Outside Looking In
Pat McCrory is tired of fighting state government. So now he wants to run it
"Where've you been?" Pat McCrory asks a reporter following his campaign. "You've missed half the damn day!" And with that he flashes his big, off-kilter smile, the one that makes him squint his eyes and furrow his brow, and strides into a dimly lit, half-filled hotel ballroom at the North Raleigh Hilton.
It is a shade before 6 p.m. on a stifling Tuesday in August. Pat McCrory is due on stage in front of dolled-up members of the North Carolina Agribusiness AgLeaders group. Lieutenant Governor Bev Perdue, McCrory's opponent in the North Carolina gubernatorial race, is backstage, presumably reviewing her speech.
When he speaks to groups, Pat McCrory, who turns fifty-two this month, doesn't use notes. Never has. He may prepare a few talking points, but he doesn't write out speeches and he won't memorize a script. He prides himself on this, what he considers to be an honorable trait. He doesn't like slick, prepackaged politicians, and even though he's taking the chance of his political life, he has no plans of becoming one now.
And so he begins. "I was raised in Jamestown, North Carolina, where I graduated from Ragsdale High School." His usual smooth tenor is a little ragged from eight months of campaigning. "I then moved to Salisbury, where I got my teaching degree from Catawba College, then moved to Charlotte, where I was honored to be employed by Duke Power Company and at that time also the people of Charlotte allowed me to become a leader."
Something about the speech sounds strange, and it's not just the syntax. He's introducing himself; these people don't know Pat McCrory.
For anyone who lives in Charlotte, that is almost unfathomable. A quarter of our city's population — an entire generation — has never known another mayor. After thirteen years in the position — a record seven terms — he is the single most recognizable person in the largest city in the Carolinas. But in Raleigh? Not only do most people — meaning voters — not know who he is, they automatically don't like him, because he's from Charlotte. Out here, Mayor McCrory becomes Candidate McCrory. In Charlotte, people need to know him. Here, and in the eastern and western parts of the state, he needs to know people. And this also becomes clear: Perdue wasn't just backstage so she could review her speech. She was backstage because she doesn't need to work the crowd. After twenty years in state government, these people know who she is.
After the forum, someone asks McCrory how he thought it went. "Aww, it went great," he half smiles, half sneers. "She read from a script."
The thing is, McCrory's not always very good without notes, especially in speeches. He can kind of stumble along, mixing phrases, leaving out words, suddenly changing his mind on subject-verb agreement. Yeah, she read from a script. But she sounded better, more polished. McCrory, on the other hand, came off a little like a guy running for president of the student body.
"He is what he is," says Charlotte City Council member John Lassiter, who headed McCrory's first political campaign, a successful run for City Council in 1989. "He's not overly polished. But he's extraordinarily thoughtful on his feet. He has the ability to walk in, size up a room, and appeal to the people in that room."
That's what he's doing now that the forum is over. Sipping a Diet Coke fetched by a young aide, he's shaking hands, making eye contact, laughing at jokes. He meets a fellow who runs a bakery in the Triad area.
"You know, we're both from Jamestown," says the man with slicked-back gray hair, referring to a small town outside Greensboro where McCrory grew up. "I know!" McCrory says with a big squinty smile. "There's a bakery right down the street from where I grew up. I remember it!" A little more small talk convinces him he's in friendly company, and he gets serious. "We need your help." That means money, it means spreading the word, it means believe in me, dammit. It means let me in.
Pat McCrory doesn't just want to be your next governor. He wants to infiltrate what he sees as an arrogant Raleigh political establishment and blow it up from the inside. He's had too many doors slammed in his face, been stood up too many times, ignored too often by Democrats in power. So he wants to be the guy in power.
Finally, the last of the crowd trickles back into the ballroom to hear the Senate candidates speak. Pat and his team of three are the only ones left in the hall. McCrory looks around for direction, and an adviser takes him next door to Bahama Breeze restaurant, so they can talk strategy over dinner. Because the next night, McCrory and Perdue face off in their first debate. And the mayor can't wait.
