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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What I learned watching the North Carolina gubernatorial debate

I am glad I watched the debate between the candidates for North Carolina governor tonight.

By national standards, it was uncommonly civil, though Governor Pat McCrory, the Republican, interrupted Attorney General Roy Cooper repeatedly, and snorted and laughed when Cooper began a number of responses to McCrory’s comments.

Both men also came across as capable, competent leaders. This is reassuring. The difference, as they discussed, is in the direction they aim to lead.

What does not reassure many voters is that Governor McCrory ran as a capable, competent middle of the road, Charlotte mayor.

What he has given North Carolina voters is a capable, competent foot soldier of the radicals who run the General Assembly, and, who, with their veto-proof majority, ignore him most of the time, and diss him the rest. One of the biggest private law firm bonanzas in the $9 million spending spree the Republicans have indulged (they used to bleed the AG’s budget, until the need grew so great it there  wasn’t enough there to meet it)  since they took over and took up passing unconstitutional laws, has been a battle over who could give Duke Energy the sweetest pass on its coal ash pollution scandal. It alone has consumed over a million dollars.

The legislature created a Coal Ash Commission of its own appointing; the Governor sued, claiming, under separation of powers, the spoils- political and pollutional- fell to him- a career Duke employee- to cut the cards over. The state supreme court ruled for him; the General Assembly authorized the commission this year, and the governor vetoed it.

McCrory is an ardent defender of [HB2], which bars transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with in government buildings and prevents cities from passing their own LGBT ordinances. He blames the ensuing controversy on the “political left” and spurns critics as part of the cultural or corporate “elite.”

All of that sounds alien to those who remember him as a Charlotte moderate.

“The Mayor Pat McCrory that I came to know and respect and work with does not exist today,” says former Matthews Mayor Lee Myers, a Democrat who twice voted for McCrory for governor. “I think we need to do a DNA test and make sure that’s the same guy.”

In addition to HB2, critics point to other bills he signed that were passed by a conservative General Assembly, including measures involving abortion, voting and taxes.

McCrory, a self-styled Eisenhower Republican, insists he hasn’t changed. He defends what he calls his “moderate” response to what he views as a very liberal Charlotte ordinance that opened the transgender issue and led to HB2.

“The Charlotte political system has become much more liberal since I left,” he says, sitting in his Charlotte campaign office. “I haven’t changed my political philosophy. The Charlotte political system has gone very far left.”

And it was as the combative, ardent defender of HB2 that McCrory came out swinging tonight. The first question by the debate moderator, NBC’s Chuck Todd, was on the hit North Carolinas has taken over HB2. “How do you restore the state’s reputation without repealing HB2?”

You can tell when a pol has been overstuffed with talking points, and the governor was about to gag on them. He launched into a barrage about how HB2 wasn’t the General Assembly’s doing. It was “forced on the state” by the “very liberal mayor of Charlotte and the very liberal attorney general,” he steamed. “They started this whole bathroom mess.”

Stacking modifiers like that just isn't how regular people talk in North Carolina. But the governor was amped up from spending part of the weekend at a Raleigh conference of antigay preachers sponsored by the Family Research Council and wearing his emergency management shirt to tour the eastern counties flooded by Hurricane Matthew.

McCrory called Charlotte’s ordinance “a swindle” and an attempt to force a whole new concept- “gender identity” on the state, no, on the entire nation. “It redefines what is means to be a man and a woman, a boy and a girl,” he said. It threatens sacred notions of privacy and represents a failure of national leadership.

That let him segue into an attack on the president and Hillary Clinton. Me? When I read the Charlotte ordinance, all I saw was including transgender residents in an ordinance upgraded to more clearly bar discrimination in employment, public and business services, housing, and working standards.

“The most famous transgender American is Caitlyn Jenner,” Todd followed up. “What bathroom can she use in North Carolina?”

If she stays in a hotel or some other place, the governor said, she can use whatever she likes. But if she’s in a UNC locker room after doing laps on the track, “she’s going to use the men’s showers on my watch.”

Todd asked why McCrory has always said state government shouldn't dictate city policies except this time. This was a crisis, he said. We had to act. When Cooper tried to respond, remarking on how if the General Assembly hadn’t been in such a hurry to pass HB2, it could have looked at the hundreds of other cities, counties, and states with the same ordinance and no history of problems from it, McCrory dove in.

“Not in Houston, not in Houston, not in Houston,” the governor cross-talked until he got the floor. He likes Houston. They repealed their LGBT ordinance “with 61% of the vote” and the NCAA went there with no trouble at all.

Todd allowed multiple rounds of responses on HB2, leading the governor to complain that “all Roy Cooper wants to talk about is social issues” so he could conceal the excellence of the McCrory Carolina Comeback. He had trouble deciding how to address the attorney general, sometimes calling him by his title, sometimes by “Roy Cooper” and sometimes just as “Roy.”

