With a growing economy, rising teacher pay and falling taxes, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory should be riding high in his bid for a second term.
The former Charlotte mayor has guided North Carolina to its lowest unemployment rate in nearly a decade while redefining transportation strategy and repaying a $2.5 billion federal loan.
But for many voters, including some who know him best, such accomplishments are overshadowed by the issue that thrust him into the national spotlight: House Bill 2.
McCrory is an ardent defender of the law, which bars transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with in government buildings and prevents cities from passing their own LGBT ordinances. He blames the ensuing controversy on the “political left” and spurns critics as part of the cultural or corporate “elite.”
All of that sounds alien to those who remember him as a Charlotte moderate.
“The Mayor Pat McCrory that I came to know and respect and work with does not exist today,” says former Matthews Mayor Lee Myers, a Democrat who twice voted for McCrory for governor. “I think we need to do a DNA test and make sure that’s the same guy.”
In addition to HB2, critics point to other bills he signed that were passed by a conservative General Assembly, including measures involving abortion, voting and taxes.
McCrory, a self-styled Eisenhower Republican, insists he hasn’t changed. He defends what he calls his “moderate” response to what he views as a very liberal Charlotte ordinance that opened the transgender issue and led to HB2.
“The Charlotte political system has become much more liberal since I left,” he says, sitting in his Charlotte campaign office. “I haven’t changed my political philosophy. The Charlotte political system has gone very far left.”
But facing a tough re-election race against Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, McCrory, who supports Donald Trump for president, is fighting perceptions that he’s no longer the political moderate who led Charlotte for 14 years and won the 2012 governor’s race with help from Democrats and independents in the state’s largest counties.
McCrory won Mecklenburg County for example, despite the fact that President Barack Obama carried it by 100,000 votes.
Real Clear Politics shows Cooper with an average lead of 6 points in recent polls.
Myers and other critics say McCrory began shifting right in 2012 in his second campaign for governor, when he advocated policies such as “fracking” and spoke on behalf of Americans for Prosperity, a group tied to the libertarian Koch brothers. Democratic candidate Walter Dalton said McCrory had embraced “the tea party agenda.”
But supporters say McCrory hasn’t changed.
“I always thought Pat was a conservative council member and mayor,” says former GOP Mayor Richard Vinroot. “He had a conservative view of the world when he got there and hasn’t changed.”
What has changed, they say, are the issues he faces and the political environment around him. He now has a broader constituency than the city voters who elected him 10 times.
“Who he’s trying to attract as voters has changed and he’s adjusted accordingly,” says former Republican Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville. “The reality is when he was mayor of Charlotte, he had to appeal to a different kind of electorate.”
And to a different group of lawmakers.
Dealing with the legislature
In Charlotte, McCrory dealt with city councils that, while dominated by Democrats, generally tackled issues in a bipartisan way.
As mayor, McCrory championed the Blue Line, the state’s first light rail project. He led the fight to get and later to keep the sales tax hike that helped pay for it. He pushed for public funding for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an uptown arena and campus known as the Levine Center for the Arts.
He advocated “smart” growth and pushed for coordinated planning along the light rail and other transportation corridors. Republican conservatives were among his strongest critics.
But waiting for him in Raleigh was a highly partisan General Assembly with its own agendas, constituencies and hard-charging personalities.
After Republicans took over the General Assembly in 2010 for the first time in 140 years, they had ambitious plans. That included drawing voting districts that led to the veto-proof majorities they’ve enjoyed since McCrory took office in 2013.
While cutting taxes and rolling back regulations, they blocked Medicaid expansion, cut jobless benefits, eliminated the earned income tax credit and repealed the Racial Justice Act that had put a de facto moratorium on executions. Before HB2, they approved controversial measures on abortion, guns and voting.
McCrory has signed 727 bills. Critics say it was the legislature, not him, who set the agenda.
“I think when he got up to Raleigh he got steamrolled by the legislature,” says Mark Erwin, a Charlotte Democrat who has supported McCrory but now backs Cooper. Retired Charlotte banker John Tate, a former state school board member, says the governor “got caught in the way of the bulldozer.”
