CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It was a homecoming of sorts for the man who once reveled in the familiar nickname “Mayor Pat.” Now Pat McCrory has a new job, and the whirlwind “listen and learn” tour that swept the new Republican governor across North Carolina brought him to Charlotte on Wednesday.
In his Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center base for the 14 years he served as mayor — a place he said he had not visited since Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx took over in 2009 — he greeted supporters during an open house and then spoke with elected officials and community leaders who were cautiously optimistic that McCrory would remember his roots now that he holds the state’s top job.
As supporter Mary Springsteed of Charlotte told me, “If he brings an awareness of Charlotte to Raleigh, we will have been served.” The city, she said, “has felt like the stepchild.”
Foxx told the crowd he was “personally very proud” of McCrory’s win, a breakthrough for Mecklenburg County, whose politicians have traditionally had a tough time succeeding in statewide races. (In the crowd, former Charlotte mayor and failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot was acknowledged by McCrory.) Foxx said he had “a whole long list” of things he wanted to talk with the governor about.
While the statehouse is in GOP control, Charlotte is decidedly Democrat, and there were some awkward moments as McCrory preached austerity and cooperation. Artfully and subtly, Foxx put a bit of space between them, introducing former Republican governor Jim Martin, who introduced McCrory, the first Republican governor in 20 years.
Though on Wednesday he told the crowd, “If you want to continue to call me Mayor Pat, that’s all right with me,” McCrory is where he wants to be. He was patient after losing a close gubernatorial race to Bev Perdue in 2008, the year President Obama won the state as well. He built alliances as he supported Republican candidates and left little doubt he would run again. It paid off for McCrory and Mitt Romney, the man he campaigned for. In November, they won in North Carolina, where Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in the legislature.
McCrory, as promised, did more listening Wednesday. As officials spoke of their needs and voters greeted him with more personal hopes, he reminded them more than once that there is “no new money falling out of the sky.” With North Carolina’s unemployment rate at slightly more than 9 percent, above the national average, job creation is a concern. Officials also quizzed McCrory on issues from funding for education (something Perdue championed while lamenting legislature cuts) to an overcrowded and inefficient court system to state support for an extension of Charlotte’s light rail (McCrory said he supported it).
Left vague were the governor’s plans to implement the “very complex” Affordable Care Act, which McCrory campaigned against as Obamacare – he still calls it that – and decisions on the expansion of Medicaid.
Because of a possible lawsuit, McCrory declined to comment on a fight with Mecklenburg County over the state’s decision to transfer oversight of more than $200 million of federal, county and state Medicaid money for mental health services from the county to a private agency. The decision was made before McCrory took office last week.
McCrory touted the team he has put together without really featuring its most controversial member, multimillionaire GOP power broker and now top state budget writer Art Pope. He promised to review every state policy and operation, and set up a friendly challenge with his “good friend,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, on which state could attract more jobs.
Look for those name-dropping shout-outs to increase as McCrory’s national profile rises. But in a state as increasingly diverse as North Carolina that politically can resemble Virginia more than its neighbor to the south, his continued success depends on constituents who fudge some of the right turns he’s made since he was mayor of Charlotte.
He consoled and supported New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during all the criticism over an Obama embrace during Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, and this week, McCrory endorsed voter ID legislation (vetoed by Perdue), while at the same time backing off prior insistence on a photo requirement.
Patrice Hamilton, a 27-year-old teacher and registered Independent voter from Statesville, N.C., voted for McCrory, hoping he will govern as a moderate. On Wednesday, she said education needs “reform, not necessarily cutting.”
Chuck and Priscilla Sawicki, retirees who settled in Charlotte seven years ago and volunteer in the schools, said they are “thrilled” that Democrat Foxx is mayor and believe Republican McCrory will bring a fresh approach to Raleigh.
As the crowds filtered out, some stopped to pose for pictures with McCrory before he returned to Raleigh for Saturday’s public inauguration.
Foxx told me the conversation was just beginning. “[McCrory] has a good feel for what urban areas are dealing with,” Foxx said. “The question is, what do you do about it, whether it’s education, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s job creation, whether it’s workforce development systems. The governor plays a huge role in all of that. So I’m hopeful that not only will he be good for us, but I hope he’ll be good for the state.”
When I asked about the people on McCrory’s team, Foxx laughed – briefly.
“He’s got a very difficult balance to strike. The expectations that are there within his party may not mesh well with the expectations people in this state have, for schools, for roads, for transportation or a variety of things,” Foxx said.
“He’s going to have to sort through that. It’s going to be interesting to watch, but I can’t watch passively because I have 750,000 people in this city who depend on both him and the legislature and me to make good decisions for them.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3