McCrory talks off the cuff, sparking controversy

jfrank@newsobserver.comNovember 10, 2013 

  • In Pat McCrory’s words

    Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s comments have sparked a fair share of controversy in his first 10 months as governor, distracting from his message and spurring critics. McCrory says some remarks reflect disagreements, not mistruths. Here’s a look a few examples:

    Unemployment benefits: In July, long-term federal unemployment benefits to North Carolina’s jobless workers ended because the Republican-led legislature and McCrory approved a bill to curtail state benefits. McCrory blamed the Obama administration for not giving the state a waiver. But it was actually Congress that rejected the waiver request, McCrory now acknowledges.

    “Moral Monday” protests: In response to a question about the weekly “Moral Monday” protests in Raleigh, the governor told a reporter in Wilson that he goes “out in the crowd all of the time.” His office later clarified that he has interacted with protesters when walking to his office in Raleigh but he did not attended the protests outside the legislative building.

    DHHS hires: To justify giving two 24-year-old inexperienced staffers top-level jobs at the Department of Health and Human Services, McCrory said they beat out other older candidates. But in August The Associated Press found no evidence the state agency ever advertised the positions or considered other candidates. A McCrory spokeswoman said the personnel law was followed.

    Economic agenda: In an August speech to business owners, McCrory criticized the media writing about him. “This is too complex for the journalists,” he said. “They don’t have economics degrees; they’ve not been in business. I respect them greatly, but you get it.” He later said the comment was aimed at one opinion writer and not the profession as a whole.

    Illegal immigration: After state lawmakers overrode McCrory’s veto of an immigration bill in September, the governor said “some of the manufacturers in towns like High Point worked hard for this bill because they, frankly, want to hire illegal immigrants as opposed to North Carolina workers.” He now says he was talking about one manufacturer and didn’t mean to insult the larger industry.

    Teacher stipends: In September, McCrory announced that he “found” $10 million to pay bonuses to teachers who earn master’s degrees, a program cut by the state legislature. But a spokeswoman later corrected the statement to say the money McCrory mentioned will be in the governor’s proposed state budget for the next year.

    Medicaid expansion: At a Heritage Foundation event in October, McCrory said a new federal regulation may “force us to do Medicaid expansion whether we want to or not.” Earlier in the year, McCrory and Republican lawmakers chose to not expand Medicaid eligibility to more low income people as allowed under the Affordable Care Act. The federal agency that oversees Medicaid said his interpretation of the rule was wrong. McCrory’s office later clarified that the governor meant to say the regulation would expand the state’s Medicaid budget by allowing hospitals to bill the state for services to patients not already enrolled in Medicaid for up to two months as their eligibility is determined. But again a Medicaid spokeswoman disputed that interpretation, saying hospitals had to adhere to state rules.

    Staff writer John Frank

Gov. Pat McCrory refuses to follow the political script. He scoffs at politicians who use teleprompters. He casts aside speeches his aides write.

It’s all part of the image McCrory wants to project as the outsider.

“I want to speak to people while looking them in the eyes, so I can see their reaction,” the Republican governor said in an interview last week. “I know my media people would prefer I often be scripted, but that’s not my style. It’s too late to change; I’m 57 years old.”

But McCrory’s improvisational approach has risks. At least a dozen times in his first 10 months as governor, McCrory’s remarks have sparked controversies.

McCrory is prone to misspeaking. He generalizes in a way that can insult key constituencies. And he mispronounces the names of even his closest aides.

In October, McCrory made a comment at a forum in Washington about Medicaid expansion that forced his aides to scramble to clarify his remarks.

On other occasions, McCrory blamed the expiration of federal unemployment benefits on the White House, declared that he goes “out into the crowd all of the time” in response to a question about “Moral Monday” protests and blamed the budget he inherited on his Democratic predecessor. In each case, and in others, his comments skewed the truth.

Michael Munger, a Duke University political analyst who considers himself a McCrory fan, said the governor’s aw-shucks style honed as Charlotte mayor is leading to embarrassing mistakes.

“He seems to have been blindsided,” Munger said, comparing McCrory to George W. Bush’s transition from Texas governor to president.

“There is a narrative that he’s sort of a bumbler,” Munger said.

At the least, the gaffes distract from his message, political observers say, and generate confusion when aides must correct him. At the worst, it raises questions about whether McCrory is ill-advised, unprepared or both.

A credibility issue

His critics see the worst, suggesting the governor’s credibility is at stake. The editorial board at The Charlotte Observer, McCrory’s hometown newspaper that generally supported him as mayor, months ago asked, “Does the governor have a truth problem?”

“It makes him look dishonest,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist and blogger who has tracked McCrory’s statements. “...Right now, I think he has a credibility problem with the voters.”

McCrory disputes that his credibility is jeopardized and says he is engaged in policy issues.