But former GOP Gov. Jim Martin says McCrory recognizes that he has to work with a more conservative General Assembly. “And you can’t fight them every time,” Martin says.
McCrory’s relationship has been particularly choppy with the Senate.
He feuded with powerful GOP Sens. Bob Rucho of Matthews and Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville. Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw once said the governor seemed to have “real animosity” toward Senate leaders. A pundit described it as “a political death match.”
“Other governors go through very similar dynamics,” McCrory says. “It’s usually a balance of power issue. Some legislators wanted to replicate the old Democratic machine.”
In 2014, McCrory actually sued the General Assembly. The landmark separation-of-powers case ended in January when the state Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
“That was a pretty risky move as far as possibly eroding my relationship with the legislative leaders, but it was a move I think we had to make,” McCrory says.
Though the governor vetoed six bills, lawmakers overrode four. One was Senate GOP Leader Phil Berger’s measure allowing magistrates to recuse themselves on religious grounds from performing same-sex marriages.
Berger disputes critics who say the legislature has had the upper hand. He said most bills reflect a compromise.
“They don’t understand what’s going on,” Berger says of critics. “I just don’t know that the characterization that the legislature ‘ran over him’ is a fair characterization… Unless you want to say he ran over us several times.”
McCrory says he’s gotten “about 80 percent” of his agenda passed, though that’s hard to measure. They did sign off on two of his biggest initiatives: creating a Strategic Mobility Formula, or data-driven approach to transportation funding, and paying back a $2.5 billion unemployment insurance debt to the federal government.
“If we were a baseball player,” he says, “we’d have an .800 batting average.”
HB2 has exacted a cost around the state.
The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, an economic loss of up to $100 million. PayPal canceled plans for a new operations center and 400 jobs. Bruce Springsteen and other entertainers canceled in protest.
For McCrory, that has obscured a long list of accomplishments.
He touts the fact that taxes are down by $4.4 billion since he took office in 2013, even as officials predict a $428 million revenue surplus. Last year Forbes ranked the state the nation’s second-best for business. And notwithstanding HB2, officials say in the first six months of the year the state saw 66 business expansions with a capital investment of $1.5 billion – twice as much as a year before.
“If (McCrory) has a frustration, it is the failure of information not getting out to the state about all the accomplishments that have occurred during his first three and a half years,” says John Lassiter, chairman of the North Carolina Economic Development Partnership and McCrory’s longtime friend.
McCrory says when he came into office, he was shocked by “how broken the basic day-to-day operations of state government were.” He sees himself as a hands-on leader, much like the city manager he depended on in Charlotte. “In this role as governor, I am the city manager,” he says.
“Not only did I have to be a leader I had to be a change agent,” he adds. “And to become a change agent you have to step on toes of both the right and the left.”
Charlotte Republican Edwin Peacock says while McCrory can boast of accomplishments, “the ‘Carolina Comeback’ has been swallowed by HB2.”
For that, McCrory blames the media.
“It was being overshadowed long before HB2,” he says. “Frankly none of this stuff was getting covered … I was trying to focus on issues that really made a difference to the people of North Carolina.”
McCrory in Charlotte and Raleigh
As mayor of Charlotte, Pat McCrory earned a reputation as a centrist. As governor, he’s taken on different issues and more conservative positions. Here are some examples.
▪ Fought for the half-cent sales tax to fund Charlotte’s first light-rail line. A decade later, he helped defeat the effort to repeal it. Butted heads with conservatives both times.
▪ With the city council, committed to build a $200 million uptown arena in return for an NBA expansion team – a year after voters rejected the idea in a non-binding referendum.
▪ Successfully pushed in 2006 for a hike in the hotel tax to pay for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
▪ Signed HB2, which involved the rights of transgender people as well as the ability of cities to adopt protections based on sexual orientation.
▪ Signed sweeping 2013 voting bill that required voter IDs, ended same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting and reduced the early voting period. Later overturned by a federal court.
▪ In 2015, signed a bill extending the waiting period for abortions from one day to three, added inspection requirements for clinics and specified the types of doctors who can perform abortions.