Overall, he seemed to view the attorney general as an insubordinate department head in his cabinet, rather than the holder of a constitutional office who outpolled McCrory statewide in 2012.

In a long segment on education, McCrory said “this governor is the only person up here with a teaching degree” and that gives him extra street cred. He said he knew what it was like to stand in a classroom. All true, just: McCrory’s degree from Catawba College was in education and political science; he got a teaching certificate and spent some time as a student teacher in Rowan County before joining a management training program at Duke Energy, where he spent his entire working career before becoming governor. It would be like me claiming I know how to be a congressman because I was an intern for one forty years ago.

Todd picked up on McCrory’s claims that average teacher pay is now $50,000 when it takes twenty years’ service to reach that level and contrasted it with his admission new teachers still don’t make enough. “Why not just fix it now?” Todd asked.

“I had to rebuild the economy first,” McCrory, explaining how he’d built up a huge rainy day fund. “And in case you haven’t noticed, we’ve had a lot of rain lately,” he added.

Cooper was ready for that one, pointing out the $500,000 appropriation the General Assembly gave the governor to spend on defending HB2- out of the state’s Emergency Relief Fund.

“But I haven’t spent a penny of that on HB2,” McCrory replied, leaving unsaid the key word: “Yet.”

“You could have vetoed that bill, too,” Cooper riposted. In fact, McCrory tried to dodge that bullet, letting the bill become law without signing it.

McCrory laid into Cooper for “trying to fool the jury,” one of a number of references critical of another GOP bete noire, trial lawyers. McCrory tried to paint Cooper as both a member and tool of that well-heeled donor group to the detriment of good regular North Carolinians. In another swing, he told Cooper, “that answer is about as straight as another North Carolina trial lawyer who got into politics- John Edwards.”

Again, people don’t talk like that here. It’s like having to explain your answer to Steve Harvey on Family Feud. If you can’t say it in three words, it ain’t up there. You lose.

Other times he cribbed old Jesse Helms campaign lines against Jim Hunt, calling Coper the creature of liberal donors from “California, San Francisco, Goldman Sachs- they don’t care about the middle class here.”

“Will you raise taxes?” he demanded, channeling the 1984 Reagan-Mondale debate. Cooper smiled and said there's no need to raise taxes, just to improve how we spend what we get now, and who gets it.

Cooper had the thing he wanted to talk about, and he stuck to them, bringing the questions back to them whenever he could: putting education first; restoring the state’s business climate; and putting an economic plan in place that will benefit all North Carolinians.

Where McCrory vamped, Cooper cited details: the 67 cradle-to-grave services he added the sales tax to as an offset to his fifty percent corporate tax cut, as well as his elimination of tax deductions that have made it possible for most taxpayers to have to pay more taxes on lower tax rates, among them.

When McCrory claimed Charlotte had to build its own crime lab because the state lab, under Cooper’s control, Cooper calmly pointed out the Charlotte crime lab opened in 1969- 31 years before he became attorney general- and that it destroyed hundreds of untested rape kits to eliminate its backlog while McCrory was- as he kept styling himself, “Mayor of Charlotte For Fourteen Years.”

When Cooper reviewed his record cleaning up an inherited mess in the crime lab and his work to get more funds, McCrory disputed that, claiming that Cooper “has only sent fourteen emails in sixteen years.” It was an odd point to make, as if email is the only way to do government business in the fairly compact government neighborhood in Raleigh, and doubly so for a governor who just got sued- again- for refusing to disclose his own email traffic when HB2 was in the works.

Cooper pointed out he and his staff met with the governor’s budget director about crime lab needs before each legislative session since McCrory took office, but observed that the governor only got interested in crime lab funding this summer (not mentioned, but on the news recently, was the report of a $121,000 grant from McCrory’s Crime Commission to the Charlotte crime lab to catch up its rape kit backlog: McCrory left the mayor’s office in 2009, after he lost his first run for governor).

They went back and forth over the new law to restrict access to police body cam videos. “I Think it’s a perfect law,” the governor said.

When both were asked what “Black Lives Matter” means, McCrory said he “had been” a fan of Dr King’s quote about the content of one's character being more important than the color of one’s skin; Cooper said the law is too restrictive and feeds a just perception among minority communities that they are not heard, are not respected, and are unduly targeted compared to other population groups. He called for more money for training of law enforcement officers, making the cops look more like the communities they serve, greater transparency- “that’s just part of mutual respect.”

Cooper came across much the more thoughtful and sincere in his response- so much so that McCrory said he agreed, you can never have too much police training. That concession may have been the goad for a new McCrory attack on Cooper for not having spoken up on the bill, for having said he was for it to get a police enforcement that went to McCrory, and even for “not expressing concern until after” the police shooting in Charlotte.

