10/19/08 — Meet the gubernatorial candidates: Pat McCrory

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Meet the gubernatorial candidates: Pat McCrory

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 19, 2008 3:00 AM

Declining to classify himself as the "change" candidate, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory nonetheless is presenting himself as an alternative to the Democratic administration of the past eight years.

Explaining that he had originally decided to not seek the higher office after deciding to run for his seventh term as mayor, there are two incidents that he says changed his mind.

The first was while participating in a group of North Carolina city and law enforcement officials that went to Raleigh to meet with state lawmakers to discuss crime and gang prevention legislation.

"We were treated so shabbily. There was so much arrogance in how they treated us," he said. "The governor wouldn't even meet with us, and I just sat there and thought, 'a mayor couldn't get away with this.'"

The second incident was during the last mayoral debate in the fall of 2007, during which he said his opponent, a state legislator, made a comment about how he "doesn't understand that we in Raleigh are his boss."

"And she was completely serious," McCrory said. "It was at that moment that I thought to myself, 'even if I get re-elected, I'm going to have to beat my head against that wall.'"

As he sees it, he explained, the problem is one of threefold corruption -- cash payoffs, like those involving former Speaker of the House Jim Black; conflicts of interest that seem to mean nothing, like those involving the Department of Transportation board of directors; and a culture of intimidation, like that squashing criticism of Mary Easley's position with N.C. State University.

"I do think the culture needs to be changed, but I've never called myself the change candidate," he said.

But he does promise to be different.

"(State government) has been far too closed," he said, promising to be a much more accessible governor, and one who travels the state, including the eastern region, regularly -- unlike the current governor.

"I don't like sitting in the office. I like getting out and visiting people. I think the best way to work with someone is to walk with them," he said.

However, McCrory is somewhat short on his specific plans for improving the mental health reforms, education, taxes and protecting the state's military bases in the future.

On mental health, he said, his first priority will be to get all the state hospitals, including Cherry, re-certified by the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, and then making sure there are plenty of beds available.

"I'm not going to close Dorothea Dix, at least not in the short run," he said. "We can't continue to cut beds."

When asked, though, if he would consider a drastic shake-up of the Department of Heath and Human Services -- local mental health officials have advocated against any drastic changes right now -- McCrory declined to endorse Secretary Dempsey Benton.

"We'll have to find out if he's the right man for the job," he said. "We're all still trying to figure out what they did.

"I'm no expert in this area, but my short-term goal is to get as many beds open as possible. My long-term goal is to get experts to help me."

Changes also are needed in education, he said, particularly in the state's focus and its funding processes.

"I think there is too much emphasis on saying everyone needs a four-year college degree," he said. "We also need training and vocational education in our high schools and in our community colleges," which he believes need to return closer to their roots as technical trade schools.

"We have a 30 percent dropout rate, and I talk to employers who say they can't find quality employees to do the work," he said.

And, he added, funding for those institutions ought to be linked more to the number of jobs filled by their graduates, rather than to the number students enrolled.

He also wants to change the formulas for public schools, both in terms of funding and testing.

"I'd like to give much more flexibility to the counties for how they teach their kids and build their schools," he said.

That means, he explained, giving districts more flexibility to build schools to fit the needs of their districts and the flexibility to hire and pay teachers to meet the needs of their schools.

In terms of lottery funding, he added, that he would like to see it used for more tangible projects based on year-to-year needs, such as supplying teachers with smartboards.

Additionally, he said he wants to give school districts more flexibility to measure their progress on a local level, but didn't explain how that would work with the federal No Child Left Behind mandates.

Other issues McCrory touched on include the need to do more to make North Carolina less inviting for illegal immigrants (he opposes allowing them into community college), improve public safety (he supports stricter gang legislation) and support the military (he wants to be a cheerleader in Washington and to work with local governments to meet infrastructure needs).

He knows, though, that some of the changes he wants to make will be affected by the country's and state's new economic realities.

When McCrory began his campaign, he was an advocate of lowering the state's taxes and cutting spending. That, however, was before the economy nose-dived and credit lines began drying up.

Today, he's backed off any pledge to immediately start slashing state revenues, especially, he explained, with "unforeseen liabilities" having been "swept under the rug" by the current administration.

"In the short term, you can't cut taxes. I'll probably be cutting expenditures. I haven't got specifics, but I know the next governor will have to make cuts," he said. "In the long term, if I have the opportunity, I'd like to cut the income tax and the corporate tax."

Both of which, he said, are hurting the state's economic development opportunities -- an issue that's he's particularly passionate about having worked as an economic developer for Duke Energy Corp.

"I think the governor's top role is as a salesman, the state's top economic developer, and we have not had that at the state level for eight years," he said.

He believes, though, that it's not something the governor can talk about in terms of eastern North Carolina versus western versus the Piedmont.

"I'm tired of the western/eastern divide. I'm not giving a different message," he said. "I get the same questions in the west (as I do in the east). We've got to start thinking about this state as a whole."

And that means, he said, focusing on things like infrastructure -- roads, water and sewer -- for the whole state, and celebrating whenever and wherever jobs are created, not lamenting the fact they weren't in a particular region.

"What is good for one area is good for the whole state," he said.

But that also means, he continued, that each region, with the state's help, has to identify the "niche they can build upon."

In eastern North Carolina, he explained, that could mean sectors like the military, agriculture, bio-technology and "green energy." And in Wayne County in particular, it could mean an inland port connecting to the sea ports at Wilmington and Morehead City.

And even though he's facing what's likely to be a close election, he thinks those are the reasons why he can win in areas like eastern North Carolina, which has traditionally voted Democratic in state elections -- because he's offering something different, an equal view of the state and an opportunity for the two parties to work together.

"I've been the mayor of a Democratic city for 13 years, and I'll do the same thing as governor. It's the exact same dynamics," he said. "I think the left wing has taken over the more moderate center of the Democratic Party, and I think most Democrats agree with my policies and my values."