The conversation isn’t difficult to imagine – the governor and his wife, perhaps at the kitchen table, taking stock of their new home. “The bathrooms are in really bad shape,” one of them says. “The vanity has a crack in it.” Or worse: “Is that mold behind the sink?”
If you’re a homeowner new or old, it’s a discussion you probably recognize. But if you’re N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and the state is spending $230,000 to fix your six executive mansion bathrooms? A little mold problem can quickly become a big perception problem.
This week, after some headlines and public outcry over Pottygate, McCrory canceled most of the scheduled repairs to the bathrooms, which were last remodeled about 40 years ago. If that seems like a big stink over a relatively small budget item, well, yes. So why the outrage? One answer is that spending six figures on bathrooms seems indefensible when you’re preaching – and practicing – austerity in public spending. After all, public school teachers aren’t writing checks for pricey marble fixtures after another year without raises.
There’s also a very long political history of raised eyebrows following members of any First Family deciding to “update” the drapes, carpet, etc., in their new digs. Said Abraham Lincoln to his wife, Mary Todd, after her extreme White House makeover: “It would stink in the nostrils of the American people to have it said that the President of the United States had approved a bill overrunning an appropriation of $20,000 for flub dubs for this damned old house, when the soldiers cannot have blankets.”
McCrory’s repairs, it should be said, do not seem terribly out of line with the $5 million Democrats approved a decade ago for mansion renovations. It’s a 122-year old house, one that’s expensive to fix, and no one should expect the governor to be shopping the clearance shelf for this stately Victorian home. Still, unless you’ve spent time in those bathrooms, it’s hard to say how much of the costs were necessary vs. “while we’re in here, let’s do it up right.”
But there’s a bigger issue for the governor than getting caught in the possible commission of extravagance. The bathrooms might very well be miserable at his new home, but he has been indifferent to miseries big and small since taking office. He’s dismissed the very basic strains he’s put on North Carolinians, who sit at their kitchen tables struggling because the state cut back their unemployment benefits, or because the governor declined a Medicaid expansion, or even because his administration decided to stop offering formula to moms who wanted to keep their babies healthy.
What happened this week wasn’t only about the governor having a tin political ear. It was about a governor who thought nothing of having the government help someone – so long as that someone was looking back from his bathroom mirror.
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