It's not quite noon, and McCrory is angry. He's just arrived at an Embassy Suites in Cary, ready to answer audience questions alongside Perdue. Except that Perdue has canceled. The host tells him that Perdue said she had to prep for the debate. "But we have the same debate!" McCrory answers. Turning to a reporter, he says, "Bev was supposed to be here, but she bailed. Said she had debate prep." He grins conspiratorially, one of his favorite tricks for winning over the media. "You see my debate prep."
The organizer makes the mistake of telling McCrory that his group plans to host another event so that they can hear from Perdue. This triggers the temper that his City Council colleagues know so well. He moves the conversation to a corner. "No, you shouldn't have another one. I'm serious," he says, his eyebrows arched high on his tanned forehead. "It's not fair to me as a candidate. She does this to so many groups." It's another personal slight made by a Raleigh politician, and he doesn't like it one bit.
He steps up to the podium, energized. After making sure that everyone in the audience knows that Perdue has not shown up and that she has done this before, he tells a story about quizzing the CEO of Coca-Cola on leadership, then launches into a mini diatribe that is almost breathtaking for its stream-of-consciousness style. It is vintage Patspeak, in which the listener has to fill in the missing words along the way. But he's strangely captivating, and the message is clear: he's the outsider, he's the maverick, he wants to shake things up. He ends with this: "I think one of the things that is wrecking North Carolina right now is frankly we've had unethical culture among this power elite in state government…Because frankly right now some of our state government resembles Louisiana state politics of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, and that has got to change."
Whoa there, what? Louisiana? McCrory has made this one of the cornerstones of his campaign: that Raleigh is corrupt and run by a select "power elite." It's a slightly unwieldy strategy, an intriguing blend of Barack Obama's antiestablishment message and John McCain's charges of Obama elitism. But Governor Mike Easley has not been accused of corruption, and neither has Perdue. Jim Black, a former state representative from Matthews (and speaker of the N.C. House), is in prison for public corruption, and another Democratic legislator was recently in the news for misappropriating campaign funds. But the public has a short memory.
"He would like to campaign against Jim Black," says Ted Arrington, a political scientist at UNC-Charlotte. "But first of all, you have to remind an awful lot of people who Jim Black is and what he did, because people just don't pay that much attention to what is happening in Raleigh. Furthermore, that never works unless you can tie [it to] the individual you're running against. So unless he discovers something that he can tie Perdue directly to, it probably won't resonate very well."
And it's not. The few times he offers details about what he sees as corruption, he talks about secret meetings, committee meetings canceled with no notice, votes held with no discussion. These are old peeves of the mayor's. In Charlotte, council members often complain that he rarely talks to them between meetings, that he waits until the television cameras are on to do business. McCrory has always responded that he likes to conduct city business in the open, in front of the people.
So when he talks about corruption, what McCrory really means is this: they wouldn't listen to me. In his speech, he tells another story. This one's about the time last January that he took some folks to Raleigh to talk to legislators about crime.
"We tried to reach the governor about a serious crime problem," he tells the audience, adopting a somber tone. "We had a serious, serious new crime situation come up in our state, and especially with gangs. We wanted to tell the governor about this problem. The governor would not meet with us."
He's been telling this story for months now. He implies that the experience was the catalyst that eventually helped convince him to run for governor. But truth is, McCrory's been itching to move beyond the mayor's office for years now. The most logical next step, and the one he used to talk about publicly, was the U.S. House seat representing the Ninth District, which cuts through Charlotte. But U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Republican and the Charlotte mayor before McCrory, keeps running for reelection. There were rumors of a Bush administration appointment, back when that might have been seen as an attractive option. But the governor's mansion has always loomed. And in January of this year, only two months after he trounced state Rep. Beverly Earle to win his seventh term as mayor, it become clear that Bev Perdue would probably be the Democratic nominee, but not a particularly strong candidate. So McCrory went for it. And now he's crisscrossing the state, trying to win votes and raise money one town at a time, speaking over and over in ballrooms like this, shaking as many hands as he can.
