In a hard-hitting and wide-ranging debate, Republican Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper sparred over House Bill 2, their own records and the two major presidential candidates.
The debate at UNC-TV featured the top candidates in one of the nation’s highest profile gubernatorial races. Recent polls show Cooper with an edge.
The meeting took place with much of the state still dealing with the unfolding effects of Hurricane Matthew.
HB2, the law that nullified a Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance, was an early flashpoint. Among other provisions, the law requires transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate in government buildings.
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Cooper tried to hammer at McCrory’s credibility. “Once again the governor is lying,” he said more than once.
McCrory cast Cooper as ineffective and self-serving. “You’re about as straight as another trial lawyer who became a politician in North Carolina – John Edwards,” McCrory said, referring to the former Democratic U.S. senator who got embroiled in scandal.
Promising to repeal HB2, Cooper took note of the corporations and athletic events that have left the state over the measure that many view as discriminatory against the LGBT community.
“We need a good jobs governor, not an HB2 governor,” Cooper said.
McCrory blamed the controversy on Cooper and Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts for what he called “a major change in culture.”
“Governor, what planet are you on?” Cooper replied. “We’ve got to stop blaming it on others.”
“The attorney general doesn’t deny that he and Jennifer Roberts started this,” McCrory shot back. He said the state needed HB2 to protect people’s privacy in restrooms.
Moderator Chuck Todd of NBC News asked each candidate which restroom Caitlyn Jenner should use. Cooper said the state shouldn’t be involved in the decision. McCrory said the law doesn’t determine where Jenner, a transgender woman, goes in private facilities but in public facilities she should use the men’s locker room.
McCrory touted his record of lower taxes, falling unemployment and added jobs, which he calls the “Carolina Comeback.”
But Cooper shot back with criticism of the economic losses caused by HB2.
“Gov. McCrory wants to be a Carolina Comeback governor. I want to be a ‘Come back to North Carolina governor,’ ” Cooper said.
“That’s all he talks about because he wants to cover up the incredible progress we’ve made in this economy,” McCrory said.
In addition to HB2, the two sparred over:
▪ Abortion. McCrory defended a law that he signed that has been criticized by Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights supporters. He said the law puts no limit on abortion.
“This is another example of Gov. McCrory distorting his own record,” Cooper said.
McCrory accused Cooper of doing nothing to improve two abortion clinics – including one in Charlotte – that his administration closed for what they called safety reasons. “You stood on the sidelines,” McCrory said.
▪ Crime labs. Like his ads, McCrory attacked Cooper over problems at the state crime lab.
“If you can’t handle the crime lab … how are you going to handle all of state government?” the governor asked.
Cooper said he’d ordered an independent investigation of the state crime lab issues years ago.
▪ Police videos. Asked if they support House Bill 972, which restricts the release of police videos, McCrory said he does. He called it a good balance of the need for public transparency and the integrity of investigations.
Cooper said while he supports law enforcement officials, “the presumption should be transparency.”
▪ Presidential candidates. Todd asked McCrory why he continues to support Donald Trump even though he condemned his lewd remarks of a sexual nature on a video leaked last week.
“Mr. Trump needs to have his mouth washed out with soap, but so does Mrs. Clinton,” said McCrory, who said he supports the Republican nominee’s stand on other issues.
“It’s hard to believe that Gov. McCrory continued to support a presidential candidate who condones sexual assault,” Cooper said. “Gov. McCrory and Donald Trump are a lot alike. They both have trouble with the facts and they both engage in divisive rhetoric.”
McCrory said Cooper supported Bill Clinton, who was also accused of sexual improprieties.
▪ Voter ID. McCrory said he still supports the law requiring voter IDs that was struck down by a federal court. He said the law did not discriminate, even though Todd said the judges found it targeted African-Americans “with surgical precision.”
Cooper said he continues to oppose the law.
Outside the studios, a coalition calling itself the Triangle May Day Unity coalition gathered to pressure McCrory and Cooper to improve their records on a variety of issues: addressing police violence, ending cooperation with federal immigration officials, welcoming Syrian refugees and establishing a $15-an-hour minimum wage and collective bargaining.
This is the first live televised debate between the two candidates. They answered questions together at an event in Charlotte in June, and are scheduled to engage in a final live debate next Tuesday sponsored by WRAL-TV in Raleigh.