The Star-News - GOP's McCrory Seeks Move to N.C. Governor
Gary D. Robertson,
The usually ebullient Pat McCrory was shaken when Duke Power Co. eliminated his job during cutbacks 20 years ago.
McCrory had given the first 10 years of his career to the company, passing on a planned career as a teacher to instead climb utility poles and remove meters from the homes of bill scofflaws, and later rising into management as a job recruiter. Now only weeks before getting married, McCrory's own future was uncertain.
"I lost my job. It was emotional," McCrory said. "When I think about it today, it still impacts me because it alters my sense of security."
It was only a week before the company, now Duke Energy Corp., offered him a different job, but the experience spurred him into taking a risk: running for city council the next year. Within six years, he was elected mayor, and if his re-election margins are any kind of barometer, his turn at the helm of North Carolina's largest city has been nothing but a success.
Now 51, McCrory talks circumspectly about having to leave his Duke job as an economic development consultant this year to take another risk - running for governor. He said his frustration with North Carolina's state government led him to seek the job.
But McCrory, whose gregariousness usually overcomes any outward signs of worry, also believed no one else could defeat whoever wound up as the Democratic nominee. On Election Day, he'll face Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, as well as Libertarian Mike Munger.
"I'm taking control of my own destiny and doing what I feel is my calling," McCrory said in a recent interview while campaigning in Brunswick County. "And we'll see if it happens."
McCrory got into the race late, not long after winning a record seventh term as mayor, joining three other Republican candidates in a primary campaign they had begun months earlier. But he immediately jumped to the front of the field with a message that focused on congested roads, high gas prices and dropout rates, illegal immigration and government corruption.
McCrory's story - now nearly worn out on the campaign trail - of leading a group of mayors in February 2007 to the state capital to seek help from outgoing Gov. Mike Easley aims to leave voters with the impression that he's tough on crime and bipartisan, but exasperated with the inertia of state government in Raleigh.
"I couldn't even get in the front door as mayor ... into the governor's office to talk about gangs and crime," McCrory told Brunswick County Republicans at a campaign stop. "All we wanted was an audience and an ear to listen to tell them what's happening."
The story leaves out some details, including the fact that McCrory's group did speak with House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate leader Marc Basnight, the top leaders in the General Assembly.
McCrory won the May primary with 46 percent of the vote, despite accusations from GOP rivals that he wasn't conservative enough and didn't have the record to back his words when it comes to fighting crime in Charlotte. Perdue has since made his record on crime an issue, an argument he dismisses as a sign of desperation.
"I think the current power elite is in a little bit of shock that we've made this a race," he said.
McCrory has a history with the "elite" label that goes back more than 30 years: He won the student body president election at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown on a platform of "defeating the pseduo-elite." (He can't remember who the elite were back then.)
The early years
Born in Columbus, Ohio, the youngest of four children to "Mac" and Audrey, McCrory grew up in a two-bedroom home in the suburb of Worthington. It was there, sister Linda Sebastian recalls, that young Pat rode bikes with his best friend and played on the construction site of a nearby subdivision, where he befriended workers to let him sit in the machines.
"(He) always had a lot of drive," Sebastian said. "Even though he was smaller than anybody else, he was really tough and scrappy."
McCrory's first taste of politics came when his father joined the Worthington town council and ultimately became mayor pro tempore. He often would go to council meetings and take notes for his dad in the audience.
The family moved to Guilford County in the mid-1960s. After some summer jobs laying asphalt and operating a jackhammer, McCrory interned for Democrat Rep. Richardson Preyer before graduating from Catawba College in Salisbury with a teaching degree in 1978.
He almost immediately took a job at Duke. He worked nights and weekends as a basketball referee after recruiting college students to come work for the Charlotte-based utility during the day.
"(They) were instantly drawn to him, related to him," said Faye Hayes, McCrory's former boss at Duke. "So we got most everybody we went for when Pat was recruiting."
McCrory's first marriage ended in divorce, and it was as he was getting ready to marry wife Ann Gordon in 1988 that he temporarily lost his job at Duke. After being turned down for appointments to several county and city boards, McCrory, a Republican, decided to run for the city council in 1989 as a relative unknown.
In a race with more than a dozen candidates, he won the fourth and final at-large seat.
"He is a tireless campaigner," said John Lassiter, a current City Council member who helped McCrory in his first campaign. "When he walks into a room, it's like that energy transfers to them. He likes to make other people feel welcome. That plays exceptionally well on the campaign trail."
McCrory soon took on Charlotte's crime problem, often riding in cruisers with officers on patrol and pushing for a teen curfew. Just like his dad, he became mayor pro tempore in 1993, and was sworn as mayor in two weeks before his father died of cancer. He was in charge as Charlotte - buoyed by the banking industry and NASCAR - grew into one of the capitals of the New South.
McCrory likes to point out how he's worked with a City Council controlled by Democrats to get things done. But he also talks about using the veto - Charlotte is the only city that give a mayor that power - to reject more than 20 items approved by the council as proof that he could hold his own as a Republican governor working with a Democratic-led Legislature in Raleigh.
"We have to use the bully pulpit of the governor's office to form coalitions, to have more efficient government," McCrory said in a recent debate.
McCrory has angered Democrats and Republicans alike by supporting some high-profile projects in Charlotte, a sign critics say he's eager to do the bidding of the city's big-moneyed interests.
In a nonbinding referendum in 2001, voters rejected a $342 million bond package to pay for a downtown arena for the NBA's Charlotte Hornets. Some city activists turned against the project when McCrory vetoed a "living wage" proposal for city workers.
The Hornets left town, but McCrory still backed a new arena to bring back the NBA. A year later, the City Council voted to build one anyway.
McCrory also supported a half-cent sales tax increase that Mecklenburg County voters approved in 1996 that helped build Charlotte's light-rail line, which began running last November. He points out that ridership is already meeting expectations for 2020, but conservatives argue McCrory has understated its costs.
"We've been in a great economic area for 15 years but they spent and planned to spend ... as if it was going to live forever," said Don Reid, a former Republican member of the City Council. "We need some good solid citizens who will run and throw out these visionaries like Pat McCrory."
But McCrory's message of leading state government as he did Charlotte's government is attracting people who might otherwise be skeptical of a leader from the state's largest city.
"You run a city like the size of Charlotte, in my opinion, you're ... like running a business or a CEO of any corporation," said Denny Jordan, 56, of Ocean Isle Beach, whose hardware store McCrory visited on a recent campaign trip. "I like his energy and the fact that he's just not what I call a career-long politician."
Make no mistake, McCrory is a political insider in Charlotte. Should he lose on Election Day, he'll be mayor for at least another year, and his lengthy list of connections in the city will help him land on his feet. Still, McCrory says, he's feeling the same kind of uncertainty as he did back in 1988: "Come November, my life's going to change one way or another."