Jenkins: Can Pat McCrory win the governorship from the legislature?

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comMay 15, 2014 

In his first run for governor in 2008, Pat McCrory enjoyed the “breath of fresh air” advantage over Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue. Everywhere he went, it seemed, the Charlotte mayor came across as an affable, moderate Republican touting a record as a big-city mayor who wasn’t afraid to step out front and face critics when the public interest was in play.

When he met with the editorial crew here at The News & Observer, he was glib and pleasant and candid. We need a new way in Raleigh, he said. The old political insider stuff needs to change. He got The N&O endorsement, after a long history of the paper’s support for Democrats. But Perdue was strengthened by the election of President Obama and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and McCrory went home to Charlotte to commence a four-year campaign for redemption.

Four years later, of course, McCrory won against Walter Dalton, lieutenant governor, after Perdue, who’d been stymied by a Republican-run General Assembly and was taking a beating from the GOP and from some in her own party, opted out.

His election meant that Republicans were running the legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in more than 100 years.

It sounded like a harmonious set-up. But McCrory’s first 16 months in office have been troublesome. Legislators don’t seem to be very interested in his opinion; even a bill to regulate puppy mills favored by the governor and his wife was rejected by lawmakers. He vowed during his campaign not to support further restrictive laws on abortion, and then signed such a law.

Now, McCrory’s running again -- for respect. In comments published in The N&O Monday, the governor vows to take more of a leadership role. He has appeared at times to have been forced to walk three steps behind the legislature and on those occasions he’s tried to lead, has been told to get back in line. At least, it has seemed that way.

The governor has a chance to grab the reins, or at least to drive his own rig, but he’s going to have to act quickly and at the risk of alienating some legislators. But the governor’s office is a bully pulpit if ever there was one, and the state’s best governors starting about the last half of the 20th century were those not afraid to step out front and even risk offending the powers-that-be on Jones Street.

McCrory may be at a crossroads here. If he can step to the pulpit forcefully, he can make himself a man not to be ignored, because by the nature of his office he can command forums that state lawmakers, elected from districts and with relatively low name recognition outside of Raleigh, cannot.

Some legislators of his own party have openly criticized the fact that McCrory has announced initiatives without consulting them. His just had a big rollout of a new teacher pay plan, but neither House Speaker Thom Tillis nor Phil Berger, leader of the GOP-run Senate, was there. Some Republican lawmakers even resisted the governor’s plan to handle the coal ash crisis. One senator of his own party even criticized McCroy a while back and referred to him as “Pat,” a sign of disrespect whether intended or not.

If McCrory now can go bold, maybe even bucking the legislature on some issues, he will get the GOP legislature’s attention. And what, really, has he got to lose?

He should study some of his predecessors: Luther Hodges of the mid-1950s, a businessman who helped create Research Triangle Park and promote racial harmony at a time when it would have been easier to hold to the status quo; Terry Sanford, who followed Hodges and pushed public education and other progressive ideas ahead of his time; Jim Holshouser, a smart Republican legislator who came out of obscurity to be the first Republican governor of the 20th century in 1973 and remained moderate; Jim Hunt, the only four-termer, who had legislators come to the governor’s mansion regularly and quickened the legislative pulse instead of just keeping his hand on it; Jim Martin, a gentleman, who pulled a moderate Republican agenda up the hill with a Democratic legislature for two terms.

McCrory has convinced himself his adminstration has accomplished much in 16 months. In fact, he’s had some chaos in the departments of Health and Human Services and Environment and Natural Resources, high turnover and a poor message coming out of his office. He has seemed disengaged from issues and ignored by legislators.

If he moves away from some of the extremes of the General Assembly, takes his case to the people and shows lawmakers he is not afraid to stand alone, they’ll still criticize him. But they won’t call him “Pat.”

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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