Gov. Pat McCrory was in command, briefing reporters last week at Raleigh’s National Guard Joint Force headquarters about Hurricane Matthew and the latest state of emergency.
Last month he was center stage at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department following days of violence and another emergency declaration.
It has been a heady time for a man who once tried and failed to get appointed to a city board. Even after his election to Charlotte’s city council in 1989 he remained virtually unknown.
“Reporters were still asking how to spell my name,” he later recalled.
The Republican governor no longer has to worry about that.
McCrory not only is the state’s most visible crisis manager, he has made national headlines as the most prominent defender of House Bill 2 and other legislation passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly. He’s also the focus of more than $19 million in TV ads in his re-election race against Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper.
McCrory, who turns 60 next week, still has the stamina of a born politician. His father, who was mayor pro tem of their hometown in Ohio, once said his son had politics in his genes.
Affable and self-deprecating, he loves campaigning and seems to draw energy even as he expends it. He plunges into a crowd with the passion he once took to scuba diving.
But last week a WRAL poll found Cooper leading 48 percent to 44 percent, within the margin of error but consistent with RealClear Politics’ polling average.
And the survey showed McCrory with a 41 percent approval rating compared with 47 percent who dislike his performance.
“McCrory is likeable, he’s a nice guy,” says Carter Wrenn, a Republican consultant. “(People) are just not sure how good a job he’s done.”
That’s despite what McCrory touts as the “Carolina Comeback.” The state has one of America’s fastest-growing economies, falling unemployment, 300,000 net new jobs and a budget surplus of $425 million.
The WRAL poll showed McCrory faring well among voters concerned about the economy, leading Cooper 56 percent to 38 percent. But only 25 percent felt the economy is stronger than it was when he was elected four years ago.
And 52 percent said they don’t like HB2, the law that overrode a Charlotte ordinance and bars local governments from enacting anti-discrimination laws for the LGBT community. Voters in typically Republican suburbs opposed the measure 2-1.
Sharon Decker, McCrory’s former Commerce Secretary and a one-time chair of the Charlotte Chamber, says she would have counseled him to not sign the law.
“I still support the governor, who led us into a radical change fiscally and economically in this state,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that this issue is defining his administration because an awful lot of good work has been done.”
Managing the state
Crisis management isn’t new for McCrory.
Over 14 years as mayor of Charlotte, he led the response to winter storms as well as the resettlement of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. In 2007 he led the mourning for two police officers killed in the line of duty.
In Charlotte, McCrory championed police funding, “smart” development, light rail and the taxes to fund it. But he had a professional manager to run city government. In Raleigh, he’s the one in charge.
“I didn’t expect to delve so much into the operations of state government,” he says. “The biggest difference is I had a city manager (in Charlotte) and in this role as governor I am the city manager, and I’ve surrounded myself with some very smart people to run the day-to-day operations.”
McCrory has focused on bigger policies. His administration paid off a $2.5 billion federal debt – critics say by cutting benefits for the unemployed – pushed $2 billion in infrastructure bonds and created a Strategic Mobility Formula, or data-driven approach to transportation funding.
“One of the greatest strengths he brought to Charlotte was this notion of connectivity, and we’re seeing that in light rail in road projects and in mass transit,” Decker says. “And he’s done that at the state level.”
It’s other issues that have hurt McCrory.
With veto-proof Republican majorities, the General Assembly approved – and McCrory signed – controversial measures on abortion, guns and voting. Those were before HB2, the law that, among other things requires people to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate in government buildings.
“There is a side of Pat that is very empathetic to people suffering,” says Susan Roberts, a Davidson College political scientist. “I don’t think that sentiment came through with the passage of HB2.”
McCrory’s relationship with Republican lawmakers has been rocky.
Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw once said the governor seemed to have “real animosity” toward Senate leaders. Though Tucker says those wounds have healed, others are more critical.
Democratic strategist Gary Pearce, an adviser to former Gov. Jim Hunt, says McCrory is like “the double-A ballplayer who gets sent up to the majors.”
“He can’t hit a curve. He can’t hit a fastball. He’s out of his league and he hasn’t grown into it.”
Hiding thin skin
Some say one problem is the governor’s notoriously thin skin and occasional temper.
“He can’t fathom that anyone would question his motives,” says former Republican Rep. Charles Jeter, a supporter of the governor. “And he (has) a tendency to take criticism personally. He’s done it with the press. He’s done it in the legislature.”
In an interview this month with a Christian broadcaster, McCrory called anxiety “probably my greatest sin.”
“Everyone comes up to me and goes ‘Governor, you must have incredible thick skin when people say pretty cruel things about you and even make threats,’” he said. “And the fact is I don’t. I don’t have thick skin. I just hide it.”
This year his skin is being tested.
McCrory has found himself heavily criticized over HB2, a law that has cost the state NCAA and ACC championship games as well as some business expansions, convention business and entertainment events. He has spurned critics as part of the cultural or corporate “elite,” just as he campaigned against the “pseudo-elite” in his campaign for student body president at Ragsdale High outside Greensboro.
But the governor says HB2, which faces legal challenges, is now in the hands of federal courts.
“I’m moving on guys,” he told reporters last month. “That subject is irrelevant because the issue is now a national issue.”
Meanwhile McCrory campaigns with the verve that carried him to 11 victories in 12 tries.
“I love my job, I love my job,” he says. “I love the problem-solving. I love my team. I love the progress we’ve made for the state of North Carolina.”
Education: Catawba College, bachelors degree in political science and education.
Professional experience: Human resources and economic development positions at Duke Energy for 29 years; Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for Moore & Van Allen.
Political experience: Mayor of Charlotte 1995-2009; Charlotte City Council 1989-1995.
Family: Wife, Ann.