Commentary

Christensen: Gov. Pat McCrory still undefined after State of State speech

rchristensen@newsobserver.comFebruary 19, 2013 

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Gov. Pat McCrory enters the House chambers before delivering his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, at the state Legislature Building in Raleigh.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s public image has yet to come into sharp focus during his first weeks in office, even as he presented his program Monday night to a joint session of the legislature.

Is he Charlotte Pat, the centrist mayor of North Carolina’s largest city who campaigned as someone able to work across party lines? Or is he more in line with the deep-seated conservatism that dominates the legislature and much of the Southern GOP?

“The public hasn’t formed a really hard impression of Gov. McCrory yet,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “He certainly campaigned as a moderate, pragmatic-oriented, problem-solving executive-type who understands the importance of government-business partnerships.

“Now, he is governing with large Republican majorities that are led by pretty conservative individuals who have a fairly large agenda of their own and who have been in office two years longer than he has.”

The State of the State speech – where governors usually lay out their programs – did not provide much of a clue to whether we are going to get Mayor Pat or Conservative McCrory.

McCrory said little Monday night that he had not previously said – promising to focus on improving the economy, education and government efficiency. He described himself as an “Eisenhower Republican,” which most people take to mean a moderate – although in this case he used it in the context of long-term road building.

“I’ve stepped on some toes on both the left and the right,” McCrory said at one point, suggesting that he was playing it down the middle.

But there were fewer new specific proposals in McCrory’s State of the State than those given by past governors. He mainly kept to his campaign promises, such as his desire for an unspecified reduction in corporate and personal income taxes.

Compare this to the first Republican governor in modern times, Jim Holshouser, who in his 1973 address to the legislature, called for a 15 percent pay hike over two years for public school teachers, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a comprehensive new health care program aimed at delivering health care to rural areas, and the creation of a state-wide kindergarten program.

Republican Gov. Jim Martin used his 1985 speech to call for repeal of the intangibles and inventory taxes, and the elimination of the sales tax on food. He also pushed for a career ladder program to provide better teacher pay.

North Carolina has a history of electing as governor center/right Republicans such as Martin and Holshouser. In many ways, McCrory seemed to come out of that mold, having been elected mayor in a Democratic-leaning city for 14 years.

But McCrory is in office in different times and under different circumstances. Unlike his GOP predecessors, McCrory is working with a Republican legislature. He is also a member of a Republican Party that has become substantially more conservative since the 1970s.

McCrory in the middle

While McCrory said he has angered those on the left and the right, he has mainly upset those on his left.

He has sided with the Republican legislature on three key issues that have been controversial: a plan to deal with the debt in the state unemployment trust fund mainly by cutting benefits to the unemployed; declining an expansion of Medicaid that would have provided health insurance to low income North Carolinians largely through federal funds; and rejecting a state-run health exchange.

McCrory let the legislature take the lead on the ideological issues. McCrory took longer to announce his position, saying the issues were difficult, and said he made the decision only after consultations with other governors. The effect was to stand with his conservative legislative allies, but to come across as more moderate-sounding.

In a speech last week to the Emerging Issues forum in Raleigh, McCrory put some distance between himself and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Eden. While both agree on opposing a state health care exchange, McCrory, without ever mentioning Berger by name, said his opposition to the federal health care law should not be misinterpreted.

“I do need to let the politicians know that the national health care plan is the law of the land,” McCrory said. Berger has urged supporters on his website to stop Obamacare.

Gary Pearce, a long-time Democratic strategist, said McCrory seems to be trying to walk a thin line.

“The question is whether he will ever have any sharp ideological elbows or whether he will always at least rhetorically and stylistically straddle the divide – which ain’t a bad thing to do for a governor politically,” said Pearce.

McCrory has also had apparent political missteps during his shakedown cruise – his roundhouse criticism of liberal arts education, and his administration’s hiring of a severe critic of pre-K programs to run the state’s pre-K program. In both cases, McCrory moved to walk back – seeking to clarify his liberal arts comments and distancing himself from the hiring of the pre-K director, who quit the job before she started.

“It looks like he is doing what he did during the campaign, which is to blur any hard edges,” Pearce said. “The question is whether he will continue to be able to do that. Or does there come a point where he makes both sides mad?”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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