North Carolina GOP Gov. Pat McCrory hand carried chocolate-chip cookies to abortion bill protesters outside the Raleigh governor’s mansion in a let’s-make-up gesture. The surprised recipient said he told her, “‘These are for you. God bless you, God bless you, God bless you.’” The cookies were returned, and it wasn’t because he forgot the milk. The note on the untouched plate read: “We want women’s health care, not cookies.”
The Tuesday scene, described by The News & Observer, was fallout from McCrory’s Monday night signing of legislation that, among other provisions, will make clinics adopt some of the regulations that apply to ambulatory surgery centers, and allow health-care providers to opt out of performing abortions if they object. Opponents say the new law will limit access to abortion by forcing clinics to close, while McCrory and the bill’s supporters say the health and safety of the state’s citizens, not politics, are what’s at stake.
McCrory’s sincerity is not the issue. After state health officials sanctioned an Asheville, N.C., clinic on Wednesday for “egregious violations … that revealed an imminent threat to the health and safety of patients,” it was either evidence of the need for greater vigilance or proof that current laws are working, depending on which side you support. But it certainly means the subject of clinic safety will and should remain center stage.
However, McCrory’s name on the bill was a cue for endless televised replays of his 2012 pledge during a gubernatorial debate that, if elected, he would not sign any further abortion restrictions into law. In recent Public Policy Polling, the abortion bill was supported by only 34 percent of voters, with 47 percent opposing it. By a similar 48 to 33 margin, voters preferred that McCrory veto the bill (and that number included 25 percent of Republicans).
The cookies treat for angry dissenters was a clumsy move (they chanted: “Hey Pat, that was rude. You wouldn’t give cookies to a dude.”) and also in keeping with some of the troubles that have plagued McCrory since he made the leap from Charlotte mayor to the most prominent political job in the state. Engaging protesters about the issue of clinic safety would have been a better move.
Though presiding over Republican super-majorities in the state House and Senate, he has seemed more follower than leader, swept along by a conservative wave of proposals that has signaled North Carolina’s change in political direction, at a loss when talking with many who must have voted for him.
In Raleigh, among other moves, the GOP legislature has cut unemployment benefits, crafted a budget with education cuts, increased campaign contribution maximums while loosening disclosure rules and approved a sweeping overhaul of election laws that has turned North Carolina from one of the most voter friendly states to one of the most restrictive. In addition to requiring limited types of voter ID, the new law would shorten early voting by one week, eliminate same-day registration, straight party voting and pre-registration of 16 and 17 year olds, and add approved poll watchers who can challenge voters inside the precinct.
When I talked with McCrory in June he sounded like a man in charge. “I won by over 10 points,” he said. He also took issue with the message of “Moral Monday” protesters who showed up week after week to protest conservative proposals, and their suggestion, he said, “that one group is moral and the other group is immoral.” McCrory said his party’s more efficient way would benefit all citizens.
But he had not helped himself by referring to the protesters as “outsiders,” echoing the “outside agitators” language of past Southern governors known more for standing in schoolhouse doors than anyone’s idea of progress. Later, he suggested he was regularly wading into the crowds, though no one recalled seeing or chatting with the governor.
In a recent stop in Cornelius, N.C., for a bill signing, McCrory avoided demonstrators by leaving through a side door, and he later told an NBC Charlotte reporter that the protesters were part of a coordinated group and did not represent the majority of the people of North Carolina.
The coalition of teachers, clergy, civil rights and voting activists, women’s groups and others who showed up every Monday may reflect the 49 percent in the recent Public Policy Polling survey who disapproved of the governor’s job performance.
If McCrory thought the optics of officers carting away senior citizens, ministers and a reporter in handcuffs were bad, wait until poll watchers start confronting voters they find suspicious. It would bring back memories of the bad old days, the worst of Southern stereotypes, and perhaps, draw some attention from a federal government that has pledged to reinforce voting rights.
The latest attention North Carolina is getting is far from the jobs pledge McCrory ran on. In a record 14 years as Charlotte mayor — a part-time job in a city that operates under a council-manager form of government – McCrory’s timing was perfect. He presided over economic boom years in a banking town.
Back then, he was fond of public appearances. He was everywhere. And he loved the name everyone called after him –“Mayor Pat.”
When he narrowly lost to Democrat Bev Perdue in his 2008 gubernatorial run, he took it personally. In his 2012 race, he sold himself as a moderate and won handily. But now a lot of voters are having buyer’s remorse.
The crowds are calling him something else now — a politician who hasn’t kept his word.
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