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Mayor Pat’s political perils

By Rob Christensen
(Raleigh) News & Observer

On a Charlotte radio station last week, I was asked what in the world has happened to Mayor Pat since he moved to Raleigh six months ago.

My answer is that nothing has happened. Gov. McCrory and Mayor Pat are the same guy – a pragmatic, moderate conservative, who is basically an engaging person who enjoys meeting people, and who sometimes says the darndest things.

What has changed is the political context. In Charlotte, he was mayor of a Democratic-leaning city, working with a Democratic City Council and the most forward-looking business community in the state.

In Raleigh, McCrory is trying to grab hold of the reins of a runaway Republican legislature. It has adopted one of the most conservative agendas in the country – an Ayn Rand-ALEC-Arthur Laffer fantasy where dimple-chinned hero/entrepreneurs, finally unshackled by socialistic state taxes and regulations, will create hundreds of thousands of jobs that will rocket North Carolina into a new era of prosperity. Or so the theory goes.

McCrory likes to describe himself as an Eisenhower Republican. In Raleigh, he is facing a crowd that includes a lot of Newt Gingrich, Tom Coburn, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann wannabes.

This has placed McCrory in a politically impossible situation.

He ran as a moderate. His Hollywood-produced TV ads were soft-focused spots about bringing people together as he did in Charlotte – images that won him the support of significant numbers of independent and moderate Democratic voters.

But the GOP base expects him, as the first Republican governor in 20 years, to toe the conservative line.

Under fire for choices

Governing is about choosing.

In every big decision he’s made, McCrory has moved to his political right – although he has tried to soften his decisions with a lot of Clintonesque hand-wringing about how he feels everybody’s pain.

He has backed the legislature’s decision to cut off unemployment benefits to 70,000 unemployed workers, not to extend federally funded Medicaid health insurance to 500,000 poor people, and last week to back a bill that is likely to put new restrictions on abortion clinics.

Each decision has been controversial, affecting the lives of thousands of North Carolinians.

Not surprisingly, McCrory has come under a lot of fire for his decisions – from protesters to newspaper editorials. McCrory, who, like many politicians, has a strong desire to be liked and a thin skin for criticism, seems shell-shocked. The turmoil has left him muttering about “outsiders” protesting in Raleigh and complaining about his treatment in the news media.

As Charlotte mayor, McCrory faced far fewer tough decisions, and the choices were often made in concert with a City Council and a city manager. He often took more flak from the right – such as for his backing of mass transit – than he did from the left.

Despite the rightward tilt, McCrory has often received little respect from the Republican legislature, particularly from the Senate. The legislature was used to running state government during the past two years under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and saw no reason to change things under a Republican governor.

McCrory has lacked what his two GOP predecessors had – a professional SOB. Gov. Jim Martin had Brad Hayes, and Gov. Jim Holshouser had Gene Anderson, two political pros who acted as enforcers. McCrory badly needs someone who will go toe-to-toe with lawmakers to explain who was elected statewide and who wasn’t – and who controls roads, jobs and judgeships. This is the way politics has always worked and always will work.

Nearly all the major policy initiatives of the past six months – most especially tax policy – have been initiated by the legislature, not the governor’s office.

There have been a few exceptions, such as the reorganization of the Commerce Department and a new highway funding formula. But those are not the stuff of which gubernatorial legacies are made.

The N.C. legislature has historically been one of the most powerful in the country. It is the only legislature with its own building. Any governor who does not stand up to the General Assembly will soon be roadkill.

Christensen: 919-829-4532; rchristensen@newsobserver.com
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