RALEIGH The legislature comes back to Raleigh this week, likely to overturn the only two vetoes that Gov. Pat McCrory issued after the tumultuous session of 2013.
If the vetoes are overridden, it will not be the first time the rookie Republican governor has been put in an awkward position by a legislature dominated by his own party.
After nearly eight months in office, McCrory has the look of an embattled governor. He has seen the legislature drive the agenda, a role traditionally held by the chief executive. Elected as a pragmatic business conservative, he has been part of what outside observers have said was one of the sharpest ideological shifts in the country. And his promise to improve North Carolina’s brand has been called into question by a raft of negative national publicity.
Having taken office riding a wave of popularity, McCrory has seen his polling numbers drop, and he is now shadowed by protesters.
“He has a much deeper hole to dig himself out of to become an effective policy and public leader,” said Jack Fleer, a political science professor emeritus at Wake Forest University whose 2007 book, “Governors Speak,” studied five modern North Carolina governors. “The perception out there is that the General Assembly and maybe even other people in his administration have had a major role in defining him, defining his administration, and maybe even defining the state. He has a tougher road ahead.”
This was not the way McCrory’s supporters envisioned things when he was inaugurated in January.
During a critical time in his governorship – when governors have their most political capital – the legislature grabbed control of the agenda. Republican lawmakers had a two-year head start being in charge, and they started more quickly than McCrory, who was still assembling his team.
Nearly every major decision was initiated by the legislature – including abortion restrictions, major cuts in income and corporate taxes, sharp cuts in unemployment benefits, refusal to expand Medicaid health insurance to 500,000 North Carolinians, and passage of one of the country’s most restrictive voter ID bills.
“Unlike the other governors I have looked at, he seems to have been possibly steamrolled by the General Assembly, which did have its own agenda and does have some experience, and had a two-year warm-up period,” Fleer said.
‘Mayor Pat’ as mediator
Not everyone agrees with that assessment.
John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, said that the bigger picture shows that most of McCrory’s legislative agenda has been enacted into law, including such campaign promises as lowering tax rates and lessening government regulations. Other McCrory priorities, such as modernizing the highway funding formula and converting the industrial recruiting process into a public/private partnership, were enacted.
“I am trying to think of a major issue where he didn’t get his way,” Hood said.
McCrory, in a recent interview, said his own role as mediator, trying to move the debate more toward the political center, has often been under-appreciated. And in many ways, McCrory said, he remained the same “Mayor Pat” from Charlotte who led a Democratic-leaning city for 14 years.
He views himself as a practical problem solver rather than an ideologue, someone more interested in making sure government runs efficiently than in creating big new legacy programs.
There are a number of reasons that McCrory has struggled, according to interviews with gubernatorial watchers. He had less Raleigh and legislative experience than most recent governors. His time as mayor and his background as a Duke Energy midlevel manager did not provide him with deep executive experience. And because Republicans had been out of power for 20 years, finding people both qualified and willing to serve took longer than usual.
There was also a bit of an ideological division, with McCrory working with a legislature dominated by rural conservatives heavily influenced by the tea party movement.
“He was brand-new as governor and had to be filling his Cabinet positions and getting a budget ready and doing the housekeeping things at the beginning of the session,” said Phil Kirk, chief of staff to the state’s two previous GOP governors. “I thought he got off to a relatively cautious and slow start with the legislature.”
Moreover, McCrory did not want to get off to a bad start with lawmakers who helped him win election and who had their own constituencies within the GOP, Kirk said. There were also major political risks in challenging the legislature.
“McCrory did not want to take on a lot of battles with the legislature and lose – veto and lose,” Kirk said. “That would make him look weak. And candidly he is on the same page as most of them. He would have preferred that some of the more controversial issues like abortion and vouchers that they had did not come up, but they did, and he had to deal with them.”
McCrory said he agreed with the legislature on most issues, but there were some traditional legislative/executive struggles, particularly with the Senate, where he said some senators wanted a powerful body such as that run by former Democratic leaders Marc Basnight and Tony Rand. “It would have been easier in the Senate to have my predecessor in office whose vetoes didn’t mean anything,” McCrory said. “I think there were some in the Senate who kind of wanted to replicate the Basnight-Rand model.”
“That is the culture I came to change, not to emulate,” McCrory said. “So there was some tension, but in 90 percent of the cases, in the end we came together. But it wasn’t without some infighting. I kept most of the infighting behind the scenes.”