"There are eight or more million people in this state, and if Pat's lucky he'll run into eight thousand of them," says Richard Vinroot, a Charlotte lawyer. Vinroot was mayor after Myrick, and he ran twice for governor and lost both times. "The other almost eight million will get whatever impressions they get over a TV ad and whatever [the] media says about him or her. So resources and how good the ads are is almost everything."
Which is why, only a couple hours before the debate with Perdue, the first of the campaign, McCrory is off for a fundraiser in a private home in the Raleigh suburb of Cary. But first, his driver needs to gas up the Accord. Spotting a man in a suit and a name tag, who has obviously just left the same luncheon, McCrory gets out of the car, which is strewn with campaign literature and empty sports-drink bottles, walks between the pumps, introduces himself, and shakes the man's hand. When you're the underdog and underfunded, you have to campaign everywhere. Even gas stations.
The huge outdoor room in the back of the house looks like a hunting lodge that's been ambushed by a decorator. There are antlers everywhere. Two full bars flank the stone patio. Sixty or so people, including physicians and oilmen and a hog farmer and a sheriff, three state Supreme Court justices, and U.S. Senator Richard Burr, are chatting while trying to catch the breeze from one of the fans. The evening's host, wearing crisp khakis and a long-sleeve white shirt with monogrammed French cuffs and the top three buttons undone, quiets the crowd and introduces the mayor from Charlotte.
When McCrory begins to speak, he sounds a little more Southern than usual. "We deserve better," he tells the curious onlookers, few of whom have ever met McCrory. "The main reason I'm running for governor is I want to change the culture of state government…As a mayor I've had to deal with this. And I've been beating my head against a wall and I'm tired of being a victim of this culture. I don't like being a victim. I don't like even saying I'm a victim."
And there it is. Finally, Pat McCrory has reached the heart of the matter. John Lassiter tells the story of that first campaign. "He was coming into politics pretty cold. He tried to get appointed to civic committees, but could never get on the list. So he ran for office."
Nineteen years later, he's doing it again.
"It takes courage to say I'm going to take over," McCrory continues. "I'm going to take control of leadership and we're going to be customer friendly and we're going to be ethical and we're going to plan for this state for the next generation."
And then he talks some about illegal immigration (hates it) and offshore drilling (loves it) and taxes (too high) and education (nothing wrong with being a mechanic), and then he's off to the WTVD television studios in Durham for the debate. Sixty wealthy people are left to drink white wine and gin and tonics and eat barbecue from the Shiny Diner and ponder the real question of the evening: can he win?
Here's the truth: plenty of people think he can win. But almost no one thinks he will win. A retired CEO explains to another guest what it's like being a Republican in North Carolina. "You know, my daddy was a Republican. He owned a lot of property, and he thought he could vote in every county where he owned property. So on Election Day, he used to drive around all day, voting. He still couldn't elect a Republican."
Pat McCrory is likable and has stayed out of trouble. In Charlotte, voters of all persuasion have elected him every two years by wide margins. He's very close to, if not ahead of, Perdue in most polls. "I think Pat is really a more effective candidate than Bev Perdue," says Vinroot. "I think in his presentment of himself in the forums and on the TV ads, he's just better than she is." Says Arrington, "He can win. You need to be generally attractive and friendly, and you need to be a whale of a campaigner, which he is."
But North Carolina politics are confounding. Since Reagan, the state's always gone red in the presidential race. The two U.S. senators are among the most conservative in Congress. But voters also elected John Edwards. And, except on two occasions, for the past 100 years, North Carolina has always elected Democratic governors.