“I’m not going to be put in a silo or scripted because the critics can pigeonhole you,” he said. “I don’t want to become risk-averse. I think we’ve got enough politicians like that in Washington and in the past in Raleigh.”

But at the same time, McCrory said he is not satisfied with how his message is reaching the state’s residents and he expressed frustration that some of his perceived gaffes have received as much attention as his efforts to revamp the state’s transportation funding formula and lower income taxes.

He blames the 24/7 media arena and advocacy groups for contorting his remarks. What critics call misstatements, McCrory calls disagreements.

“I’m very direct, straightforward and accurate,” McCrory said. “But with that, I recognize that sentences can be parceled, things can be taken out of context and my political opponents and sometimes the media can run with that.”

Republican strategist Carter Wrenn says it’s too early to declare that McCrory has a credibility problem.

“Saying things that aren’t accurate can come back to bite you, for sure,” he said. “But politicians coming to different conclusions is just something you have to argue out.”

Adjusting to spotlight

In analyzing how McCrory comes across in his public remarks, Wrenn sees a split impression.

“Sometimes I watch McCrory and I think he does know exactly what he’s talking about, and other times I sort of watch it and I think he’s skating across the surface a little bit,” said Wrenn, a former adviser to outspoken North Carolina U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Part of the equation, Wrenn says, is McCrory’s adjustment to a higher post. The governor’s office is a different ballgame, even for McCrory, who spent 14 years as Charlotte mayor.

“You are in the public spotlight all the time,” Wrenn said. “One thing that people learn that comes as a shock is you’ve got to watch every word you say. Because if you get talking off the cuff and slip up, like a normal human being, when you are in the public spotlight it ends up in the news or a TV ad.”

McCrory’s predecessor, Bev Perdue, had a penchant to shoot from the hip when she deviated from her prepared remarks. It contributed to her dismal poll numbers, and she decided not to seek a second term.

But where Perdue found trouble with glib remarks, McCrory often errs when discussing state policy, political observers said.

“Anything that undermines a politician’s character, integrity or image of competence erodes him or her,” said Gary Pearce, a Democratic communications strategist. “It’s what happened in large part to Perdue.”

One particular remark that Perdue made struck a political nerve. She suggested Congress should suspend its elections to focus on fixing the ailing economy. The comment prompted a firestorm and went viral before Perdue could say she was being sarcastic.

At the time, then-candidate McCrory said Perdue needed to admit her mistake and apologize. He used it to raise money for his campaign.

Fast-forward a year and Democrats are using McCrory’s inartful comments about “Moral Monday” protests and Medicaid to rally opposition.

McCrory said he “does his homework” and corrects his mistakes, though critics dispute both points.

“If I make a mistake, I’ll own up to it and and say we made a mistake,” he said after touring a furniture upholsterer in Asheboro recently.

Staff clarifies

When asked in the interview to identify a mistake he regrets, he said he couldn’t think of one in particular.

“I’m sure I have made some mistakes but I don’t think they are the mistakes that are repeated constantly (by critics),” he added.

But McCrory has repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for allowing long-term federal unemployment benefits to expire in North Carolina, saying the White House could have granted the state a waiver. Such a waiver would actually require congressional approval and the administration made that clear if a state curtailed its benefits, as the GOP-led legislature and McCrory did earlier this year, it would lose the federal help.

Pressed on this point, McCrory agreed he was not entirely accurate. But he said he didn’t realize he was wrong until just recently.

“Yeah, I should have included Congress in that” statement, he said.

Moments earlier, when speaking to a group of reporters, he had to clarify another remark that generated headlines and headaches. In September, McCrory said, “Some of the manufacturers in towns like High Point worked hard for this bill because they, frankly, want to hire illegal immigrants as opposed to North Carolina workers.”

In response to a question, McCrory corrected his statement to say he was talking about one manufacturer, not the broader industry. McCrory said he’s clarified the High Point statement more than once, but the day he made it his office backed him up.

Other mistakes seem innocuous, such as his inability to master names and his propensity to say “Charlotte” when he means Raleigh.

At an August event announcing Kieran Shanahan’s resignation as public safety secretary, McCrory alternately mispronounced Shanahan’s first name as “Sharon” and then “Karen.” (It’s pronounced Keer-en.)

McCrory laughs about it, as do his aides.

“My strength is concepts and strategy and theory and also facts,” he said. “But I’m not real good at pronouncing names or understanding names.”

What’s working to McCrory’s advantage is the calendar. It’s early in his term and even Democrats like Mills and Pearce believe McCrory may be able to reverse course before the 2016 elections if he can avoid making more mistakes.

Voters “want a governor who they trust and who is up to the job,” Pearce said. “You don’t want to get a death spiral started (where observers) watch you constantly to see if you make another mistake.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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