RALEIGH — Midway through his four-year term, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has got his talking points down to show he’s met promises to improve North Carolina’s economy and government.
McCrory reminds listeners he signed into law bills to lower income tax rates previously the highest in the Southeast, to pay back $2.5 billion owed the federal government for unemployment claims and to kick start natural gas exploration.
Now the state’s unemployment rate is below 6 percent, the debt will be gone this spring — resulting in even lower taxes for businesses — and the first permits for fracking could be issued this year.
“When we came into office we knew that we had to work with you to take some very strong action very quickly to help turn around this economy,” McCrory told a crowd of North Carolina business leaders earlier this month, “and together we’ve done just that.”
Political opponents believe the former Charlotte mayor leaves out sobering portions of his first two years, such as public school classrooms lacking enough textbooks and teachers leaving for other states because education funding hasn’t grown enough. They also argue — McCrory disagrees — he broke campaign promises by signing abortion and tax laws and agreed to voting changes that hurt minority groups.
“I expected more leadership and independence, and instead I think we saw a governor who was actually led by the legislature, rather than the other way around,” said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, the Democratic whip in the Senate for the past four years.
McCrory’s third year begins in earnest Wednesday when the new General Assembly reconvenes to elect leaders. In an interview with The Associated Press, McCrory demurred about making glances toward a 2016 campaign in 2015, saying “my focus is still on governing” and making progress for the state “for the next generation, not necessarily for the next election.”
“I took on the challenges that I signed up to do, and there are still a lot” remaining, he said.
While ticking off goals in education, health and infrastructure funding, McCrory said in 2015 job creation would be his top priority.
While national economic improvement spills over onto North Carolina, McCrory’s efforts to get more people working could make many voters forget early-term criticisms.
“The economy coming back is his best ally in terms of re-election,” said David McLennan, a Meredith College political science professor.
McCrory arrived following his 2012 victory over Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton prepped to fix what he called a state government broken by the Democratic establishment and an unemployment rate above 9 percent.
The breadth of accomplishments — whether panned or praised by voters — between the governor and lawmakers is notable. Republicans also approved new formulas to redistribute road-building funds and this year early-career teachers got big raises.
By some “very objective measures out there I would say that he’s done a good job,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
“I would give (McCrory) an A-plus,” added Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, expected to be elected the next House speaker.
Critics say the governor, often portrayed as a moderate, has gone along with hard-line conservatives to the state’s decline. Protesters rallying often in Raleigh and elsewhere since 2013 against GOP policies blame both lawmakers and McCrory.
“North Carolinians need the governor to put people first and stop using politics to win him favors among the most affluent and extremists,” the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, wrote last week. He’s the chief force behind the nonviolent demonstrations.
McCrory is likely to have more dustups in 2015 with the legislative branch even though both chambers remain controlled by the GOP. Two months ago, McCrory sued legislators over constitutional powers.
McCrory’s newness to state government led to some early missteps that rubbed legislators — particularly the Senate — the wrong way. Berger and McCrory downplay differences, but McCrory still labels himself an outsider that will keep challenging the legislature if necessary.
McLennan said McCrory will face challenges in tacking his administration around the General Assembly. If McCrory distances himself too far from the legislature and its policies, he could spur a conservative to oppose him in a 2016 primary.
“In many ways, that may be his most difficult issue,” McLennan said.