Opinion: Daily Journal

The Visitor At The Capital

RALEIGH – Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory brings many assets to the Republican primary for governor. He’s bright, persuasive, confident, and comfortable talking about key issues such as transportation and public safety. But his most-valuable asset is that he’s not from Raleigh.

When pundits assess the McCrory candidacy, they often cite geography as a drawback. Talk of the “Charlotte Curse” has long been way overblown – recent political history shows that the GOP actually does best when it nominates Republicans from the Charlotte area – but in 2008 it is particularly foolish. Population growth has made urban and suburban counties decisive in North Carolina politics, and in the Republican primary many of the key counties lie in the Charlotte media market. More importantly, years of embarrassing scandal involving state officials and key lawmakers, mostly but not entirely Democrats, have made Raleigh look to many North Carolinians like a cesspool of Louisiana-style corruption and incompetence.

The idea for McCrory’s campaign, he says, began with a visit to Raleigh. He and other local officials had first become incensed in 2001-02 when Gov. Mike Easley seized millions of utility-tax dollars that the state had for years collected and remitted to local governments. Easley said it was necessary to address the state’s fiscal emergency. Charlotte and other localities saw it as swiping their revenues and forcing them to bear the cost of the state’s poor budgetary priorities.

Later, McCrory and a collection of mayors, sheriffs, and other officials came to Raleigh to complain about another example of the state’s poor priorities: the decrepit state of law-enforcement agencies and the courts. It constituted “a total breakdown of the criminal-justice system,” McCrory recently told a meeting of editorialists and columnists, and his group of local officeholders sought a meeting with the governor to discuss the matter.

Easley refused. McCrory said it was a dispiriting and telling moment. “I respect Governor Easley,” he said. “He is a nice guy.” But on this and so many other important issues, “he was invisible.”

On the policy issue for which McCrory is best known, transportation, the mayor is passionate and strongly critical of what he considers an archaic and ineffective state government. With traffic congestion surging in North Carolina’s major metropolitan areas and poor pavement condition plaguing roadways from the mountains to the coast, McCrory says that the Department of Transportation is poorly managed, confusingly organized according to outdated political divisions, and incapable of resisting political pressure. The equity formula, which determines how taxes on motor fuels and vehicles are distributed to local projects, pays scant attention to current and projected travel demand. The state seems to have no reasoned, long-term plan for investing transportation dollars.

Speaking to the editorial writers this week, McCrory cited transportation as an example of his record as a problem-solver willing to take risks and draw fire from all sides. His advocacy of an expensive light-rail line in Charlotte led to fierce criticism from the Right – including, it must be said, from me. Now, however, the Left is excoriating McCrory for not immediately endorsing other rail lines, whether in the Charlotte area or elsewhere, that he doubts would attract enough riders to justify the investment. “I have experience forming coalitions to make things happen,” he said. But that doesn’t mean McCrory isn’t willing to pick fights or take controversial positions if that’s what it takes.

On one of the hottest topics in Raleigh at the moment, mental-health reform, McCrory demonstrates this side of his political personality. While some activists have seized on the system’s failures to question whether privatization should have been a reform element in the first place, McCrory argues that the problem wasn’t making use of competitive contracting but instead failing to write, award, and manage the mental-health contracts carefully.

In Charlotte, he and his mayoral predecessor Richard Vinroot (himself a former gubernatorial nominee) have made extensive use of private contracts to deliver public services. Before implementation, however, you have to have a solid plan, McCrory says. Before privatization, you have to set clear standards for judging outcomes and an independent panel to review those outcomes and hold vendors accountable.

Pat McCrory only entered the governor’s race in January. It remains highly competitive. But his highest-profile competitors – Sen. Fred Smith in the GOP primary, and either Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue or State Treasurer Richard Moore on the Democratic side – all hold state office and work in a state capital that many North Carolinians currently disdain. When the mayor comes to Raleigh, he’s just visiting. It’s a distinction that he hopes will result in, shall we say, more permanent accommodations.

Next Week: A profile of gubernatorial candidate Richard Moore.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.