Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democrat Roy Cooper sparred over taxes, House Bill 2, coal ash and even hurricane relief Tuesday night in the final debate of their gubernatorial campaign.
The presence of Libertarian candidate Lon Cecil did little to soften the testy exchanges between the two main candidates.
The debate at Raleigh’s WRAL came three weeks before the election and just two days before the start of early voting. It also took place amid rising political tension punctuated by the weekend firebombing of a Republican headquarters in Hillsborough. McCrory called the incident “an attack on democracy.”
In what may be the nation’s highest-profile gubernatorial race, the two are locked in a close battle for the state’s highest office. Cooper leads by 3 percentage points in Real Clear Politics polling average.
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Both sides and their allies have spent over $20 million combined on TV ads, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG. That’s more than in all but one state.
It was only a week ago that McCrory and Cooper met for their first debate, a hard-hitting and wide-ranging exchange before the N.C. Association of Broadcasters. The debate came as McCrory was still coordinating the response to Hurricane Matthew.
On Tuesday the storm provided the first skirmish between the candidates when a moderator asked them what they would do to help families.
McCrory accused Cooper of saying there’s too much money in the state’s rainy day fund, which is used for emergencies. “Sadly the attorney general just last month … spoke against having so much money in the rainy day fund.”
“Gov. McCrory knows that I’ve always supported a strong rainy day fund,” Cooper replied.
He blamed the governor for watching the Republican controlled General Assembly designate $500,000 from the disaster relief fund for legal fees involving HB2. McCrory did not sign the bill, indicating he would handle emergencies without it.
HB2, the law that nullified a Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance, was an early flashpoint. Among other provisions, it strips local governments of the right to enact LGBT protections and requires transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate in government buildings.
On Monday, McCrory’s office released thousands of pages of messages related to HB2 after the Observer filed suit to see them. In one email to a former colleague, Bob Stephens, the governor’s counsel, said McCrory told lawmakers the bill “went too far” and even lobbied against it before ultimately signing it.
Asked about LGBT protections at the debate, McCrory said he supports such anti-discrimination protections at the federal level. He also asked Cooper if he realized that the Charlotte ordinance would have enacted a fine and jail sentence against private businesses that violated it.
“That’s all he can talk about,” Cooper said. “This is why North Carolina continues to have a problem with its reputation.… It writes discrimination into law.”
One of the testiest exchanges came when Cooper claimed McCrory is under an FBI investigation for helping a contributor.
“As attorney general you should resign immediately for saying that,” McCrory shot back, staring at Cooper.
The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported in 2015 that McCrory had brokered a meeting between Graeme Keith on a contract for prison maintenance. The paper reported that the matter had “caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Keith, of Charlotte, was a McCrory donor.
After the debate, McCrory told reporters that the FBI had told him that the investigation had concluded.
The candidates also talked about:
▪ Taxes. Cooper accused McCrory of raising taxes on the middle-class while cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy. The General Assembly reduced income taxes by around $4 billion but made dozens of services subject to the sales tax.
“Gov. McCrory is putting more of a burden on the middle-class with taxes,” Cooper said.
McCrory touted his “Carolina Comeback” that has seen dramatic drops in unemployment and an increase in jobs. “Our economy is so much better than it was three years ago,” he said. “Is there still more to be done? Absolutely.”
Cecil said, “Gov. McCrory’s leadership has done a good job of getting us recovered.”
▪ Coal ash. Thirteen months after McCrory took office, a stormwater pipe under a Duke Energy coal ash pond broke and dumped 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River. McCrory allowed landmark state legislation, ordering Duke to close its 32 ash ponds by 2029, to become law without his signature in 2014.
Cooper said as governor, “One of the things I’m going to do is listen to the scientists.” He alluded to the August resignation of Megan Davies, state epidemiologist, who accused McCrory’s Department of Health and Human Services of “deliberately” misleading the public on how water standards for private wells near coal ash ponds were tested.
McCrory charged that Cooper had sent “not one email” expressing his concern over the coal ash issue. He also said Duke Energy and its former CEO Jim Rogers – his former boss – were big donors to Democrats and the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
▪ Crime lab. On problems with the state crime lab, Cooper said though “We still have more to do,” the department did eliminate a huge backlog.”
McCrory ridiculed that answer: “Saying the crime lab is fixed, you ought to call your own hotline and turn yourself in.”