First of two parts.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory's “caravan of justice” was loading up the buses to head back home. City and county leaders from across the state had finished their day of lobbying the legislature for money for cops and courts.
McCrory, who organized the excursion last year, yelled out to two reporters passing nearby, summoning them over.
“How'd we do?” he asked, grinning with satisfaction. “What'd they (legislators) say?”
At the end of the day, he wants to know what the crowd thought. Call it feedback or call it affirmation. He gets recharged by it. He learns from it. Sometimes he chafes at it.
It's difficult to get him off the phone. As a basketball referee, he discovered “you can get yelled at for making decisions.” He thought the legislature was ignoring requests from him and other mayors for law enforcement money, so he rounded up the caravan, which drew statewide media attention.
“He really seeks approval of the people around him. ‘Did I get it right? Did I do a good job?'” said Beau Mills, who was director of an association of mayors from larger N.C. cities that McCrory chaired for a couple years.
Mills and others said McCrory wants to know the answer, not for self-congratulations, but to do the job right.
“I want feedback to see if we're accomplishing something,” McCrory said. “I want action with an end result.”
He doesn't, though, seek some of the input he needs, said Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat and former Mecklenburg County commissioner, highlighting McCrory's lukewarm relationship with his city's legislators in Raleigh.
“He certainly hasn't sought my feedback,” Carney said. “One of the biggest issues facing Charlotte is transportation and I've chaired the (transportation) committee for four years. I kept waiting, thinking there'd be a phone call to sit down and talk.”
A seven-term mayor, McCrory plays political ringmaster, and he enjoys it. And it shows. He literally backslaps, grabs the arm of the person whose hand he's shaking and leans in close to talk. He's a wisecracker who, standing in the back of a room during a speech, tells jokes in a stage whisper to the person next to him. His answers can be sketchy on details, but he also isn't afraid to say “I don't know.”
He also possesses an infamously short temper that has flared in private and public alike.
“He does lose it occasionally,” said McCrory's predecessor as mayor, Republican Richard Vinroot. “And sometimes that's not very becoming, and he would admit that. But that's part of his personality and, frankly, part of his appeal.”
Running from speech to reception to meeting doesn't appear to wear McCrory down. Instead, he seems to extract energy from a rapid fire succession of events both in and out of the spotlight.
He went out to talk to riders of Charlotte's new light rail system on its first days. He rides with police officers at 1 a.m. instead of just getting briefings from the police chief.
That kind of wiring keeps McCrory at optimum speed as the Republican nominee for governor, criss-crossing the state. He's now running even or slightly ahead of Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic candidate, in a year when the national tide favors her party and is pounding his.
Part of his success lies in his image as a metro Republican, a suburban appearance that doesn't peg him to an ideology. The Ohio native doesn't have a thick drawl and doesn't try to pretend that he raised tobacco as a kid.
“Like most Republicans, he's a conservative, but he's a very practical fellow,” Vinroot said. “He's done things in the past to indicate that he's not a right winger.”
McCrory, who turns 52 on Friday, is not following some obvious, lifelong, Bill Clinton-style yearning for politics, nor will he tell you of some cathartic moment from which he began a quest to win an election.
“My interest (in political office) was gradual,” he said.
In a way, McCrory's rise in politics is a bit of unfinished family business.
No one talked during dinner at the McCrory household in Worthington, Ohio, near Columbus. They watched Walter Cronkite deliver the news on CBS. They consumed “Time,” “Newsweek” and newspapers. McCrory and his three older siblings couldn't help but develop political antenna as children of a city councilman.
When McCrory talks about transportation or urban growth in speeches, he still quotes from one of his dad's campaign brochures about walking a line between economic prosperity and maintaining quality of life. Rollin “Mac” McCrory traveled in his job, so when he missed a city council meeting, he dispatched 9-year-old or 10-year-old Pat to bicycle there, sit in the audience and take notes.
Mac McCrory's political career was cut short by a new job that moved the family to Jamestown, N.C., when Pat was in fifth grade. McCrory's parents again enmeshed themselves in civic work.
Pat McCrory played most every sport, including football, despite his then-small stature. (He's now just under 6-feet.) His older and taller brother, Phil, held his arm straight out, planting his hand square on Pat's forehead to hold back the future mayor, cartoon-like, during sibling squabbles.
“That didn't stop him from swinging,” Phil McCrory recalled.
Pat McCrory didn't hesitate to charge after the biggest player on the opposing gridiron team, but he didn't always hang with the athletes. He also didn't stick with the brainy students.
“He wasn't really into politics,” recalls classmate Rusty Garrett, now a general contractor in Jamestown. “He wasn't a bookworm, he wasn't a jock. He was a very social guy. He liked being around people.”
McCrory said he never fit a clique. He moved among several groups.
“He mixed with all of them and everybody seemed to like him,” said T.G. Madison, McCrory's principal at Ragsdale High School where, to his friends' surprise, McCrory ran for student government president senior year and won.
He had never even run for homeroom representative before and still can't explain what prompted him to seek the top job. He was better known for his extensive collection of Beatles albums.
Work and study
At Catawba College, he debated U.S. Supreme Court cases or the Constitution with his political science advisor in class and worked summers on construction or as a meter reader for Duke Energy, twice bitten by a dog.
“I was never satisfied hanging around one group that's all the same,” McCrory said.
He also needed to make money.
McCrory finished student teaching and received his N.C. teaching certificate at Catawba, but a job offer from Duke Energy scrapped his plans for teaching after graduating in 1978. A management training program put him through a rotation of digging ditches and climbing electric poles in addition to tours through office jobs. He rose through positions in credit and a variety of recruiting and training posts. He resigned early this year from his job recruiting corporate customers.
Duke laid McCrory off in 1988, two months before his wedding. The power company hired him back a week later, but he concluded he had grown too comfortable. He decided to ratchet up the challenges in his life and turned to familiar ground – politics.
He spent six years on city council before getting elected mayor in 1995. He escorted his father, ill with cancer, to the mayor's office after the election and keeps a framed photo from that day. Less than two weeks later, his father died.
Politics “was in both of their DNAs,” said Phil McCrory.
McCrory said perhaps his greatest regret is that he and his wife, Ann, didn't adopt a child after failing to have their own.
“I wish I could have been a father,” he said.
Growth in job
In his early years as mayor, McCrory's temper and thin skin sometimes showed.
“Charlotte's getting the hell beat out of it,” he fumed to then-Rep. Ed McMahan, a Charlotte Republican, after a legislative committee in Raleigh rebuffed McCrory on a tax fight in 2001.
Two years later he and then-Councilman Malcolm Graham barked at each other in a public meeting while arguing about reorganizing a city council committee that deals with the state legislature.
McCrory and some of those around him say he's developed more patience.
“He really has matured in (the job),” said former N.C. Rep. Ed McMahan, a Charlotte Republican who helped orchestrate McCrory's run for governor.
He huddles with political pals but also mentors youngsters and says he learns from both. He doesn't talk politics among his regular golf foursome or at his weekly Bible study at Noble's restaurant, which he's missed during the campaign.
“He can come and just be Pat and share anything he wants to share and know it's confidential,” said Rev. David Chadwick, who leads the group.
At home, his wife, Ann, doesn't share his interest in public attention, but is prepared to be first lady.
“She might be under the radar screen,” McCrory said.
She doesn't hesitate to offer some of that feedback her husband craves, perhaps not the kind he wants but the kind he needs to keep his ego in check.
“She tells me to pick up my socks,” he said, “and walk the dog.”