Governor Pat McCrory finally conceded the 2016 election to Attorney General Roy Cooper on Monday, December 5 but he actually lost the race on March 23 when he signed the sweeping anti-LGBT law HB2.
That not only created a firestorm of protest and boycotts and damaged the state’s reputation around the world, it confirmed what voters had come to realize about him —that he was either unable or unwilling to stand up to the radical agenda of his own party in the General Assembly.
News accounts and recently released emails show that privately McCrory was both worried that the discriminatory law went too far and was unaware of everything it did until days after he signed it, a perfect microcosm of what eventually led to his defeat, his second unsuccessful run for governor in three tries.
McCrory promoted his outsider status in his 2012 campaign and that was an effective talking point but did not serve him well as he tried to navigate the political environment in Raleigh where Republican legislative leaders were already two years into their right-wing crusade to remake state government and punish their Democrat opponents who had held power for more than 100 years.
McCrory was swept up in the radical revolution and didn’t have the experience or the connections to do much about it and the lawmakers made it clear early on that he was not in control.
One of the first bills Republicans introduced in General Assembly in McCrory’s first year in office was legislation refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and provide health care coverage for 500,000 uninsured adults.
After the bill was rushed through a committee, McCrory sent a letter to every member of the Senate asking them to delay a final vote until he had a chance to weigh in on the bill. Senate leaders ignored the request and passed the bill the same day they received McCrory’s request.
It was clear that McCrory was simply along for the ride, and instead of trying to battle back and work inside the political system he liked to criticize, he spent a lot of time outside of Raleigh, making speeches and cutting ribbons, becoming the Mayor of North Carolina.
But he signed the legislation that lurched the state to the right, voter suppression, abortion restrictions, unemployment cuts, environmental rollbacks, school vouchers, massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, an expansion of gun laws that even allowed them in parks and bars.
The combination of McCrory’s sometimes prickly personality and becoming the face of extreme legislation that he didn’t propose led him to lash out often against the media and his political opponents.
He made headlines for bizarrely giving a plate of cookies to abortion rights protesters outside the governor’s mansion and falsely claiming he had waded out among the Moral Monday protestors that became a fixture in Raleigh standing up to the extreme agenda of the General Assembly.
As Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling recently pointed out, the massive protests led by Rev. William Barber made sure the public knew what was happening in Raleigh and that McCrory was part of the problem by going along with it.
His approval ratings plummeted and stayed underwater for most of his administration. McCrory frequently claimed he was “stepping on the toes of the right and the left,” governing the state as the moderate mayor of Charlotte people thought they had elected.
But the public wasn’t buying it and then came HB2, the most controversial law passed in the state in a generation.
McCrory often avoided the state’s media instead of facing questions about the economic damage the law was inflicting on the state, even leaving one event on the coast in a boat so reporters couldn’t ask him any questions.
But as his reelection effort loomed he decided to embrace HB2, even speaking at a far-right religious rally in Charlotte where anti-LGBT preachers circled McCrory on stage and prayed for him with their hands on his shoulders.
His lawyers argued in federal court that transgender people were mentally ill and cited evidence to support their case from a group that believes gay people can be “cured.” McCrory ran to the religious right for political support and they became his staunchest supporters.
At the same time he tried desperately to focus attention away from HB2, pointing to the economy in North Carolina that improved during his tenure as part of the national economic recovery.
Much of politics is timing and McCrory did have a positive economic story to tell, though some of that message was diluted by the appeals to the still struggling working class by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Ironically McCrory ended his administration with a rally in the polls by becoming mayor again as the state reeled from the damage from Hurricane Matthew and the forest fires in western North Carolina.
McCrory was everywhere during the hurricane and after it, with frequent news conferences and visits to the hardest hit areas.
He entered Election Day in a dead heat with Roy Cooper and what turned out to be almost a wave election for Republicans should have carried McCrory to a second term.
But HB2 and what it represented were too much. Legislative districts are heavily gerrymandered and with a few exceptions people can’t really take out their frustration with the extremism in the General Assembly on their own lawmakers.
But they could vote against McCrory, the face of HB2 and the radical shift in North Carolina in the last few years. And they did.
Now Roy Cooper is planning his inauguration and preparing to face a still very conservative General Assembly while the debate about McCrory’s legacy begins.
That discussion will always start with HB2. We’ll never know what McCrory really thought of the idea to write discrimination into the law but he signed it and became its public face, just like he came to be the symbol of the other extremist laws passed by the General Assembly.
McCrory always seemed most comfortable promoting his bond initiative at a small town Rotary Club or shoveling the first bit of dirt at a groundbreaking for the construction of a new highway, doing the things that mayors do.
But voters in North Carolina didn’t just want a mayor this year, not in these turbulent political times. They wanted a governor with his own agenda and experience to battle back in Raleigh. And they elected one.
McCrory heads off to a possible job in the Trump Administration in Washington after four years in Raleigh, a city he never really understood.