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Barnett: 'Gov. Moonbeam' lights the way in NC

August 24, 2013 

Pat McCrory ran for governor on the theme of broken government. Now many feel it wasn’t really broken until McCrory went about “fixing” it.

After eight months at the helm, our Republican governor has seen his secretary of public safety jump ship, his Department of Health and Human Services take on water and his Department of Environment and Natural Resources start listing on water quality.

He has signed tax cuts that favor the wealthy and drawn the fury of teachers by claiming that the state can’t afford to give them raises – while his political appointees get big bumps. He refused to expand Medicaid, which would have covered more than 500,000 people. He said it was OK to cut 70,000 people off of unemployment benefits, tighten eligibility, cut the collection period and reduce the weekly maximum payment to $350.

Chorus of complaint

There’s a statewide chorus of people mad at McCrory, or disappointed in him, or saying how they are Democrats who regret voting for him. He offered an olive branch – a plate of cookies – to protesters. They gave them back. This week former Republican U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Raleigh and blasted the voting restrictions McCrory just signed into law.

As the governor copes with his nose-diving popularity, he could learn a thing or two about fixing things from his gubernatorial peer on the other side of the country. California Gov. Jerry Brown faced a mirror image of McCrory’s challenges and, as in a mirror image, everything was reversed.

Brown, a Democrat who first served as governor from 1975 to 1983, took office for the second time nearly three years ago in a state that was truly broken. California had a nearly $60 billion deficit, a collapsing housing market, financially strapped schools, long ranks of working poor people in need of health insurance and an unemployment rate so high it forced the state to borrow $10 billion from the federal government in order to keep its benefits going.

Brown, a quirky freethinker, was dubbed “Governor Moonbeam” by columnist Mike Royko during his first stint as governor. But this time around – with eight years as mayor of Oakland in between – Brown has proven to be the moderate, practical former mayor McCrory was supposed to be. He’s cut the budget and raised taxes, and the state’s red ink has given way to a surplus. He extended Medicaid – known there as MediCal – to cover 1.4 million more people. And he has taken on the unemployment fund debt with a bill that proposes raising taxes on employers instead of cutting the payments and eligibility of the unemployed. Under Brown’s bill, the program will pay jobless Californians up to $450 a week, retire the debt to the federal government by 2016 and create an $11 billion fund surplus by 2021.

Brown also pushed through Proposition 30, which included a temporary tax on high-income Californians. The proceeds will go mostly to bolster K-12 education.

With all this, Brown is riding high in the polls. The New York Times, which recently editorialized on “The decline of North Carolina,” ran a front-page profile this month describing Brown’s triumphs over seemingly intractable problems.

Surprising his critics

“He’s proven better at the job than perhaps his critics anticipated,” Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, told The Times. “In 2010, his critics wanted to criticize him as a flaky moonbeam. Instead we have a governor who is very serious and sober about his choices. You can’t find a governor in recent history who has a smoother road to re-election.”

McCrory may regard Brown as the kind of gray lefty that he’d expect to see at a Moral Monday protest. But what he should take notes on are Brown’s effective style and his impressive results. He knows his state, he knows all levels of government and he knows how to build a consensus.

Ability to deal

“The governor has the ability like no one else in the state to bring people together and help parties make a deal,” Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Los Angeles Times.

This is a concept that seems lost on McCrory. Instead of getting the state’s divergent interests to move forward, he likes to describe himself as one who “steps on toes.” In a recent interview with WRAL, he said, “I anticipated a rocky road because I know I’m stepping on some of the status quo inside the Beltline here in Raleigh. I’m an outsider coming in and stepping on the toes of both the left and the right.”

McCrory’s self-image as the people’s champion, an outsider unafraid to provoke powerful interests, is so far from reality that he’s the one who sounds like Governor Moonbeam. The governor has vetoed a total of two bills, at least one will likely be overridden. Meanwhile, he has shown a taste for insider dealing, rewarding his campaign staff with plum jobs regardless of qualifications and mixing with big contributors at fundraisers in the midst of the legislative session.

McCrory would do well to look into that mirror image in California and try to see the man he sold to voters – the moderate former mayor who could bring people together for the betterment of the whole state. Instead of concentrating so hard on stepping on everyone else’s toes, McCrory should copy Jerry Brown’s style and work harder to stay on his own.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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