Sometimes it seeped out, such as when Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County criticized McCrory for not backing a sweeping Senate tax overhaul plan. “If Pat had any real business experience, he would not make such a poor policy decision,” Rucho said.
A retreat on taxes
While McCrory ended up supporting nearly all of the legislature’s major initiatives, he played a role – often with the aid of House Speaker Thom Tillis – in trying to shape legislation. Often, McCrory tried to push issues more toward the political center.
Perhaps no issue so dominated the legislature as tax cuts. McCrory had campaigned for tax reform, arguing that reductions were needed to make the state more competitive with surrounding states.
But he rejected early tax overhaul plans proposed by the Senate as being too expensive, draining future state revenues, and making “too dramatic a change in too short a time.” At the same time, McCrory retreated from his initial position that he wanted tax reform legislation that was “revenue neutral.”
There were other legislative fights where McCrory was not, as his critics sometimes maintain, a rubber stamp for the legislature.
He successfully pushed for continued gun registration with county sheriffs, for a go-slow policy in allowing controversial new terminal groins to be built to stop coastal erosion, and slowed a bill that would allow a huge landfill in Camden County that drew opposition from Virginia and the U.S. Navy. He also sought a less-restrictive abortion bill than was proposed by the Senate.
“Both the left and right were wrong on the abortion issue,” McCrory said. “The right was passing legislation that would basically shut down all the clinics. The left was pretending there was no problem in existing businesses. And they continue to have a blind eye. We are continuing to have a problem with existing clinics, including not mopping floors between abortions and having non-sterile equipment being used and not one peep about these problems.”
Trouble with the curve?
For a seasoned politician, McCrory has not always been sure-footed. Like his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, his off-the-cuff remarks can sometimes get him in trouble – whether it’s his comments about the value of a liberal arts education or exaggerating that he had talked with “Moral Monday” protesters when he just had an exchange with a couple of critics during a walk.
There also have been unforced errors, such as his administration providing big salaries for young campaign workers at a time when teachers and state employees were going without raises.
Having taken the measure of McCrory, the Democrats have concluded that he is no Jim Martin, the state’s last Republican governor, in terms of political skills, ability to command a room, or even to gain respect from fellow Republicans. Democratic candidates are already lining up to challenge him.
“He is a AA minor-league player who has been called up to the majors who has trouble hitting major-league pitching,” said Gary Pearce, who was chief strategist for Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. “He was not ready for this. Being mayor of Charlotte did not give him the experience in dealing with the legislature. He has been a cheerleader or an observer, but he has not been in charge.”
But Kirk, the former Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser aide, said McCrory’s growth in the job has been evident, and he became increasingly engaged in legislative issues during the last half of the session.
“I think there will be a different Gov. McCrory in the second, third and fourth years of his administration,” Kirk said. “I think it has just taken a while to get organized and get comfortable. It is certainly different being a mayor and being a governor.”
McCrory now finds his speeches routinely recorded by his opponents. He is met by protesters as he travels around the state. The Republicans are winning every political battle, but McCrory sometimes sounds as if he is in a political bunker.
He talks darkly about efforts to “eviscerate” him – a reference to the three-page memo written by Jessica Laurenz, director of America Votes, last December of the need for liberal groups to “eviscerate the leadership and weaken their ability to govern” and to use the news media to do so.
“There was not a honeymoon period,” McCrory said. “In fact, the attacks started in the first week. That probably surprised me. … It’s been tough on my family. When you have people outside your gate calling you names, it’s pretty mean-spirited.”
McCrory sees himself “as an operations guy” in a state capital unhealthily consumed with power politics.
“My biggest challenge has been to focus on policy and operational execution,” McCrory said.
With the legislature gone, McCrory can spend more time with administrative issues. He got through the legislature some of the major changes he sought – such as a new formula for funding roads that attempts to put money where there is most traffic congestion, revamping the Department of Commerce into a quasi-private agency for economic development, and putting a new emphasis on vocational training.
His administration is working on an education program and is trying to put Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, on a more stable footing.
McCrory notes that he campaigned on some big issues that he believes will help a sputtering economy, such as making taxes and regulations more business-friendly, and that is happening.
But McCrory said he is not seeking some big legacy project of the type that past governors have promoted.
“Other governors have called themselves the education governor or the jobs governor,” McCrory said. “We don’t have the revenue coming in where we write a check or float a bond. Those days are gone. I have to work within the very difficult parameters that have been given to me. Therefore, I have to adjust. My goal is to fix some of these problems with long-term sustainable solutions.”
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