On his way to the Duke-UNC basketball game this month, Gov. Pat McCrory stopped at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development to promote the statewide bond issue on the March 15 ballot.
His pep talk was one he has repeated many times this year. The governor says the bond proposal and the legislative short session that will follow are his main points of focus right now, not his own renomination in the Republican primary on the same ballot.
But his campaign for the bonds, his campaign for re-election and his role as a governor who likes to attend public events are sometimes indistinguishable. The $2 billion bond package, which would put new buildings on campuses and make other improvements across the state, is a centerpiece of his first term.
For a governor who is running on his record but says some successes have been obscured by political insiders and entrenched bureaucrats, McCrory’s embrace of tangible improvements — from highways to government offices — is a key part of who he is as governor.
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He says he is comfortable being called a cheerleader for the state, yet he sees himself as a leader who is focused on big ideas along with little details. Three years after taking office he is still talking about finding dried-up water fountains outside the state Capitol.
“It was something I didn’t quite understand, and that seemed to be a metaphor for a lot of other functions of state government,” he said in an interview between the bond rally and the game. “That was probably my biggest surprise in my first year, is how much attention and time we had to focus my team on just fixing basic – basic – operational issues that I think had been ignored for 15 or 20 years.”
The idea that state government itself was broken, not just the infrastructure, has been the narrative of his term. Asked about his accomplishments, McCrory ticks off a list: rewriting the formula that determines what roads are built, Medicaid reform, increased pay for starting teachers, improving customer service at motor vehicle offices, lowering income taxes, centralizing and upgrading information technology, and the improving economy.
McCrory says he expected a six-month honeymoon in Raleigh, but backlash, even from his own party, began immediately.
“There’s no doubt I was seen as an outsider,” he said. “I didn’t come from state government, and therefore people had to test my mettle. … They saw that I was going to push back. I did it through lawsuits, I did it with the president, I did it with my own Republican legislature, and some of them don’t like it. But if you’re going to be a change agent, you know you’re not going to make everyone happy.”
There are certainly those he hasn’t made happy.
He has been battered by controversies: federal investigations into his administration, Cabinet resignations, a coal ash spill complicated by his longtime work for Duke Energy, not expanding Medicaid coverage nor unemployment insurance, signing abortion regulations into law, increasing political hires.
He has met with strong opposition on his home turf from those in northern Mecklenburg County opposed to toll lanes on Interstate 77. But he said the decision to go forward with those plans was made locally, in line with his intentions to decentralize state decision-making.
“The dilemma is there’s no clear consensus on that, but there’s a democratic way they voted on it,” McCrory said. “I’m not going to override that process that’s devised by statute. And, yes, it could hurt me politically.”
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, says McCrory’s best route to re-election might be the national economic recovery, which echoes in this state and plays to his 2012 campaign against Democratic mismanagement. Friction with the legislature, on the other hand, could hurt, Taylor said.
“More of a challenge to him is working out how to embrace the broader Republican legacy,” Taylor said. “Much of that is attributable to the leadership in the General Assembly as much as to him.”
Still, the governor says, his is a record he’s willing to run on.
“We’ve had about 80 percent good success,” McCrory said, “and some 20 percent — yeah, I wish we could replay, but I’ve got to accept that and move on.”
Family: Wife, Ann
Occupation: Governor. Previously, human resources and economic development positions at Duke Energy.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in education and political science from Catawba College. Also obtained a North Carolina teaching certificate.
Political experience: Mayor of Charlotte for seven terms.
Worth knowing: The governor says he was also a government outsider when he became mayor in 1995.