North Carolina’s Governor-Elect Shifts From Transit to Tea Party
In 14 years as Charlotte’s mayor, North Carolina governor-elect Pat McCrory advocated light rail, bike lanes, tree planting and mandatory sidewalks in front of new homes.
“He enjoyed bipartisan support as a thoughtful, moderate- conservative mayor,” said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of NC Policy Watch, a nonpartisan group in Raleigh.
A different McCrory emerged in the gubernatorial campaign, Fitzsimon said. He spoke against President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul at rallies sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit group funded by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. He endorsed a Tea Party- backed measure condemning as “extreme environmentalism” a 20- year-old United Nations statement in favor of urban planning and energy conservation. He told the Charlotte Observer that he supported a ban on gay marriage.
In January, McCrory, 56, will become the first North Carolina Republican governor in two decades, and the first to also have a Republican-controlled legislature in more than 100 years. McCrory has left the state guessing which he’ll be when he moves into the governor’s mansion: the bipartisan mayor who championed public transportation or the gubernatorial candidate aligned with the Tea Party, said J. Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at McCrory’s alma mater, Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina
“The big questions now are how far to the right will the Republicans in power go, and will he go with them,” Bitzer said. “You’ve got voter ID, abortion, the redirection of education dollars to religious schools, a whole host of pent-up social-conservative issues that are out there and that legislators want.”
The 2012 election produced the most states with single- party governments since 1952, reflecting growing polarization, according to a tally on the National Conference of State Legislatures website. Only 12 have divided governments, while Nebraska’s single-house legislature is nonpartisan. Fourteen have Democratic governors and Democratic majorities in their legislatures, while 23 are unified Republican.
In North Carolina, outgoing Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue repeatedly vetoed bills from the Republican-controlled legislature, including a waiting period for abortion and a requirement for voters to show photo identification. Although lawmakers overrode most of the vetoes, Bitzer said he expects they’ll bring up voter ID again and will introduce stronger anti-abortion legislation now that they have a Republican chief executive.
In an interview at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Las Vegas, a week after winning the Nov. 6 election, McCrory said his ideological outlook remained consistent. He took issue with opponents who said his views shifted.
“We kept hearing that,” he said. “I would ask for specifics and they never gave us specifics. They tried to label me as a switching positions, but the message was false.”
Home to banking capital Charlotte, the Raleigh-Durham- Chapel Hill Research Triangle region, Duke University and the University of North Carolina, the state has topped Site Selection magazine’s list of best business climates in nine of the last 11 years, because of business development agencies, education and the quality of its workforce.
Still, North Carolina’s economy has suffered as the U.S. struggles to recover from the 18-month recession that began in 2007, the worst since the Great Depression. The state’s economic health -- based on the performance of local-company shares, tax collection, home prices, mortgage delinquency, job growth and personal income -- declined in April through June from the year before, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index.
McCrory’s path to wresting the last Democratic governor’s seat in the U.S. Southeast began in the North. Born in Columbus, Ohio, he watched his father serve as a suburban city councilman, according to his campaign biography. The family of six moved to Jamestown, North Carolina, when McCrory was 9.
He joined Duke Energy Corp. (DUK) after graduating from Catawba and worked for the company almost three decades. When the company dismissed employees, he processed their paperwork and listened to their concerns, said Chris Sinclair, a Republican strategist in Raleigh. McCrory concluded he was good at listening and liked helping people, which got him interested in politics, Sinclair said.
McCrory won a seat on Charlotte City Council in 1989, and became the city’s youngest mayor in 1995. He was re-elected seven times. He became the city’s public face and top salesman, helping lure economic development projects such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
McCrory’s signature achievement was a 10-mile light-rail line connecting residential areas with the city center, paid for with a half-cent sales tax he helped persuade voters to approve in 1998, against opposition from anti-tax conservatives, said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, which advocates limited government. McCrory also successfully defended the tax against a ballot repeal in 2007.
His willingness to stand up for higher taxes for transportation was one reason Democrats trusted McCrory when he was mayor, said Fitzsimon. He didn’t speak out, or need to, on abortion, gay marriage, school vouchers, voter ID or other issues that divide the parties, he said.
Known as Mayor Pat, he “was a natural,” said Bitzer. “He reminds me of a Bill Clinton, not necessarily in always calculating, but in recognizing people. He has that gift of being able to speak to a wide variety of people.”
Richard Vinroot, a Charlotte lawyer who preceded McCrory, said his successor worked well with Democrats because he had to.
“In his entire time, he never had a Republican city council,” Vinroot said.
When he takes office with a Republican legislature, “my guess is he won’t know how to act.”
Sara Spencer, a former Democratic member of the Charlotte City Council, said McCrory wasn’t always responsible for the achievements that burnished his reputation. City staff persuaded the council to buy land for light rail a decade before McCrory took office, she said.
Spencer said she never knew what he stood for.
“He’s always been somewhat of an enigma to me,” she said. “I never quite figured him out.”
McCrory made his first run for governor in 2008. He ran as an outsider and on his accomplishments in Charlotte, including transportation and the NASCAR museum. He was defeated by Perdue, who was then lieutenant governor.
McCrory spent much of the next four years as a consultant with a Charlotte law firm, and preparing his next run. By 2010, the political landscape had changed. Voters elected the first Republican majority in both houses of the legislature in more than a century.
McCrory saw where his party was going and followed, Bitzer said. He protested the health-care law and joined Republican lawmakers in fighting Perdue, the state’s first female governor, who didn’t seek re-election.
McCrory ran for governor in 2012 against Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton. He raised $11.6 million, compared with $3.9 million for Dalton, state records show. Outside groups,including the Republican Governors Association, spent another $5.3 million on his behalf, according to the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, which works with activists seeking “social and economic change.” Outside groups spent $2.6 million on Dalton’s campaign. McCrory ran no negative ads. The outside groups did.
McCrory won with 54.6 percent of the vote, outstripping presidential candidate Mitt Romney by nine points.
He won support from the Tea Party, which had been skeptical because of his support for light rail, said activist Kevin Shinault. He said he was pleased when McCrory signed on to a resolution condemning Agenda 21, a United Nations sustainable development plan that Tea Party activists say subverts private- property rights.
“It was not love at first sight for the Tea Party and McCrory,” said Shinault, a physical-education teacher from Pilot Mountain.
In the interview, McCrory said he wants to reduce bureaucracy and cut taxes. He said his campaign united Republicans, Democrats and independents.
“If you try to appease everyone, you appease no one,” he said. “The best compliment I’d get during the campaign was, ‘We don’t agree with you on every issue, but you will be a good leader for our state.’”
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