Commentary

Christensen: McCrory weathers the snowstorm

rchristensen@newsobserver.comFebruary 19, 2014 

Gov. Pat McCrory and other state officials held a briefing in the NC Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh on Thursday, February 13, 2014. A winter storm had slammed the state on Wednesday and another part of the storm was forecast to cause more mayhem on Thursday afternoon.

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory literally suited up for his first big natural disaster crisis last week – shedding his coat and tie and donning a green work shirt with an emergency management logo to conduct news briefings on the big snowstorm.

Extreme weather may be a harrowing experience for most of us, but for governors, mayors (and local TV anchors) it’s showtime – when they can demonstrate their leadership in a nonpartisan setting at a time when most people are paying attention.

It also is a high risk time. You can look very gubernatorial – confident and in command – surrounded by Highway Patrol, National Guard and other uniformed people talking about the steps that are being taken to help keep people safe or to rescue citizens in jeopardy.

But if things don’t go well, you can spend a lot of time explaining what went wrong.

Not everybody follows the great public policy debates in Raleigh, no matter how important they might be. But most people are worried about getting stuck on the roads during a snowstorm, losing power because of ice, or having their house destroyed during a hurricane.

“It clearly does penetrate the public’s consciousness,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “There is a tremendous amount of media coverage. Everybody seems to be glued to the television or on the Internet. It’s an easy way and a cheap way for a governor to be able to communicate with the residents of his state.”

The moment is particularly important for McCrory, who campaigned in 2012 as someone focused on pragmatic solutions but has come to be seen by some as an ideological conservative in tune with a tea party-influenced GOP legislature.

His management skills have also been questioned because of a series of controversies, including outsized salaries to young staffers, multiple problems in the Department of Health and Human Services, and questions about whether the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has properly monitored coal-ash ponds.

“All of this undermines his image as a competent manager,” Taylor said. “So here was an opportunity last week, which I think he seized, to demonstrate that he was a good manager, that he could run the state well, and that he was a guy who was about practical solutions.

“To be honest, with these kinds of tests, the pass rate is high. But the few who fail, fail spectacularly.”

It is too early to tell whether there will be long-term political benefits for McCrory.

One of the few bright spots during the term of his predecessor, Gov. Bev Perdue, was her handling of the recovery efforts surrounding Hurricane Irene in 2011. Her job approval ratings rose after Irene, but it was a temporary bump.

It was a big week for McCrory, who rolled out his proposal for a pay raise for starting teachers, which got mixed reviews. He is also dealing with a federal investigation into his administration and Duke Energy regarding the coal-ash spill on the Dan River.

But it was the snow events that got him national TV exposure over the weekend on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week.”

McCrory was asked about a comment he made in Hickory in 2008 that global warming was in “God’s hands.” But McCrory avoided getting drawn into the debate by CBS’ Bob Schieffer, saying the discussion should be about how much of climate change is man-made and how much is naturally happening.

In a week devoted to pragmatism, an ideological pie fight was the last thing McCrory wanted.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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