McCrory’s bumpy first year comes at Republican hands

September 6, 2013

RALEIGH, N.C. — Unlike most states, where a governor shares a state capitol building with the state legislature, there is a physical remove between North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s office and the building in which the 170 members of the state House and Senate meet to conduct their business. The distance is only the length of a city block, along a promenade between the Museum of Natural Sciences and the Museum of History. But given the tensions between McCrory, a Republican, and the leaders of the two chambers, it might as well be a gulf that stretches from Raleigh to Charlotte.

“We’re stepping on the toes of a lot of the establishment that’s been controlling this state government for a long, long time, on both the left and the right,” McCrory said in an interview on Thursday in his office in the historic state capitol building. “I’m really an outsider coming in here, and a lot of the political insiders, the lobbying insiders, are pretty well established.”

Even after a legislative session dominated by Republican legislative victories, on issues as diverse as gun control, abortion, taxes and election reforms, deep differences divide McCrory and state Senate President Phil Berger (R), who spearheaded the most controversial parts of the conservative agenda that passed the legislature, and won McCrory’s signature, on party-line votes.

In a special session this week, the House and Senate voted by wide margins to override two of McCrory’s vetoes, on measures that would require drug testing for welfare recipients and that would loosen e-Verify requirements for ensuring agricultural workers are legally permitted to work in the United States, even after McCrory and his allies lobbied legislators to sustain the vetoes.

Underscoring the tensions between the two branches, McCrory, who once called basketball superstar Michael Jordan for traveling while refereeing an ACC all-star game, promised to ignore both votes; he said his administration would not implement the drug testing law until it was properly funded, and he said the executive branch would “explore all legal and executive authority to ensure the letter and spirit of our nation’s immigration law is followed in this state” — essentially promising to find a way to require those agricultural businesses that were impacted to use the e-Verify system.

North Carolina politics have long been divided between Charlotte, where McCrory served as mayor for 14 years, and the rest of the state. Mayors of Charlotte have a dismal record in statewide elections; his four predecessors, Edward Knox, Harvey Gantt, Sue Myrick and Richard Vinroot, all ran for and lost races for governor or a Senate seat. McCrory himself lost when he first ran for governor in 2008. And to legislative insiders, McCrory’s first eight months in office have given fodder to those who fear Charlotte politicians coming to Raleigh.

“He really didn’t understand how the system works with a governor, a legislature and a judiciary — how Raleigh works,” said state Sen. Bob Rucho, the Republican chairman of the Finance Committee and a leading advocate of tax reform.

But to McCrory, who became the first Republican to win the governor’s mansion since Jim Martin in 1989 when he won in 2012 by more than 11 points, he is the vanguard against a legislature that sometimes goes too far — and a punching bag for media intent on finding divisions and publishing dramatic headlines.

“We’re coming in here and making some change. At times, that change goes a little too far, and I gotta pull it back as governor. At times there’s a little bit of overreach. As governor, I’ve got to pull it back,” he said.

The two vetoes illustrated the lengths to which McCrory has gone to distance himself from a legislature with dismal approval ratings and to establish his independence — though he issued the vetoes, he said, for policy, not political, reasons. McCrory’s veto of the welfare bill won support from most of the Democrats in the state House. His veto of the e-Verify bill earned support from a bloc of conservative immigration hardliners.

“I think there are two reasons for a veto. One is to educate the public and let them know exactly what’s in the bill, and the second is to try to reverse the bill, because I don’t think a lot of the public would have known what’s in those bills unless I had vetoed them. And by the way, both those vetoes were kind of stepping on the toes of both the left and the right. My staff was going, What are you doing?” McCrory said. “I vetoed pretty well knowing I wasn’t going to win the veto. Because I looked at the numbers.”

McCrory follows an internal political compass, taking advice from — but occasionally bucking — a small circle of kitchen cabinet advisers. That frustrates several more traditional political advisers; his first communications director quit after just three months on the job, and two top McCrory appointees in the Department of Public Safety left in July.

