North Carolina saw major changes in the last four years under Gov. Pat McCrory, but many of those changes had their start in the legislature. While McCrory agreed with his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly on many issues, they also clashed – often with lawmakers winning.
McCrory started his term at a disadvantage, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat. As a newcomer to Raleigh, he didn’t have relationships with lawmakers that would have helped him.
The former Charlotte mayor had his run-ins with the GOP-dominated legislature that included multiple veto overrides and McCrory suing legislative leaders over commissions appointments. In 2015, then-Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca told a newspaper that the “governor doesn’t play much of a role in anything.”
Some of that power dynamic was beyond McCrory’s control.
“We have one of the weakest governors in the nation by constitutional design,” said David McLennan, a political scientist at Meredith College. “He doesn’t have much authority.”
Still, McLennan says McCrory will likely be viewed more favorably than the two Democrats who were his immediate predecessors. Gov. Bev Perdue’s term was marred by a national economic recession, while Gov. Mike Easley’s tenure included major scandals.
“In comparison to the giants,” McLennan said, referring to three well-respected governors, Democrats Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford and Republican Jim Martin, “I don’t think he’s going to stand up against them.”
Democrats and Republicans offered vastly different views on McCrory’s legacy Monday as the governor conceded defeat.
For Democrats, one issue will trump McCrory’s other actions from his four years in office: House Bill 2. The controversial LGBT law has dominated headlines for much of McCrory’s final year in office for its provision requiring transgender people in government facilities to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates.
McKissick said HB2 will be McCrory’s “lasting legacy.”
“The discriminatory polices embedded in HB2, that is what will follow him,” McKissick said.
Republicans, however, don’t think HB2 is McCrory’s defining moment. Instead, they think McCrory will be remembered for a laundry list of policies: Income tax cuts, teacher pay raises, budget surpluses, transportation funding reforms and the $2 billion “Connect N.C.” bond. The governor mentioned several of those accomplishments in his concession video Monday.
“North Carolina is a better state as a result of his time as governor and I wish him the very best,” House Majority Leader John Bell said.
A few of the issues that marked the McCrory administration, beyond HB2:
Connect NC bond: McCrory was the driving force behind a $2 billion bond referendum that voters approved in March for repairs and expansions to parks, universities and infrastructure across the state.
Rep. Kelly Hastings, a Cherryville Republican, said the impact of the bond funding will be felt for years to come, pointing to a recent tour he took at Western Carolina University. “They had a science building that was functionally obsolete, and there were so many examples of that across the state,” Hastings said. “The bonds will help alleviate some of those problems.”
Coal ash: McCrory mentioned “environmental clean-up” as a key accomplishment in his concession video Monday. He was referring to the state’s response when a Duke Energy coal ash pond dumped 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River in 2014.
McCrory’s administration oversaw the cleanup and penalties against Duke, but he faced criticism from environmentalists who said he was too soft on Duke, the company where he worked for decades.
Tax cuts: McCrory signed sweeping tax changes largely developed in the legislature, with Republicans reducing personal and corporate income taxes while expanding the state’s sales tax to include more services like car repairs.
Democrats opposed the changes, arguing that the changes meant higher taxes for lower- and middle-class people. But the lower taxes also prompted accolades from the business community. “North Carolina is now the second best state in the country for economic security, for job creation and retention,” Hastings said, citing a Forbes ranking.
Transportation funding: McCrory changed the state’s system for ranking road projects in an effort to keep powerful politicians from diverting funds to pet projects.
The ranking system now uses more objective criteria, giving weight to factors such as economic development and congestion relief, which can favor cities.
Teacher raises: During McCrory’s tenure, the state has approved several teacher raises designed to move the average teacher salary to $50,000, including a raise this year that averaged 4.7 percent. Starting teachers now make $35,000. But the state still ranks relatively low nationwide in teacher pay, prompting Democrats to argue that the raises should have been bigger.
Why did McCrory lose?
There will be much debate by political insiders, pundits and professors as to why Gov. Pat McCrory couldn’t win re-election in a year when the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, won North Carolina by a comfortable margin.
Democrat Roy Cooper outspent Republican McCrory by millions of dollars, but that’s not the only reason. The most high-profile issue of McCrory’s tenure was his support for House Bill 2, the controversial “bathroom bill.” It spurred protests by liberal activists and, more importantly, by businesses and sports leagues who decided to either stop plans to come to North Carolina or pull out of the state.
The conservative Civitas Institute, which conducts opinion polls, said a poll taken a month after HB2 passed was the worst of McCrory’s time in office, when less than 40 percent of North Carolinians said they approved of him as governor.
But McCrory’s problems weren’t entirely tied to social issues that came up this year. The liberal group Public Policy Polling said McCrory at one point had 39 straight months – more than three years – of negative approval ratings. That streak of unpopularity began just six months after he took office and lasted until this October.
“Only positive reactions to his handling of Hurricane Matthew got him back in positive territory at the very end,” the pollsters wrote after McCrory conceded Monday. McCrory declined to expand Medicaid and was often tied to moves the Republican-led legislature made, such as cutting unemployment benefits and spearheading a voter ID law that was later overturned for targeting black people.
A more regional problem for McCrory was a toll road project in Mecklenburg County. McCrory won Mecklenburg County in 2012 with 49.5 percent of the vote but got only 34 percent this year.
Staff writer Will Doran