On July 30, Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s Republican governor, walked out of his mansion to a group of women protesting a law he’d signed that they said would close abortion clinics under the pretext of protecting patients. Flanked by guards, he handed one a plate of chocolate-chip cookies, said “God bless you” and left.
The offering didn’t work, according to a survey released last week by Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling. Fifty-seven percent of respondents thought it was inappropriate to deliver snacks instead of engaging the protesters, and 51 percent disapproved of McCrory’s job performance.
McCrory’s awkward outreach has become emblematic of the 56-year-old governor’s first eight months in office. Foes wonder where the man who campaigned as a moderate stands, and friends explain why he appeared to follow instead of lead as Republican lawmakers approved the abortion measure, relaxed gun laws and restricted access to the polls.
“There’s been a lack of leadership from him all year and this just put it all into perspective,” Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant in Carrboro, said of the cookie incident. “He’d just broken a political promise to these women and they were extremely angry. And instead of dealing with that anger, he brought them cookies.”
McCrory, 56, Charlotte’s former mayor, ran for governor as a business-oriented centrist and steered away from social issues. He said he wanted to increase employment in North Carolina, where July’s 8.9 percent jobless rate was higher than any other Southern state. He said he didn’t support new abortion restrictions or changes in taxes that reduced revenue.
His election meant that Republicans controlled the legislative and executive branches simultaneously for the first time since Reconstruction. Lawmakers said they formulated their agenda before McCrory took office. The result landed on his desk.
The governor signed the abortion measure, allowing the state to make clinics meet structural requirements similar to those for outpatient surgical centers. Republicans said the measure would make clinics safer while opponents said it was an effort to deny access.
McCrory also backed a reduction in taxes on estates, and on corporate and individual income, which are projected to reduce revenue, and a measure that rejected an expansion of Medicaid health care for the poor. He signed a measure requiring voters to present government-issued photo IDs at the polls -- although student identification is not accepted -- and reduced early voting hours. Civil-rights advocates said the moves would suppress turnout among blacks and the young, who tend to vote Democratic.
The voting measure, along with McCrory’s cookie delivery, prompted a 12-year-old to offer McCrory an edible riposte in the form of a chocolate pound cake today. In a video posted on YouTube, Madison Kimrey asked the governor to meet at a park outside the state capitol to discuss access to the polls. Kimrey said in an interview she waited two hours and the governor didn’t show up.
Kim Genardo, a McCrory spokeswoman, said the meeting request was a stunt.
“He’s a busy man,” she said.
McCrory would have preferred not to wade into such angry debates, said Jim Martin, who was North Carolina’s last Republican governor, from 1985 to 1993, and was on McCrory’s transition team.
Lawmakers “went too far and put him in a box,” Martin said. Even so, he added: “He’s not a liberal Democrat and he wasn’t elected to be one.”
For decades, North Carolina was at odds with its neighbors on social and economic issues, sidestepping divisive politics that came to define places such as South Carolina and Alabama. Home to Duke University, in Durham, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the state topped Site Selection magazine’s list of best business climates in 10 of the past 12 years, in part because of the quality of its workforce.
North Carolina transformed itself from a low-wage mill and agricultural state starting in the 1960s, and its economy now rests on higher education, technology and banking, including Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp., the second-biggest U.S. bank. The Research Triangle region, including Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, has the sixth-highest number of doctoral-degree holders in the U.S.
In 2010, the legislature was the target of a national campaign to elect Republicans in swing states, helping the party win both chambers from Democrats, said Paul Shumaker, a Raleigh political consultant who led the effort. Republicans increased those majorities in 2012.
North Carolina, the last state in the South to switch to all-Republican control, is one of 37 where one party holds power in both the legislature and governor’s office, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Charlotte, McCrory had developed a reputation as someone who could broker compromise and build consensus.
Those skills don’t work as well in the hyper-partisan legislature, where victorious Republicans had no need to make deals, said Joe Mavretic, a former Democratic House speaker who served on McCrory’s transition team.
“Pundits call North Carolina a blood sport and there’s a lot of truth to that,” Mavretic said. “He comes to Raleigh, moves into the governor’s mansion and it’s a totally different ballgame. This is a state where the winner takes all.”
The items on McCrory’s agenda for the session that ended last month weren’t the kind of supercharged economic and social policies that draw public protests. For instance, the governor said he wanted a new highway funding formula to take politics out of road spending. Instead, lawmakers pushed the bigger, more controversial changes.
“The legislature took off and ran out ahead of McCrory,” said Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “McCrory was pulled into issues by the gravitational force of legislative action. The challenge he faces now is being considered by both Republicans and Democrats as a weak leader.”
McCrory said in an interview that he persuaded the legislature to back measures that brought “incredible, dynamic change.” He cited measures revising taxes, the new road funding formula, a more flexible hiring, firing and compensation policy, and budget language allowing him to turn over the state Commerce Department’s economic development functions to a private authority.
“That’s more reform in six months than the State of North Carolina has had in 20 years,” he said.
He dismissed criticism.
“I’m a very pragmatic public servant who is dealing with complex issues in a very rational way,” he said.
Republicans and Democrats said the legislature led McCrory, and not the other way around.
Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis said lawmakers were ascendant because the party had been in power since 2011.
“We had two years to formulate strategy,” Tillis said. “McCrory came in in the first week of January. By that time, we had already drafted a number of the largest pieces of legislation that passed this year.”
Bob Rucho, a Charlotte Republican and co-chairman of the state Senate finance committee, echoed that.
“It’s all part of our agenda, our strategic plan of creating a competitive business environment in the state,” Rucho said. “We had been working on most of these things before he got into power. We were going forward whether he got elected or not.”
Both said they expected McCrory to be more involved in the future.
Josh Stein, the Democratic minority whip in the Senate, said he doubts that, given that Republicans have votes to override a McCrory veto.
“As long as the legislature is so one-sidedly Republican, I don’t think he has either the ability or the inclination to exhibit leadership,” Stein said.
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