Protests across North Carolina and media scrutiny from across the country over a more conservative bent in N.C. politics stem from a much-needed change in culture, Gov. Pat McCrory told me Monday afternoon during a visit to the Government Center in Charlotte.
McCrory, a first-term Republican governor and former seven-term Charlotte mayor, said organized opposition by Democratic-leaning political groups and media hyperbole have created a distorted picture of the Tar Heel State. During a 15-minute interview, he dismissed concerns over a recently signed voter ID bill, characterized anger over tighter abortion restrictions as misguided and said he is comfortable bucking liberal and conservative factions alike when warranted.
McCrory came to Charlotte to present the Order of the Long Leaf Pine to former Mecklenburg County commissioner Dan Ramirez. Ramirez, who was diagnosed with ALS last year, became the first local Hispanic elected to political office in 2002.
McCrory had tears in his eyes when he presented the award to Ramirez. The governor took questions from several reporters after the ceremony and then headed to the 15th floor for a visit with the current mayor, Patsy Kinsey. She became mayor last month after fellow Democrat Anthony Foxx resigned. Foxx gave up the office after President Obama chose him to be U.S. secretary of transportation.
Since his last term as mayor ended in 2009, McCrory has been in the Government Center just twice, he told me Monday.
A week ago, crowds estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 people protested at Marshall Park, labeling McCrory a “poster child” for the Tea Party and mocking his recent overture to placate women’s health-care advocates in Raleigh by presenting protesters with a plate of cookies.
“I welcome people who have the ability to protest,” he said Monday. “Heck, I went up to Raleigh one time to protest. Gov. Easley was governor. The only difference was, I didn’t make it a point to get arrested.”
No arrests were made at the Moral Monday protest in Charlotte last week. Three months of Moral Mondays in Raleigh during the General Assembly session led to more than 900 arrests.
McCrory and his Republican allies in the state legislature control both chambers of the General Assembly as well as the governor’s mansion. It marks the first time the GOP has enjoyed this much political power in North Carolina in more than a century.
“We have to recognize that a lot of this is well-planned and well-coordinated — (left-leaning) MoveOn.org and other groups are very active in this well-coordinated event. So I’m going to listen to the thousands, or 2,000 or 3,000 people who protest, but I also have to concentrate on the other 9 million people who live and work and play in North Carolina. I have to make sure we don’t take the one perspective of protesters out of perspective.”
The governor said the rallies seek to preserve the status quo, a philosophy that runs counter to his campaign pledge to revamp state government.
“If we continue the same policies as the past three or four years, we’re going to continue to have the same results,” McCrory said. “And right now, those results aren’t good.”
In July, the North Carolina unemployment rate recently inched upward to 8.9 percent, third-worst in the nation.
McCrory and the legislature approved sharp reductions in unemployment benefits this year. State debt of $2.5 billion to the federal government prompted the shift. Economists and data analysts, including Chapel Hill consultant John Quinterno, questioned the changes in unemployment benefits and called the cuts short-sighted.
“I came to Raleigh to change some things,” McCrory said of his policy battles. “I’m stepping on the toes of both the right and the left, like I did as mayor. It’s not fun. It’s difficult. I’m not doing it to cause pain. I’m doing it to get people to stand up and recognize we have some serious issues that we need to solve. In the meantime, I’ve had to make some very difficult decisions in the short eight months I’ve been in office.”
Democrats and, to a lesser extent, Republicans in Raleigh spend too much time trying to keep state government the same, McCrory said. At times during the General Assembly session that ended last month, Republicans fell prey to “that 10 or 20 percent overreach that you didn’t need to do.”
A broad voter ID law signed by the governor drew a rebuke from former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell, a fellow Republican, when Powell spoke last week at a CEO forum in Raleigh that included remarks by the governor, too.
The voter ID bill ends straight-ticket voting, prevents college students from using their school IDs at the polls and shortens the early-voting period. Some experts expect the U.S. Department of Justice to challenge the new law, similar to a legal battle brewing over voter laws in Texas.
“I think the media and some of the liberal activists have greatly exaggerated the claims of what North Carolina has done with voter ID,” McCrory said Monday, noting that dozens of states, most with Republican-controlled governments, have passed similar laws. “That’s mainstream. You need an ID to get Sudafed in North Carolina, which was supported by Republicans and Democrats and the attorney general. Requiring the same documents for voting as we do for Sudafed, I think, is common sense. Everyone ought to have some form of ID and, frankly, we’re going to be providing them for free.”
Voters across the state are disappointed in the governor and the legislature of late, according to Raleigh research firm Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning group. McCrory’s approval rating declined to 39 percent in the latest surveys; the General Assembly’s fell to 24 percent. A Republican-friendly polling firm, the Civitas Institute, has also seen drops in the governor’s popularity, though his overall approval ratings hovers near 50 percent in those surveys.
A question about the abortion bill prompted a retort over whether critics have even read the bill, a problem the governor learned first-hand during an earlier remark about voter ID.
“The abortion issue was, again, greatly exaggerated,” he said. “Because the bill that was going to be passed was the one I was going to veto. I think both the right and the left were wrong on this issue. The right, obviously, wrote (the earlier bill) with the clear objective of closing abortion clinics, when it’s legal. I disagreed with that bill. The left turned a blind eye and tried to pretend there were no issues with regard to existing clinics, when in fact there are.”
McCrory said the bill approved by the General Assembly was a “pragmatic solution.” State Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Mecklenburg Democrat and leader of the local delegation in Raleigh, told me last week the legislation ignored a campaign pledge by McCrory to preserve abortion rights. Women’s health advocates and a number of Democrat-friendly grassroots groups have voiced similar opinions.
Said McCrory: “Those regulations haven’t been written yet, so it’s kind of ironic — I hear the media talk about stringent regulations which will close clinics. (The regulations) haven’t been written yet and they’re going to be written by a doctor, not politicians.”
The new law adds requirements for clinics to perform abortions. McCrory and the GOP have said changes are necessary to ensure safety and proper care. Democrats and other opponents criticize the law as a way to limit access for women seeking an abortion.
“If you read the media, you would think we shut down every clinic, when in fact we haven’t done that,” McCrory said.
Continued uncertainty over who controls Charlotte Douglas International Airport elicited a familiar response from McCrory: Eliminate the politics of the debate, a call that has been ignored by state lawmakers ever since a campaign began over the winter to remove CLT from direct city oversight.
Asked about slipping approval ratings for himself and other Republican leaders, the governor blamed “the PR machine” and mentioned stories about the state’s political environment in The New York Times, The News & Observer in Raleigh and The Huffington Post as examples.
Coverage by those outlets has been slanted, he said.
Those stories “have clearly communicated one viewpoint, and today I’m clearly stating another viewpoint that I doubt will be the headlines in the newspaper. We’ll get the message out.”
As for North Carolina’s national brand or reputation, McCrory said that has always been a concern for him, both as a mayor and now as governor.
Then he took a swipe at his predecessors, Bev Perdue and Mike Easley. Both are Democrats and both were swept up in campaign finance scandals. Perdue defeated McCrory in the 2008 election and served one term before opting against a re-election campaign. Easley served two terms, beginning with the 2000 election.
“Worry about the brand?” McCrory said. “I didn’t hear people worrying about the brand when we were having indictments and people going to prison (former House Speaker Jim Black, a Mecklenburg Democrat) and things of that nature. It’s amazing, when a Republican’s in office and no one’s going to prison or no one being indicted, I’m being asked by the Business Journal about our brand.”