Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s first months on the job were trying ones.
It was legislators from his own party who drove major policy debates on everything from abortion rights to voter identification in 2013, often leaving the new governor little more than a spectator.
“Clearly, the first year the legislature set the agenda much more than McCrory did,” says Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst at UNC Chapel Hill.
Now, as lawmakers head back to Raleigh on Wednesday for their short session, McCrory promises to be more of a policy force.
“We will probably be more assertive than in our first year, which I frankly thought was extremely assertive,” McCrory says. “We had a heck of a good first year, but now I think we can take even more initiatives.”
Charlotte’s former mayor already has announced plans to raise teacher pay and deal with fallout from February’s coal ash spill in the Dan River. He promises more in areas such as education, energy and transportation.
It’s an ambitious agenda for a session where the main business will be adjusting next year’s budget in the face of a projected $445 million revenue shortfall and a $140 million Medicaid deficit.
The shortfalls will pressure lawmakers to find more ways to cut spending or generate revenue while teachers and state employees press for higher pay and Moral Monday protesters continue to hammer away at Republican policies – all during an election year.
McCrory says belt-tightening has left enough savings – an estimated $600 million – to cover some gaps and raise teacher pay.
Any new initiatives by McCrory may follow the model of last week’s event, where he unveiled his teacher pay plan at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro before an audience of education and business leaders from around the state.
“We’re being much more transparent in letting the public and media know about our plans,” McCrory says.
Absent from the Greensboro event, however, were leading legislators, including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis.
“It was somewhat telling that you didn’t see Berger or Tillis there,” says Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican who chairs the influential Rules Committee. “It was, as far as we could tell, a last-minute thing.
“Hopefully (McCrory) has learned that we have to work together to get things done. I don’t know if he’s there yet. Hopefully this session will tell us that.”
Playing ‘inside baseball’
Last year, tension sometimes flared between McCrory and lawmakers, particularly in the Senate.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and architect of a state tax overhaul plan, chided the governor when he appeared to discount the Senate’s proposal. “If Pat had real business experience, he would not make such a poor policy decision,” Rucho said at the time.
Last month, Apodaca got frustrated when McCrory gave legislators little notice before unveiling his plan for dealing with the coal ash crisis. So did Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte, a GOP leader in the House.
“If he had asked my advice on coal ash, that’s not the way I would have suggested he handle it,” she says. “I didn’t think it was his role as the executive branch to propose legislation. We’ll look at what he proposed. But the legislation on coal ash will start with the legislature.”
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, says McCrory hasn’t shown he knows how to work with the legislature.
“He simply doesn’t do the inside baseball game,” says Blue, who served as House speaker under Democratic and Republican governors.
“We had constant dialogue (with the governors) so you could see if you could align your interests,” Blue says. “But you also engage the opposition. They might have a good idea. But you’re never going to know if you never engage them.”
McCrory heard similar complaints in 2007. As mayor, he led a caravan to Raleigh to push for more money for courts and law enforcement. Some lawmakers called it grandstanding and grumbled that he’d given state officials little advance notice.
The governor’s advisers
When the 2013 session started, McCrory and legislators were in different places. He was still assembling his administration – “still in the hiring mode” – he says. GOP lawmakers were organized around a clear agenda of lower taxes and less regulation.
“The big difference (this year) is that my Cabinet teams are firmly established,” McCrory says.
“The most difficult thing in dealing with the legislature is at times a few House members and a few senators seem to have much more control and veto over their colleagues’ activity, similar to the old (Democratic) regimes I used to have to deal with as mayor. There’s often a small, core group of legislators who seem to have control.”
Since the last session, McCrory has lost two advisers, one with extensive experience dealing with lawmakers.
Jack Hawke, an experienced party tactician who worked with three Republican governors, died last November. And campaign adviser Brian Nick, executive director of Renew North Carolina, a group formed to support McCrory, left this month for a job in Arkansas.
McCrory still turns for advice to a predecessor.
Former Gov. Jim Martin of Lake Norman led the state from 1985-1993 and had to deal with a Democratic legislature. He offers McCrory support and counsel, sometimes over a round of golf.
“I think he’s learning, and learning how to work with his legislative majority,” Martin says. “I cautioned him not to take them for granted. And I think he’s learned that.”
Last year, McCrory invited small groups of lawmakers to breakfast at his residence. This year, he’s taken his outreach a step further – visiting legislators in their districts as he did Friday in Wilkes County, where he met with three Republicans: Sen. Dan Soucek of Watauga County and Reps. Sarah Stevens of Surry County and Jeff Elmore of Wilkes County.
‘They don’t need him’
UNC’s Guillory says there’s a structural reason the governor has problems with members of his own party. Most lawmakers are in safe districts. And they don’t rely on the governor to raise money.
“They don’t need him,” Guillory says. “That makes it much harder for a governor to dominate the legislature.”
McCrory says he’s in “constant communication” with legislative leaders. On controversial issues such as Common Core, the national educational standards that McCrory supports and many GOP lawmakers oppose, the governor believes they can find common ground.
McCrory acknowledges inherent tensions between the executive and legislative branches. But, he says, “I anticipate that we’ll be together 80 to 90 percent of the time.”
“We’re having very good dialogue and, in almost all cases, good cooperation,” he says.
Martin says McCrory “thrives on the excitement of debate and getting things done.”
“I’m concerned that he takes the political criticism a little too personally,” Martin says. “He got elected and he’s got a job to do, and some of it is going to take more time than you’d like. But just be patient and persistent.”