people is quite different."
At a Monday street festival organized by the Democrats, liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich said that Charlotte is the perfect place for a conversation about the role of banks in the United States.
Referring to the Federal Reserve Board's policies, he said: "It's been about helping the banks — not about helping people."
As festival-goers milled about, temporary fences and armed guards kept people away from the entrances of several nearby bank buildings.
Jeff Cohen, a Charlotte resident who plans to vote for Obama, said that the area's banks have been good community citizens, but he expressed dismay at the fortress-like security outside bank buildings.
"I think it's definitely a statement," he said. "It just seems like a real commentary on the banks and their apparent greed."
Rumors are circulating that both Wells Fargo and Bank of America instructed their employees who are based near the convention site not to come into the office this week.
B of A did not respond to a request for comment, while a Wells spokeswoman said in an email: "We have a plan in place for our team members and have communicated it internally, but are not providing any specifics."
Paul Goda, a Charlotte resident who described himself as a conservative, said that banks are getting a bad rap in the public discourse. Not only do Charlotte's banks create jobs and business opportunities, but they have also been solid community citizens, he said.
"I worked for a United Way campaign a few years ago and saw how they came out," he said.