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A sit-down with Pat McCrory 

The once-Democrat and former Charlotte mayor defends voter IDs and relives the night he switched parties

As we draw closer to Election Day in November, it is becoming increasing likely that Charlotte's own Pat McCrory will become the next governor of North Carolina. Yes, McCrory, the same man who often played the role of authoritarian villain in these pages during his 14-year career as mayor of the Queen City. He is caught in a dogfight against the Democratic candidate, Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton, and has been taking a beating on the airwaves. So it's fitting that McCrory sat down with an old adversary to tell his side of the story. (It's also fitting that the man often accused of peddling to corporate giants in Charlotte chose Bank of America's headquarters in Uptown as the backdrop for our interview.)

Creative Loafing: What are the three biggest challenges facing the state over the next five years?

Pat McCrory: The first one is dealing with the budget deficit in state government. We do not have a balanced budget, regardless of what the governor or the legislature says. We owe the federal government $2.8 billion. In addition, we have hundreds of millions of unfunded liabilities off the books. So the first thing, like any family, is to deal with our debt and pay it back. The second issues is to make our government more streamlined and efficient, because we don't have any new money. And the third is trying to make our state more business-friendly so we can retain and build new jobs. North Carolina has lost its brand as being business-friendly in comparison to other neighboring states.

CL: What fires you up? Why are you putting yourself through this all over again?

It does feel like it's a calling. When I was a little boy, my dad was a small-town city councilman in Worthington, Ohio, and I think that just stuck with me. What is interesting is that I love being in business, but the public sector just keeps pulling me back. I enjoy solving problems and setting a vision for the future and a strategy to get there.

CL: Is there an injustice that you feel like you have to change?

]Right now, the state of North Carolina has not had strong leadership for 5-10 years, and we're paying for it today. Nothing against the individuals, but we've had no vision established as to what direction we're going to go to on education, infrastructure, economic development, tax reform. Other governors throughout the United States are taking strong action, whether you agree with them or not. Republican governors like Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal are really taking aggressive action, and even Andrew Cuomo in New York is taking strong, aggressive, executive action. And I believe the nation's problems are probably not going to be solved in Washington but through the state capitol and the private sector.

CL: What is your leadership style, collaborative or by example, top-down?

]I think the leader first has to establish and describe the vision on how they plan to move forward, and then the strategy to get there. But you establish that by being a good listener, and a collaborator, and also understanding that you have to adapt. The best leaders are the ones who predict change as opposed to reacting to it. The best states going into the future are going to be the ones who anticipate instead of react.

CL: America is extremely divided right now, perhaps more than at any time since Reconstruction. What can your campaign do to bridge the divide in politics? Can you make this a uniting campaign?

]First you have to understand that, as a leader, if you try to appease everyone, you appease no one. And as mayor, I discovered that you must learn to agree to disagree and move on. And you do it in a respectful way, without calling the opposition names or calling them idiots. There are often many sides to an issue and logic to many of them. But you can never stop communicating with the public or take for granted that they understand where you are planning to go in the future.

CL: Years from now, if schoolchildren had to recite a speech once given by Pat McCrory, what would it have been about?

]Probably about change. Every child today is going to have to learn to plan for, adapt to and anticipate change. Those who can do that will be the most successful in the future. And I apply that to cities, states and the private sector too. Never stop learning.

CL: Republicans are in position to hold onto the general assembly, you look strong in your race, and the party is poised to pick up more congressional seats, all of which would be historic. But for a century, every time Republicans take statewide power, their coalition falls apart. What must you do to build the coalition that can remain in power?

First of all, if you start thinking about staying in power, I think you have already failed the criteria needed for leadership. It should not be about power, but, instead, what you want to accomplish. The problem is that too many people are interested in the power. And I found, as a mayor with a divided city council, that the most successful coalitions step on the toes of both sides. And I did that many times as mayor, stepping on both the left and the right's toes. Some have yet to forgive me.

CL: So why are you a Republican?

I used to be a Democrat.

CL: Why did you switch?

Because I think the left wing of the Democratic Party started taking too much control and pushing dependence on government. I'm not a libertarian. I do believe government has a role in areas of infrastructure and education, but I do not believe we should become so dependent that we forget who pays the bills. The left side of the Democratic Party is so dependent on government that they are bankrupting society, from Greece all the way to North Carolina.

CL: Where do you find yourself now, in a party that ranges from country club types to the Tea Party Patriots?

