Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper clashed over House Bill 2, education and taxes Friday in their first debate.
Offering contrasting visions of the past three years, McCrory touted “the Carolina Comeback,” while Cooper decried what he called the governor’s “extreme social, partisan agenda.”
“Gov. McCrory has failed us,” Cooper told members of the N.C. Bar Association at Charlotte’s Westin hotel. “And we have all paid the price.”
McCrory touted the state’s economic growth, comparing it to the high unemployment and “good ol’ boy” system he said he inherited from Democratic predecessors.
“We’re now one of the fastest-growing economies in the United States of America,” he said. “We still have a long way to go. But the progress we’ve made in three years … is progress that we’ve never seen.”
North Carolina features one of the nation’s highest-profile gubernatorial races. Most analysts rate it as a toss-up. Last month Public Policy Polling found McCrory and Cooper tied at 41 percent.
Cooper is trying to become the first candidate to unseat an incumbent North Carolina governor since the state first allowed governors to run for more than one term nearly four decades ago.
Here’s what the candidates said:
▪ HB2: Signed by McCrory in March, the law bars local governments from expanding discrimination protections to cover sexual identity and gender identity. It also requires transgender persons to use the bathroom or locker room in a public facility that matches the gender on their birth certificate.
It sparked a national backlash, with celebrity boycotts and decisions by some corporations not to come to or expand in North Carolina.
McCrory said the law was a reaction to a Charlotte ordinance that would have told private businesses “what their bathroom policy should be.” He said the law also protects students.
“A boy who is a boy but thinks he’s a girl should not go into the girls’ shower,” McCrory said. “Roy Cooper believes that a boy thinks he’s a girl but still has the anatomy of a boy can go into a girls’ shower in our middle schools, our high schools and our universities.”
Cooper said he wants to get rid of HB2, which he said has hurt North Carolina’s image and economy.
“Gov. McCrory wants to make this campaign about where you go to the bathroom,” Cooper said. “I want to make it about where North Carolina goes from here.”
▪ The economy: McCrory cited an economy that has grown in three years.
A state that had an unemployment rate higher than 9 percent in 2012 has seen it drop to 5.1 percent last month. McCrory trumpets the addition of 275,000 private sector jobs, including more than 50,000 in Charlotte.
He also touted paying off a $2.5 billion debt in unemployment insurance to the federal government ahead of schedule.
“The cranes are back,” McCrory said, adding that jobs are returning to small towns.
But Cooper said McCrory has benefited from improvement in the national economy. But he said the improvement hasn’t translated into higher wages for the middle and working class.
“The governor continues to hurt our economy with his doubling and tripling down on HB2,” Cooper said. “North Carolina is better than this.”
▪ Taxes: McCrory touted the $4.4 billion in tax cuts enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
The governor signed bills that cut the personal and corporate income tax rates, raised standard deductions and got rid of the inheritance tax.
He said Cooper supported tax increases as a legislator during the 1980s and ’90s.
But Cooper accused McCrory of “tax giveaways to the large corporations at the expense of public education and the middle class.”
Alluding to changes that expanded services subject to the sales tax, he said McCrory has raised more than 60 taxes “from birth to death.”
▪ Education: McCrory said he and lawmakers have raised teacher pay. According to his campaign, North Carolina has committed more than $1 billion more for teacher pay since he took office.
According to the National Education Association, North Carolina saw the steepest decline in average public school teacher salaries from 2003-04 to 2013-14. While average salaries fell 3.5 percent nationwide, no state saw a bigger decline than North Carolina, where average salaries, adjusted for inflation, dropped 17.4 percent.
That was despite raises almost every year, including an 8 percent increase in 2006-07, according to the legislature’s Fiscal Research Office. In 2014-15, teachers got an average 7 percent raise, though not all teachers benefited.
Cooper said he would stop investing public money in vouchers for private schools and restore a teaching fellowship program. He said morale among teachers “has never been lower.”
Asked what he would say to teachers considering leaving the state, Cooper said, “I’d tell them to teach right here in North Carolina, because hold on, I’m coming.”
▪ Interstate 77: Cooper said he would cancel the contract between the state and a subsidiary of the Spanish company Cintra for the $647 million toll road in north Mecklenburg County.
Critics have pointed to flaws they see in the 923-page contract with I-77 Mobility Partners.
McCrory said N.C. Department of Justice attorneys signed off on the contract.
“You can’t just blame things on lawyers, governor,” Cooper told the roomful of lawyers.
McCrory said the project had been approved by local leaders, most recently in January by the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization. He touted his administration’s policy of prioritizing transportation projects by need, not politics.
The governor also said his administration is reviewing what he called design changes in the project.
After the debate, both sides claimed victory. McCrory called the audience, which often seemed to give Cooper the loudest applause, “very biased and heavily Democratic.”