It was a triumphant night for Pat McCrory.
The Charlotte Republican won a record seventh term last November with a landslide 61 percent of the vote. By an even wider margin, voters rejected an effort to derail his prized achievement, North Carolina's first light rail line.
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Both victories reflected the positive side of McCrory's leadership: his personal popularity, long-term vision and relentless drive.
A month later, another side was on display.
In a particularly rancorous meeting, McCrory and city council Democrats clashed over committee assignments. He snickered at one Democrat and cut off another. Tempers and partisanship flared on both sides.
McCrory's sometimes stubborn impatience has led to friction with the Democrat-controlled council, and even fellow Republicans. But on another level, the GOP gubernatorial candidate has reached across party lines to pursue an ambitious agenda.
In a city where Democrats and independents outnumber Republicans 3-1, he has never won less than 56 percent of the vote, and once took 78 percent. His most vocal critics are conservative Republicans.
“Pat has done a really good job,” says former Mayor Harvey Gantt, a Democrat who supports McCrory's opponent, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue. “Anybody who has the ability to be elected as many times as he's been is obviously doing a good job, and people are comfortable with him.”
As Charlotte's skyline soared, McCrory championed big projects such as light rail, an uptown arena and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He has seen the population explode to nearly 700,000. More than 215,000 Charlotteans – roughly the population of Greensboro – have never known another mayor.
He touts his record as he campaigns against Perdue. While the mayor has limited power in a council-manager government, McCrory has leveraged what he has.
The closest to a full-time mayor the city has ever had, he has used his veto 22 times. Four predecessors used it a total of five. He employed his bully pulpit to push through new taxes on sales and hotel rooms while trying to hold the line on property taxes.
In ice storms and floods, McCrory has almost seemed to relish the role of crisis manager. After Hurricane Katrina, he took a lead in arranging for hundreds of evacuees to come to Charlotte. He found a national stage through advisory roles with a Washington think tank, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
‘Progressive urban agenda'
Economic development was McCrory's last job at Duke Energy, from which he resigned to focus on the governor's race. The company gave him wide latitude while using his status as mayor to help woo corporate customers, such as General Dynamics and Johnson & Wales University.
One corporate official has said McCrory's enthusiasm was infectious.
“Pat has reflected Charlotte's generally moderate political culture,” says Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber. “He has been an incredible spokesperson from an economic development perspective. He sells to corporate CEOs as well as (former Gov.) Jim Hunt did.”
Republican council member John Lassiter says, “You don't have to look very hard around Charlotte to see the impact of his leadership.”
But Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess, a Democrat, has said McCrory taking credit for the city's development “is like a rooster taking credit for the dawn.”
“I give him no credit for our economic prosperity,” she says, “and I give him no blame for our economic downturn. He is a non-factor.”
No one denies McCrory credit, or blame, for light rail.
In 1998 he fought for the half-cent sales tax that funds the $463 million line. Last year he helped defeat the effort to repeal it. He sees rail as part of a broader transportation and land use plan designed to channel growth into urban corridors just as it has done along South Boulevard.
“He has generally supported what I would call a progressive urban agenda for growth,” says Bill McCoy, former director of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute.
Gantt says McCrory's “leadership on public transportation is probably going to be a significant legacy.”
Taxes and crime
In 2001, voters rejected a non-binding referendum that would have used a new car-rental tax to pay for a new arena, baseball stadium and a handful of cultural projects. But just over a year later, McCrory and the council committed to build a $200 million uptown arena in return for an NBA expansion team – infuriating arena opponents who said they went against the will of the voters.
The arena was paid for in part with corporate contributions and an existing hotel tax. In 2006, McCrory successfully pushed for a hike in the hotel tax to pay for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“His biggest failure is overlooking the basic in favor of the big expensive uptown,” says longtime critic Don Reid, a former GOP council member.
Under McCrory, city fees for services went up. While he supported hiking hotel taxes to pay for the NASCAR hall, in 2006 he vetoed a higher car-rental tax for uptown museums. The council overrode it.
That year the council also overrode his veto of a budget that included what officials call the city's first property tax hike in 20 years. In overriding that veto, as well, the council approved a budget with 70 new police officers. McCrory had supported a budget with fewer.
Since he took office in 1995, the city has added 366 officers. Crime rates over the years have fluctuated, though generally dropped, according to the State Bureau of Investigation. In 2007, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police saw the lowest violent crime rate since 1993. This year has seen a spike, which experts blame in part on the economy.
McCrory has presided over a city that is generally open. The mayor and manager, for example, make e-mails and other documents available to the media.
McCrory calls himself a “hands-on mayor.” He credits his successes to a team approach. But some say he misses opportunities to collaborate.
Council member Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, says McCrory sometimes shows “a certain obstinacy that at times can be irrational.”
“Once he's made a decision, he stays pretty firmly planted there,” Foxx says. “Some decisions can require a little more nimbleness of mind, and he tends not to be very flexible.”
McCrory admits to impatience “with people who don't want to solve problems but just identify problems.”
“We've never stopped moving forward on my agenda,” he says. “We've never been at a standstill like (state government in) Raleigh is …
“I don't expect everybody to agree with me, but I hope they know I'm doing what I think is best for the city.”