Governor Pat McCrory has complained often this year that his critics never really gave him a honeymoon after he was elected and started attacking him as soon as he took office. It’s hard to imagine, though, that he ever really expected one when he named prominent funder of right-wing causes Art Pope as state budget director.
But the voters did seem inclined to give McCrory the benefit of the doubt initially. Public Policy Polling reported last January that 53 percent of voters viewed him favorably while only 25 percent had an unfavorable view of the new governor. Even Democrats were evenly split on McCrory, presumably hoping he would govern the state as he ran Charlotte as mayor, conservative maybe, but not a radical Tea Partier.
Then came the 2013 session of the General Assembly, where McCrory’s close allies in the General Assembly started working to pass their far-right agenda as soon as the session began. McCrory seemed lost at first, asking the Senate early in the session to slow down legislation to refuse Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, a request Senate leaders promptly ignored.
As the session wore on, lawmakers and their startlingly radical agenda became the story in Raleigh, not the performance of the first Republican Governor elected since 1988. When McCrory was in the news early in the year it was to defend his appointments, most notably DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos who hired a director of early childhood programs who didn’t believe in public investments in early childhood and who had made offensive slurs against Hillary Clinton on Twitter.
The new director resigned before she took office. McCrory’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources John Skvarla made headlines questioning climate change and Secretary of Public Safety Kiernan Shanahan abruptly resigned after just six months on the job amid widespread speculation that he was asked to leave. To add insult to injury, McCrory mispronounced Shanahan’s name at the news conference announcing his resignation.
McCrory created another firestorm when he signed an extreme anti-choice bill passed by the General Assembly after vowing in a televised debate during the campaign that he would not sign any bill further restricting abortion rights. McCrory made things worse when he offered a plate of cookies to women protesting the bill outside the governor’s mansion, a cynical and demeaning stunt that prompted criticism from inside and outside the state.
The governor also angered many voters when he said he would sign the sweeping voter suppression bill rammed through the General Assembly. McCrory announced his support for the legislation at a press conference when he admitted that he hadn’t read the entire bill.
When state lawmakers finally left town, McCrory had the limelight to himself with one exception. The House and Senate returned to Raleigh to override McCrory’s two vetoes and the votes weren’t even close, providing another reminder of who was really in charge in Raleigh.
Then in August came the news that DHHS Secretary Wos had given big raises to two 24-year-old employees who had worked on McCrory’s campaign. One was named the department’s policy director, though he had no experience or educational background in human services policy.
That started an avalanche of stories about the department that included revelations that Wos had given lucrative personal services contracts to several employees, including an executive on leave from her husband’s company. Reporters trying to question Wos at public events were blocked by bodyguards.
Wos also publicly blamed Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin for not expanding Medicaid when it was McCrory and the General Assembly that made the decision.
McCrory stood by Wos throughout the scandals and complained that she was being treated unfairly by the media, which became a constant refrain from the governor in his first year. It reached its peak in a telling column by Charlotte Observer Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten in early December that came after Batten listened for an hour and 40 minutes to McCrory complain about how unfairly he was being portrayed in the press.
Early in the fall, there seemed to be a shift in McCrory’s performance, a more aggressive public relations strategy. The political group closely aligned with McCrory paid for commercials featuring McCrory defending his shaky first year in office. The claims were misleading but voters saw them again and again.
McCrory also seemed to morph back into a mayor in one sense, appearing at one ribbon-cutting and jobs announcement after another, showing up for lunch at a small town general store, posing for pictures that made it into the local media and the newsletters from the governor’s office.
McCrory’s office released a series of videos throughout the year too, including a year-end message with McCrory basically claiming credit for the state’s falling unemployment rate, though it’s falling in almost every state as the country rebounds from the Great Recession.
McCrory didn’t talk much to the political press in Raleigh, instead giving selective interviews to television anchors and morning show hosts, where tough, pointed questions were rare. But even those interviews fueled a dominant narrative about McCrory in his first year; that at times he either doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp of the issues he’s discussing, or that he is intentionally saying things that aren’t true.
He repeatedly and wrongly blamed President Obama for the state’s decision to cut off federal emergency unemployment benefits and said it even after his own press office admitted McCrory had misspoken on the issue. He claimed he waded out among the Moral Monday protesters, which he hadn’t.
He told an audience in Washington that the state might be forced by the federal government to expand Medicaid, a comment that his own office couldn’t explain. He said that teachers would receive the equivalent of a one-percent pay increase because of the tax reform package, but the regressive tax plan only gives one percent cuts to people earning $250,000 and above. The bottom 80 percent of taxpayers, including teachers, will pay more.
There are many more examples and that’s the danger of McCrory’s strategy. He is not a mayor any more. Even when he is talking to supportive audiences or friendly interviewers, the media across the state are paying attention and asking questions about his faulty claims.
At the end of 2013, McCrory’s approval rating, once as low as 35 percent, is now back to 42 percent according to Public Policy Polling, but 47 percent still disapprove of the job he’s doing. That’s a long way from his 53 percent approval rating just a year ago.
And that’s after hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of commercials and countless public appearances designed to improve his standing.
One thing McCrory can’t change is that he is rightly perceived by the voters as a governor who at the very least allowed the Tea Party General Assembly to slash education funding, attack women’s rights, make it more difficult to vote, deny health care to 500,000 people by refusing Medicaid expansion, deny emergency unemployment benefits to 170,000 laid off workers, dismantle environmental protections, and give tax cuts to out of state corporations and the wealthy.
No wonder folks aren’t too thrilled with him. Nobody voted for McCrory to be a rubber stamp for the Tea Party element of the Republican Party now running the General Assembly.
So as 2013 draws to a close, it’s not the members of the media that are McCrory biggest problem, it is the radical policies of his administration and the Republican Party he leads. Here’s hoping that, somehow, a little more of that moderately conservative mayor appears in 2014. The state can’t stand too much more of this.