I've never met a litmus test of anyone within my own party, or my own family. I consider myself to be conservative, but I don't say it in a dogmatic or self-righteous way. I am conservative, but believe there is a role for government, though it should be realistic and affordable.

CL: You want to cut personal and corporate taxes. Do you have a number in mind yet?

The headlines say that, but my speeches say my goal is to reform the entire tax system so that we do not become as dependent on the corporate and income taxes which are making us noncompetitive against our neighbors. Successful people are moving to Florida to avoid our income taxes. We lose their future income and their investment in the community. It's a wake-up call for North Carolina. I'm an advocate for not taxing productivity, and getting revenue instead from taxing consumption.

CL: Through sales taxes?

A consumption-based method of getting revenue for government. I want to encourage productivity, not punish it.

CL: What about the folks going through tough times, why raise their taxes?

I understand the argument completely of regressive and progressive taxes, and there is a line somewhere. But I think we've crossed the line, and we have to understand the worldwide competition. If our tax system does not spur reinvestment, no one will get jobs. One thing I learned in economics is that if everyone works for the government, there is no one to pay for the government. You don't want your largest employer in each county to be the government or the hospital, and that's what it's becoming.

CL: What about the "death" tax? That is a place we disagree. You want to eliminate North Carolina's estate tax.

I hope to gradually eliminate that. What's happening is that people are getting around it anyway, and we're getting nothing out of it. They are finding loopholes. And it is really difficult for family businesses and farmers who have to sell their business once a death does occur. And I want to protect the businesses of North Carolina, especially the small businesses.

CL: But once the rich father passes, the money gets passed down as inheritance, often generation after generation. It is no longer circulating in the economy.

That's their right. I'm hoping they will reinvest that money into something, certainly as opposed to the government reinvesting it.

CL: Plenty of people in this building above us do quite well, but their ability to do their job would be limited if there wasn't a janitor to take out the trash, or a security guard to watch the doors. We lose sight that we are in this together.

We are all in this together. We all bring a different skill set to the equation. And the people I respect more than anything are the people busting their tail 12 hours a day in a manufacturing plant, who have tremendous skills. But I have to make sure that plant is built. The first stage is building the plant, and you have to get capital to build the plant. I'm a big advocate for vocational training, mechanical, electrical, so people can make things. I think our education establishment is elitist in going against those people. And frankly, when a plumber makes more money than a lawyer, I have no problem with that.

CL: You want to reform teacher pay. How do we do that in a way that rewards teachers and draws talented people into the field?

You pay the best more money than the mediocre. This is true throughout society. Even with reporters, the good reporters should make more, and someone has to make that evaluation. Why can't we have the same evaluations in our K-12 schools? I want to reward the best, and share the best through technology. And by gosh, if they make a lot of money, God bless them. A superintendent in Mooresville told me, "My problem is not the bad teachers. I can get rid of the bad teachers; the problems are the mediocre." This applies to every profession in government.

CL: We spend lots of local education money on the kids who do well, go to college and never come back, but local school systems often spend little on the kids who become the future of the community. How do we shift that to benefit the community?

I have two major goals of education. One is to exercise the brains of the youth, and then to teach them the skills necessary to get a job. I'm tired of graduates from high school, two-year techs and universities moving in with their parents because they can't get a job. We have the fourth highest unemployment rate and still I meet with employers who can't find qualified people. Our education curriculum should be market-based, and it should be changing every year.If there is a shortage of journalists one year, which I don't anticipate in the near future, then we ought to shift our money towards journalism. But we're not doing that. We're asking for more money when there isn't any.

CL: I think charter schools fill a necessary step of reform, and understand your support. But is it wrong to allow funds to be diverted from public schools to charter schools?

Charter schools are public schools. Charter schools are public schools, and we don't pay for their capital offense or many other expenses. Charter schools are public schools, that's the misnomer. There is a waiting list of several thousand kids in North Carolina who are in lotteries, gambling, wanting that choice of a charter school.

CL: Is there a danger in lifting the cap on charter schools?

The only danger...if a charter school doesn't work, it shouldn't be allowed to continue. We should be measuring charter schools just as we measure our more formalized system.

CL: I'd say you had a stellar record as mayor, and transportation was a big part of that. Where should our priorities be over the next four years for transportation?

Well I think the next governor has to present a 25-year infrastructure plan for the state, just as I did in 1995, in my first year as mayor. And right now, Charlotte is in the 14th year of that plan. I do think government has a role in infrastructure, especially for transportation. The governor should clearly describe the vision for the state, tying the urban and rural and the ports with the railroads. It has to be integrated, and you first show it to the people and then ask for the money. Not the other way around. Gov. Easley and Gov. Perdue asked for more money and then said "trust us," and it's ended up being extremely political, inefficient, and at times, corrupt.