Absent psychic powers, I have trouble imagining how the attorney general could have done so any sooner, but people say I’m just an old cynic.

He slammed Cooper for installing “a political hack” as SBI director- “a political appointment” before the General Assembly gave it to the governor last year when it became evident Cooper would oppose McCrory (the SBI has had two directors since then); regrettably, Chuck Todd didn’t ask McCrory about the 1400 jobs the legislature has removed from the civil service on his watch, like the cadre of state pension fund managers bumped up to Wall Street- level salaries in return for becoming political appointees last month.

Nor did anyone mention Ricky Diaz, a 23-year-old New Jersey real estate agent and former Chris Christie operative McCrory scooped up for the ‘12 campaign, then gave an $85,000 a year job as spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (Diaz is back on Team McCrory '16 as media director; he also blocked me from commenting on his Facebook page this summer).

McCrory lost points on health care, stubbornly repeating “repeal and replace” and insisting Obamacare is a disaster. He challenged Cooper to give up the state medical plan “you’ve been on for 26 years, and get to keep until you are 65” and “go on Obamacare if you think it’s that good.”

Cooper smiled again and recited the Republican lawsuits and state law changes to prevent the Obamacare state exchange from working well in North Carolina, and their steadfast refusal to “get back billions- with a ‘b’- we’ve already paid Washington, to expand Medicaid and cover hundreds of thousands of residents”, noting that even McCrory’s fellow governors- Chris Christie, Mike Pence, and John Kasich- had accepted it.

I’d have liked to hear what the combination of City of Charlotte, Duke Energy, and state medical coverage looks like, to compare, but it didn’t come up. Neither did why everyone in North Carolina can’t get access to polls as good as what state leaders get.

“It’s OK to admit Obamacare is a failure,” McCrory taunted. “Really, it’s OK.” He said he supports more limited cooperation with the feds, like a deal he struck for additional aid for Alzheimer’s sufferers. “I’m in favor of expanding Medicare for those who can't help themselves,” he said.

Todd asked why the governor deplored Donald Trump’s Sex Talk Tape but didn't withdraw his endorsement as other GOP governors have.

McCrory told a long story about getting his mouth washed out with soap for not saying “yes, ma’am” to the teacher his first day in school when “my family moved to Jamestown” (never remind North Carolina voters you are really an Ohioan), and said he thought maybe that's what Donald Trump needs. Oh, and so does Hillary Clinton, because she lies, she lies a lot, about so many things- “her emails, and Benghazi, and so many other aspects.”

Donald Trump, he said, “best represents my viewpoints on issues that need to be said, like immigration and Obamacare.”

“Is Trump a good role model for kids?” Todd followed up.

Not in most ways, McCrory hedged. “In any?” Todd pressed.

“Well in the way he stands strong on issues, like Syria.”

I snorted iced tea almost as far as I did during one of the 1980 debates when President Carter said of his 13-year-old daughter,

“I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms.”

McCrory wasn’t done yet. He, too, has friends at the FBI who leak information to him, and they tell him North Carolina is in grave danger from Syrian pretend-refugees because there is “no venting process” to find out who they are. McCrory’s insecure grasp of language is legendary: in a long, passionate defense of women’s rights that shone a light on the old Pat trapped in the new one, he described personally protecting abortion rights by disciplining two abortion facilities “where they didn’t even clean their utensils”.

Cooper pointed out McCrory is at all of Donald Trump’s North Carolina rallies, warming up the crowd with HB2 bathroom jokes, and that, through all of Trump’s long year of insults, slurs, racism, misogyny and feuds, McCrory remained silent.

The governor stoutly defended his voter ID law, struck down this summer for its “surgical” targeting of black and student voters.

“If you don’t think there’s the potential for voter fraud in North Carolina, you've got your head in the sand,” he told Todd, before slagging those old standbys of Democrat scandal, Chicago, and Texas.

“If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it,” he added. Which, to be fair, is true. The 4th Circuit court combed the enormous record of the voter ID trial, looking for it. And they didn’t find it.

Cooper’s closing was low-key and thoughtful. McCrory thanked him for running, then attacked him for being a typical pol, and said “this governor has provided leadership like we’ve never seen” before promising four more years of it. Cooper reached out to North Carolinians; McCrory ginned up his base.

No one brought up Duke Energy’s contributions to McCrory’s vision of North Carolina as the Tar Hell State: coal ash everywhere- in the rivers and lakes, the well water, in the fruit of Paradise Lost that, once grasped, turns to bitter dust and ashes.

Cooper concluded, “We used to be able to travel across America and people would ask us about our world-class universities, our technology, our mountains and our beaches. Now they ask, ‘What on earth is going on in North Carolina?’”

Cooper called for Paradise Regained. McCrory sang the praises of Pandaemonium.

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