Andy Taylor, a political scientist at NC State, also thinks McCrory can win, but it will be extremely difficult, and the Triangle area will be key. "I'm pretty sure he's going to do poorly in eastern North Carolina, especially since the presidential race might bring out a lot of African-American voters who are likely to vote straight Democratic ticket," Taylor says. "So he's going to need to do well in the Triangle area, especially with the kinds of people who voted for Elizabeth Dole in 2002 and to a lesser extent Richard Burr in 2004."
Perhaps not coincidentally, Burr launched his campaign on this very same antler-studded porch.
Later in the evening, Burr steps up to say a few words, to paint the Republican party as the savior of the state and the country and the free world. A few miles away, at the exact same time, Barack Obama is speaking to 15,000 people. Which pretty much sums up Pat McCrory's biggest problem.
In North Carolina, with its multiple geographic identities, the presidential race plays a major role in whom we elect as governors. The last two Republican governors, Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser, both came in years of national Republican landslides (Reagan and Nixon). There is likely no landslide in John McCain's future.
So McCrory's fate rests with independent voters, which have always been his strength. This year, though, that could be dicey. "We're talking about a margin of votes that occurs on top of the essentially straight-ticket voting that occurs in the parties," says Arrington. "And it's just not a good year for Republicans. McCain may very well win, but in general Republicans are not going to do well…It's just that kind of a year."
This is the person Pat McCrory is running against:
"I'm running for governor because I want to build a new North Carolina. A North Carolina where families worry less and dream more." Her face frozen into a smile, those are the first words out of Bev Perdue's mouth at the first debate of the gubernatorial election.
Later, Perdue, who has her Ph.D. in administration, tells a little campaign trail story with a practiced drawl: "I met a guy who lost his job at Pillowtex, and he was at a community college program gettin' his high school diploma GED, and I asked him what he was gonna do with it. He says I'm gonna go on and get me a trade. And I said what are you gonna do, and he said, I'm gonna be a plumber, then nobody will ever have to fire me or tell me I'm too old and I have to retire."
And again, a few minutes later: "I think kids deserve a crack at success, and you get there if you're healthy. My opponent says that children's health care insurance sends the wrong signal." At this, McCrory scoffs audibly. (Later, he says the quote was taken out of context.) "I don't understand that. Then he talked just now about not makin' insurance policies cover stuff. With school startin' next week I would hope that your kids' shots would be covered."
He would never admit it publicly, but it must really cheese McCrory that he might lose to a person who campaigns like this, a person who is, in his mind, the worst kind of politician. McCrory's not good with platitudes. He'd much rather get down in the weeds and discuss transportation and land-use planning, on which he is one of the state's foremost experts. He has little patience for people who simply want to talk about worrying less and dreaming more.
"She's a pretty typical Democrat that doesn't have any distinguishing ideas that make her in any way breakthrough or novel," Taylor says. "She's a very sort of typical North Carolina Democrat politician. Out of the machine, paid her dues, not avant-garde in any way. Won't get out in front of issues in any way. I think she's very risk averse and conservative in a stylistic way. And that might work in a year like this year."
The morning after the debate, McCrory gets up early at his sister's house in Raleigh. He hits the road at 7:20 a.m. He's due in Greensboro to speak at a retreat for the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. After the talk, which is at the opulent Grandover Resort just off I-85, a state trooper approaches him. Bev Perdue is up next, and he's working the security detail. He'd prefer that McCrory leave out a side door, to make Perdue's entrance into the hotel smoother.
Not a chance. McCrory's in the lobby, near a grand marble staircase, chatting with an old colleague on highway issues, when Perdue walks in. She strides by, no more than five yards away, flanked by troopers, and turns the corner. She doesn't acknowledge her opponent — not a wave, not a smile, not a nod. McCrory's aides stare in disbelief. Maybe she didn't see him. Maybe she's just shy. McCrory watches her go by, ignored once again by a Raleigh politician.
Richard Thurmond is editor of this magazine.