One group of advisers McCrory rarely heeds is in the state Senate, where Berger spearheaded most of the conservative agenda that dominated headlines this year. The structure of North Carolina’s political system and its evolution over the last several decades means the Senate holds most of the power, while the House can serve as a moderating influence between the upper chamber and the governor.

“The challenge I had with the Senate … is that they probably want to take things a little further, and I was in the way of their overreach,” McCrory said. “I think some of those in the Senate want to replicate the old Democratic power model, because frankly the real power in North Carolina government was in the Senate for the last 20 years. And I had some Republicans who wanted to replicate that culture. And I fault that culture because that’s the culture I promised to change.”

The comments were thinly veiled shots at Berger and his colleagues in the Senate Republican leadership, like Tom Apodaca, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Majority Leader Harry Brown and Rucho, the finance chairman. And most observers outside the governor’s office, even Democrats who have their eye on McCrory’s job, say the real power this session was in the Senate.

“The Senate ran the state of North Carolina, and the governor was a willing follower,” said state Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat from Raleigh who is considering running for statewide office in 2016.

State House Speaker Thom Tillis is one of the few Republicans standing between McCrory, the Senate and all-out war. Tillis played a critical role during this year’s legislative session in bridging the ideological divides between the branches, especially on a measure that cut state income and corporate tax levels by several percentage points. The Senate, led by Rucho, wanted to cut rates much farther; McCrory wanted a revenue-neutral bill. In the end, the two sides compromised, somewhere in the middle, after Tillis stepped in.

On Wednesday, the day the Senate voted with the House to override McCrory’s vetoes, the speaker and the governor stayed up until 11:30 p.m. to review the session and hash out their differences, McCrory said. In an interview Wednesday, Tillis called McCrory a close friend. “I’m convinced he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest governors we’ve ever had, and I’m going to do everything I can to help him get there,” Tillis said.

Beyond his friend Tillis, McCrory is acutely aware of the criticism he receives, both from the legislature and from political observers in Raleigh and around the state.

“There’s several of the critics who are trying to push several different themes,” he said Thursday. “One theme is, McCrory’s driving the state to the right, he’s too powerful. And then the next theme is, he’s not powerful enough, he’s being driven by the legislature. Then the new theme is, he’s in over his head.”

“The political insiders are going ‘ah, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ Actually, we do,” he added.

McCrory zealously guards his image as a centrist sent to Raleigh to reform the way business gets done. Occasionally, as on a measure that placed new restrictions on abortion clinics, he hones that image publicly.

“Both the left and the right are wrong on abortion. How many politicians say that?” he asked. “The right introduced a bill which basically would have shut down all of the clinics, which is ridiculous. It’s the law. The left pretends there’s nothing wrong with existing clinics, and refuse to talk about it.”

But he’s getting lumped in with the legislature nonetheless. Conservative initiatives Republicans pushed through this year on abortion, taxes and voting rights earned outraged national headlines from liberal media outlets like MSNBC, The Huffington Post and ThinkProgress. In North Carolina, it inspired a group of Democratic constituencies, led by the NAACP and joined by abortion rights activists and labor unions, to form a weekly protest, dubbed “Moral Mondays.” Several observers on both sides of the aisle likened the protests — which have sometimes attracted more than 1,000 people to the state capitol — to the tea party protests that rocked American politics during the health-care debate in 2009 and 2010.

McCrory has not always handled those protests with aplomb. In July, he carried a plate of chocolate chip cookies to activists protesting the abortion bill. The protesters returned the cookies with a note: “We want women’s health care, not cookies.” Several hours later, a staff member came out of the governor’s mansion to hand a 12-year old protester three slices of cake, inviting unflattering comparisons to a certain queen of France during the reign of King Louis XVI. Several McCrory advisers blanched at the gestures.

But a year into his first term, McCrory remains hopeful that his crusade to change Raleigh — or, in local parlance, inside the Beltline, rather than the Beltway — will be successful.

“I’ve got an idealistic streak that I’m bringing here that I’m hopefully not going to lose. And I don’t plan to lose it,” he said. “I called traveling on Michael Jordan. I can deal with it.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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