CL: A lot of North Carolinians are very disengaged. We have low voter participation levels. People are not voting or volunteering, or taking part in local democracy. What do we do to get them back into the process?

That's a million-dollar question. It is very discouraging for me to especially see young people not voting. And young people means 35 and under, but we're not seeing the voter turnout, while the age group of 60 and over has the highest. Political officials who depend upon the votes will concentrate the policy on the people who vote, not on the people who don't. It's easy, accessible and now spread out over two or three weeks. So there's no excuse not to vote.

CL: Well, some people have said you want to make it tougher to vote. And that has been a criticism of your support for a voter ID bill. Do you think we should be trying to make it tougher to vote?

I don't think that makes it tougher to vote. It's tougher to get Sudafed too, or to get on an airplane. But you're doing it for the right reasons. I'm even willing to not just require an ID, but a utility bill to prove that you live at the place that you say.

CL: (pulls out driver's license) The address on my driver's license is an apartment that I've moved out of. I don't live there anymore. Under your proposal I'd have to get a new ID or not be able to vote.

There are guys fighting overseas right now, losing their life, and you're complaining about having to change your license?

CL: I'm not complaining, but how many other thousand people across North Carolina are in the same situation?

To get Sudafed, you need an ID. To get into the governor's mansion to see Gov. Perdue, you need an ID. To ride on an airplane, you have to show your ID. To cash a government check, you have to show your ID.

CL: It's a solution, but where's the problem?

There are huge gaps for corruption in the political process. I know what those gaps are, and we are closing our eyes. I do know there is corruption in politics, as we saw in 2008 when Gov. Perdue's campaign team hid over 40 campaign flights. There is corruption, and people will do a lot to win an election.

CL: Anyone who has worked a voter registration drive knows how tough it is to get someone to even register, let alone show up.

Life's tough. We've seen in other parts of the country, Chicago, Philadelphia, and even parts of North Carolina where there has been corruption. A corruption of the process and a corruption of the voting.

CL: What are a couple issues where you can use the bully pulpit without having to have a ton of money?

I think we're going to have to change in every area of the state. Start off with DMV. I just got my license renewed last October, and there is no reason to wait an hour and 45 minutes in a DMV line. But they use the same process they used when I was 16 years old. And education, we have way too many silos in education. Right now, I have lobbyists hit me up from K-12, others from the community college system, and lobbyists hit me up from the university system. Why do we have three different groups of lobbyists working on behalf of education in three separate silos? They should be working together as a team. We have no choice but to change because we are broke.

CL: Across the state, plenty of small towns like Rutherfordton, Hickory and Statesville have been hit hard, not only in the recession but also in the 20 years prior. The factories lost jobs overseas or because new technology rendered them useless. What happened in your opinion? And can we save many of these places?

We were beaten by several natural economic forces where industry moved where it was cheaper to go to. Many of those industries moved from the Northeast to the South because it was cheaper here. Now the next transition took them to Central America or to China. What we have to do is find the unique niches that meet the customer needs throughout the world. We are seeing some unique niches in manufacturing, where the quality of the product is so good that it cannot be mass-produced in a cheap way. But we have to keep reinventing ourselves in the market and discovering the strengths of each region. And then we have to have a tax policy that is competitive at least with surrounding states.

CL: There was a Democratic Party ad that portrayed you, in this building, as a puppet of bankers who were hiding under the table. Are you?

That's a loaded question. That's the sad state of politics, that you have young people wasting time in a commercial at a time when we have the fourth highest unemployment rate in the country. These little party activists on both sides are wasting time in YouTube commercials, and they back it up with no facts. All I can do is say that, in my past experience as mayor for 14 years, there was no breach of ethics, no hint of corruption, and I stepped on everyone's toes. I think my record speaks for itself.

CL: Name an issue, whether environmental, economic, education or criminal justice, where you are on the opposite side of big business?

I mentioned several things last week, such as more visibility for hospital bills so that we know exactly what we pay for. And a lot of the interests stopped that legislation. Here in Charlotte, I was a big proponent of the light rail, and people on my conservative right still dislike me for it. But I implemented one of the largest, yet most successful, mass-transportation systems in the state. And I'm proud of that.

CL: What's the toughest criticism you've ever received?

