It was a campaign about roads, about taxes, about finding money for education. It was won by a candidate from outside state government who promised to bring a fresh approach as North Carolina governor.
Voters chose a man from Charlotte whose best-known political credentials came from his days as a mayor.
His name was Cameron Morrison, and the year was 1920.
Morrison was the last man from Charlotte to win the governor’s office before Pat McCrory breezed to victory Tuesday.
Funny how things change. And how they don’t.
Both Morrison and McCrory were mayors – Morrison in Rockingham and McCrory in Charlotte.
Both were attracted to Charlotte by its commerce. Morrison, a Democrat, moved from Richmond County to practice law after serving as mayor; McCrory, a Republican, came from Guilford County to work at Duke Energy.
Both elections came in a time of polarizing politics and economic crisis. Both came at a point of political paralysis, in part because of pessimism over a bad economy.
In 1920, only Texas had more farms than North Carolina. Mechanization was ravaging farm jobs. Today, we’re losing jobs in industries from finance to manufacturing to construction.
Morrison’s era of change
Somehow, Morrison overcame the negatives of his day and is still remembered as “the good-roads governor.”
Despite critics fretting he would bankrupt the state by floating bonds, he built 5,000 miles of roads. They stimulated the state’s agrarian economy, opened new markets to manufacturing and soon paid for themselves.
He isn’t remembered as “the good-schools governor,” but he was the one who put the state on the path to superior education. He found millions to upgrade secondary education and set the state’s universities on a course to national excellence.
McCrory, too, has made education a priority, endorsing pay-for-performance raises for teachers and fresh, high-tech approaches to instruction on the high-school level.
Among his greatest challenges will be the new crisis in higher education.
North Carolina’s university system is reeling from deep recessionary cuts. Especially vulnerable are the state’s community colleges, vital to producing a skilled workforce needed to attract industry.
Transportation defined Morrison’s era and it will define McCrory’s.
Roads in Morrison’s day were built for horse and buggy. McCrory inherits a road network from the tail-fin era, one antiquated, overburdened and at choke point in many urban areas.
So dire is the situation that many are pushing for toll roads – a repulsive approach to motorists who already pay one of the highest fuel tax rates in the nation.
McCrory’s challenges similar
Morrison succeeded because he was bold at a time when caution was the safe bet. He commanded the legislature to gamble on the state’s future, and it paid off. Morrison saw achievement through growth and overcame critics pushing for retreat in the face of tough times. McCrory takes office in a similar period of economic distress marked by pressure to play it safe.
McCrory ran on a platform of cutting taxes and the size of government. But as mayor he was pro-growth and willing to invest in big projects like light rail.
As governor, will McCrory persuade those who want to cut or those who want to invest?
“It’s time for a Carolina comeback,” McCrory proclaimed to cheering supporters at the Westin Hotel in Charlotte Tuesday night. How he intends to do it will be soon apparent.
But he’d be wise to consider the words of the last governor from Charlotte, from his inaugural address:
“North Carolina is one of the truly rich and great states of the union, and nothing can keep prosperity from soon returning to us except our own cowardice and pessimism.”