Taylor Batten

What kind of governor could McCrory have been?

One thing would have made Gov. Pat McCrory a very different governor: a moderate legislature.
One thing would have made Gov. Pat McCrory a very different governor: a moderate legislature. AP

He was a good kid, as long as he hung out with the right crowd. Always had a smile on his face, never got into trouble. If he ever started to stray down the wrong path, his friends pulled him back. He got along with everyone and became pretty popular.

Then he moved to a new town, and fell in with a tough bunch of guys. Peer pressure being what it is, he started doing bad things, even though at times deep down he knew better. The smile was replaced by a scowl and he was always getting in trouble. His old friends didn’t like him any more, but his new friends weren’t really his friends and pushed him around a lot.

Poor Pat McCrory. It didn’t have to be this way. But the environment he has found himself in as governor is altogether different from the one he enjoyed as Charlotte’s mayor. And for whatever reason – lack of advisers? lack of vision? lack of spine? – he was never able to adapt.

As I’ve watched him squirm for the past month over House Bill 2, I tried to envision an alternate universe: One in which McCrory is elected governor in 2012 along with a moderate legislature. What kind of governor would he have been?

An entirely different one, I expect. A collaborator. A moderate. Someone who annoyed the far left and the far right but who was widely popular and a near-lock for re-election.

You can rattle off a dozen things McCrory has done in just three years as governor to alienate big chunks of the state. You’d be hard-pressed to name one thing he did in 14 years as mayor that was indelibly polarizing.

Malcolm Graham was on the City Council while McCrory was mayor and in the N.C. Senate when McCrory was governor.

“When Pat was mayor, the corporate community was his GPS. They provided the direction. (City Manager) Pam Syfert managed the city. He was surrounded (usually) by a Democratic City Council,” Graham said.

“So all Pat had to do was steer the car and don’t wreck it. And for the most part he did.

“When he became governor, he had no GPS anymore. He had to think for himself and the people around him who were doing some of the thinking was a very conservative General Assembly.”

So we get forced ultrasounds, and slaps to the unemployed and House Bill 2.

If McCrory had been working with a moderate legislature rather than tap-dancing around a Phil Berger-led legislature all this time, he wouldn’t have crusaded for conservative causes. He might have followed the lead of other centrist Republican governors who expanded Medicaid. He would have kept his promise not to expand restrictions on abortion because anti-abortion laws would never have reached his desk. He wouldn’t have looked wishy-washy over the future of Charlotte’s airport.

In other words, he would have been more like he was when he was mayor. Then, he fought successfully not once but twice for a half-cent sales tax for transit. He built a legacy around mass transit. He ticked off developers by fighting for sidewalks. He presided over a lot of annexation.

That’s who Charlotte, and much of North Carolina, thought it was electing in 2012.

“A moderate General Assembly would have helped him fulfill the promise of being the moderate governor people thought they were electing,” Graham said.

Former supporters in Charlotte wonder why McCrory changed. He hasn’t, says fellow Republican Edwin Peacock, who served on the City Council while McCrory was mayor.

“No, Pat hasn’t changed,” Peacock said. “Pat is in a new environment. The environment Pat is in is one so foreign to where he was for 14 years.”

And because he didn’t adapt, Charlotte voters are looking at a very foreign Pat.

tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter: @tbatten1.