Politics & Government

Fellow Republicans test NC Gov. Pat McCrory

Gov. Pat McCrory heads to a Senate Republican Caucus meeting, held behind closed doors, at the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh earlier this month.
Gov. Pat McCrory heads to a Senate Republican Caucus meeting, held behind closed doors, at the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh earlier this month. clowenst@newsobserver.com

Gov. Pat McCrory has had better weeks.

Two top Senate Republicans ridiculed him in public. Another influential Republican ripped him for chastising legislators while he was “gallivanting around the state cutting ribbons.”

A coalition of media and advocacy groups including the Observer sued him and his administration for “stonewalling” on the delivery of public records.

It’s been the toughest week of the term so far.

Tom Eamon, political scientist at East Carolina University

Liberals slammed him for signing a bill making it harder to remove Confederate monuments and for not doing more to stop the issuance of Confederate flag license plates.

“It’s been the toughest week of the term so far,” said Tom Eamon, a political scientist at East Carolina University.

It’s not the first time McCrory has faced critics or feuded with fellow Republicans, particularly in the Senate.

But the latest skirmish threatens to further jeopardize his legislative agenda – including money for economic development and a statewide referendum on $2.85 billion in bonds for roads and other projects.

It also comes 16 months before he faces re-election. A few weeks ago, a poll by a left-leaning firm showed him trailing Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper for the first time, in part because of declining support from people who voted Republican in 2012.

McCrory could not be reached. But spokesman Graham Wilson says McCrory has repeatedly reached out to lawmakers.

“Gov. McCrory is committed to working with the legislative leadership and has been meeting with the leadership on a regular basis,” he said. “The governor is trying to keep the focus on … jobs, (the) economy and infrastructure.”

Marc Rotterman, a Republican ad-maker from Raleigh, said the governor has plenty of time to make his case.

“It’s July of 2015, and clearly he hasn’t had a good week, but he has plenty of time to regroup,” Rotterman said. “He has several things going for him the general public will like.”

Tax rates and unemployment are down. The governor’s administration has paid off a nearly $3 billion debt to the federal government and seen a budget deficit grow into a $400 million surplus.

But rarely have so many prominent Republicans slammed their party’s governor.

‘A lack of relationships’

GOP Sen. Tom Apodaca, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, was asked by the Asheville Citizen-Times what role the governor is playing in budget negotiations.

“The governor doesn’t play much of a role in anything,” he replied.

Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville took McCrory to task for chiding lawmakers for taking a week off this month while he himself was “gallivanting around.”

I can’t figure out if Pat thinks he is the governor of Charlotte or the mayor of North Carolina.

GOP Sen. Harry Brown

And when McCrory blasted a Senate plan to redistribute sales tax revenues from rich to poor counties as “left-wing” and “liberal” – hours after officials from some of the state’s poorest counties had called for its passage – Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown called him “tone-deaf.”

“I can’t figure out if Pat thinks he is the governor of Charlotte or the mayor of North Carolina,” said Brown, an Onslow County Republican not exactly known as a liberal.

Part of McCrory’s conflict with lawmakers is philosophical. The governor has said the sales tax plan would “cripple the economic and trade centers” of the state.

Part is institutional. Friction between governors and lawmakers of either party is common. On top of that, McCrory and the legislature are locked in a separation-of-powers case now before the state Supreme Court. And twice this year, lawmakers have overridden the governor’s vetoes.

But part of the tension is personal.

McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, went into office as an outsider. In 2007, he led a caravan to Raleigh to pressure the then-Democratic controlled legislature to authorize more money for state courts. He’s also notoriously thin-skinned.

“He likes to go personally at people, and I resent it,” said Brown. “My colleagues are starting to feel the same way.”

McGrady, a former president of the national Sierra Club, said he would expect to find himself on the same page as a governor who came to office as a moderate conservative. But he laments what he calls “a lot of missed opportunities.”

It’s like he doesn’t understand what our job is. And some of my colleagues don’t think he understands what his job is.

Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady

“There’s a lack of engagement; there’s a lack of relationships,” McGrady said. “It’s like he doesn’t understand what our job is. And some of my colleagues don’t think he understands what his job is.”

The legislature as a foil

Last week, officials from nearly a dozen poor counties spoke at a news conference in favor of the sales tax shift, McCrory carried at least seven of those counties in 2012. Eamon, the ECU political scientist, said the governor’s position could hurt him in rural areas in 2016, maybe by dampening voter enthusiasm.

But half of next year’s votes will come from the state’s 13 most populous counties, said political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College. Most of those counties would be hurt by the tax shift. And McCrory has come to the defense of urban areas in other ways. He criticized lawmakers for redrawing Greensboro’s City Council districts and Wake County commissioner districts.

If lawmakers soured urban voters, Bitzer said, McCrory could be “trying to use the foil of the legislature to try to recoup some of that goodwill.”

McCrory could face problems with some Republican groups. Some social conservatives criticized his veto of a bill allowing magistrates to recuse themselves on religious grounds from presiding at same-sex marriages. And many voters in heavily Republican north Mecklenburg County don’t like his refusal to step in and stop the proposed Interstate 77 toll lanes.

The state has contracted with a Spanish firm to build the toll lanes. But a growing number of critics, including Lake Norman-area businesses, say not only will the lanes hurt the economy, but the contract essentially bars the state from widening the free interstate lanes for 50 years.

Mecklenburg County and several towns have passed resolutions urging the state to reject the deal. But McCrory has said it’s too late, and he has accused some of the opponents of the toll lanes of once supporting the project.

Republican Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville downplayed the rift between the governor and legislators. In the closing weeks of a session, he said, debates often get personal, and “things are raised that are better left unsaid by all parties.”

“I still believe there’s not a bridge in this state that can’t be crossed over,” he said. “It may have some burn marks on it, but it’s still passable.”

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