A Carolina governor who breaks all molds
"Leadership needs to be state and local -- Republican and Democrat -- governors and mayors taking bold steps, regardless of political affiliation, trying to solve problems."
How refreshing to hear those words in today's hyperpartisan world! And how difficult to make the vision work.
But the assertion does come from Pat McCrory, a politician who's learned how to form crosspartisan alliances before. The former 14-year mayor of Charlotte, McCrory clinched the Republican nomination and then sailed to easy victory last November to be inaugurated earlier this month as the first big-city leader to become governor in North Carolina's history.
McCrory initially caught my attention when, as mayor, he faced down Charlotte's powerful developers by requiring sidewalks on most streets of new suburban tracts. Even more impressively, he fought fervid naysayers to win overwhelming voter approval for Charlotte's now highly acclaimed and popular light rail line, delivering Charlotteans easy mobility and relief from congested traffic.
McCrory's success showed the essence of being a mayor is not the ideology, certainly not the excessive partisanship so rampant in today's national and, increasingly, state politics. Instead it's pragmatism -- dealing first and foremost with day-to-day constituent demands for efficient services such as policing, trash removal, fixing potholes, transit and more. And then setting a vision for the city's long-term development.
The Southern setting is also significant. Historically, rural politicos often scorned cities as "cauldrons of evil." Apparently that's a dead and gone strategy in increasingly urban North Carolina: The ex-mayor of the largest city has won the governorship with thousands of votes to spare.
So what's McCrory's top priority as governor? It's infrastructure. "I'm an Eisenhower disciple," he told me. "Infrastructure can play a key role in helping the economy and helping communities, urban and rural alike."
The big issue, he suggests, is to create a 25-year North Carolina infrastructure plan, and not just road building but four broad areas important to both cities and rural areas -- transportation, water, energy and communications. His interest in joint approaches stems from his experience in Charlotte, "where we redid our water and sewer at the same time we expanded transit and road lines."
But McCrory has ties to the usual anti-spending Republican right as well. His selection as budget director is Art Pope, a wealthy businessman who helped start conservative-oriented government think tanks and has helped bankroll a series of tea party-like Republican candidates for the Legislature.
For transportation secretary, McCrory nominated Tony Tata, a retired Army general and former Fox News commentator who had recently served a stormy brief stint as Wake County school superintendent. Tata has no experience in U.S. road and transit issues, but McCrory notes: "He did a lot of the infrastructure in Afghanistan and Iraq. I figured if he could do it there, under fire, he can do it in North Carolina."
Tata's the man McCrory's instructed to develop the state's 25-year transportation plan as "a vision of where we need to build our infrastructure." The idea, says the new governor, is "to show the draft plan to the public and then get feedback." Will it cost money? McCrory assumes so, but says: "The problem in the past was asking people for money without showing them the plan."
McCrory's conservative side is illustrated by the issue of climate change -- a special peril for North Carolina's coastal communities. He'll only say (without specifics) that the solution is "to clean the air, clean the water, clean the land."
Yet his visionary side is indisputable. He questions how smart it is to grant cash and other incentives to draw industries from one state to another. Companies' real bottom line, he suggests, is more likely long-term tax rates, education, infrastructure, quality of life. And, he believes that "incentives aren't free -- they're a tax on someone else."
Pragmatically, he's not sure he'll be able to stop incentives in view of North Carolina's slow economy. "When do you blink when so many people are hurting?" He's not sure -- though he believes agreements with other governors might avert the need.
And significantly, McCrory was a key founder, in 2009, of a multistate Southern coalition to plan joint approaches -- the Piedmont Alliance for Quality Growth. Now, he says, he'd like to recruit his fellow governors from Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee to work with him on a regionwide 25-year transportation agenda.
Referring to the other governors, McCrory says: "At one moment I'll be competing with my friends next door" for businesses. "But I'll also seek alliances with them on a broad array of issues -- energy, oil and gas exploration, electric generation, solar and wind, ports, water, roads and transportation crossing infrastructure, the environment -- major issues the state borders don't recognize."
Again, it's Pat McCrory -- mixed visionary, pragmatist, friend of many moderates and ultra-conservatives alike. I detect few more interesting mixes in today's American politics and public life.
Neal Peirce's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington Post Writers Group