The toughest criticism is when someone attacks my integrity in an unsubstantiated way. And that's the cheapness of how politics is getting. We're pushing people out of politics. And that's why I am critical of these little YouTube cheap shots that go after my integrity. You can go after me on policy, but if you go after my integrity you better have your facts. The new method is to attack through questions, not answers. The media is also falling for that method; you raise the question so that a person has to prove their innocence. It's a sad commentary on the state of politics. The political dialogue is terrible, but unfortunately seems to be effective.

CL: Are we at the point of needing to reform the money in politics?

I'm not sure that it's not the money but the values of the people holding the money. Because the money is always going to be in politics.

CL: There is no way of getting it out?

There's ways to get it out. President Obama is a prime example. He turned down public financing the first year it was available and raised almost a billion. Money did speak, to both Republicans and Democrats, including President Obama.

CL: Does that mean we give up because people can get around it? Or should we build the dam higher?

I think the most important thing is that if money is given to candidates from any third party group, it ought to be transparent. We should record where the money comes from, right away. I would support those efforts. The rules don't require disclosure often until the election is over. I learned that from 2008, when Gov. Perdue did not follow the campaign finance laws regarding illegal flights or not reporting money. Nowadays, you can lend yourself money, and then have it paid back after you're elected. I have a problem with that.

CL: An issue that was really important to our readers was the marriage amendment. You supported it, but didn't run on it. Did you support it with a heavy heart, or were you emphatic?

It was a very difficult issue, like most social issues. All of these issues, whether the death penalty, Amendment One, guns, abortion, they are very complex issues, and you have to make tough decisions. I'm tired of the disparaging remarks against people who disagree with you on a social issue. You'll never hear me call someone a name because they disagree with me on a social issue.

CL: There was a feeling that, given your background as a moderate mayor, you could perhaps get more done on social issues, even LGBT rights.

I've actually always been rather conservative. As mayor, I was conservative, I just haven't been dogmatic.

CL: It took Nixon to go to China. There was a feeling you could have been the one to push the boundaries.

I did that with light rail. It took a Republican to get light rail in this area. And we need to have those moments. But I don't believe people should go against their basic beliefs and values. We must be respectful though. One person's tolerance is another person's moral outrage, on both sides.

CL: Do you agree with the statement "LGBT rights are the early 21st century's civil rights issue?" And do you think North Carolina should be on one, perhaps the right, side of history?

We respectfully disagree on the issue. I admire your belief, and I'm not going to disparage it, and I expect the same in return.

CL: You were a political-science guy at Catawba College. Who are some of your heroes from politics and history?

I greatly admired Truman, especially when he went against MacArthur. Truman and Eisenhower are two underrated leaders. Eisenhower is a Republican we don't talk about enough. He was a man of incredible courage prior to the presidency, and then he implemented a major infrastructure plan for the United States. Something we should have done with the stimulus dollars. I am very disappointed President Obama didn't put the stimulus dollars in infrastructure like Eisenhower or Roosevelt would have.

CL: What electoral moments from state history stand out to you?

Jim Holshouser's victory. He is becoming a big friend and mentor of mine, and he upset the status quo of Democratic leadership. And Jim Martin, who came from Mecklenburg County, a Davidson professor who won a tough race and became a mentor of mine. And then Jim Hunt could sell the state and knew what was happening on the ground. He created a brand for North Carolina, and I admire his leadership skills. The first person I was for was Jimmy Carter. My dad was an engineer, and so was he. The night I decided to change parties was when Ted Kennedy went on stage with Jimmy Carter and refused to shake his hand. I thought the Democratic Party had lost it, so I became a Ronald Reagan advocate.

CL: You initially wanted to be a teacher. What did you want to teach?

Civics and economics and history. I student-taught at North Rowan High School and still hope to become a teacher.

CL: What CD is in your car right now?

Either Abbey Road or The Who's Who's Next. The song "We won't get fooled again" is kind of our informal theme song. I don't want the new boss to be the same as the old boss.

CL: If you could have dinner with three people living in the world today, who would they be?

Bill Gates because of his entrepreneurial skills; Paul McCartney because I admire his musicianship; and my nephew Wilson McCrory, who has overcome a great deal. I'd want him in the room to learn. He is legally blind and just graduated from Harvard MBA School and is moving to Charlotte; he takes the light rail line now. And I'd add Billy Graham to the table.

CL: Favorite author?

My favorite author is George Orwell. I'm a big fan of 1984; Winston is a character who will never leave me. I love Stephen Ambrose too; he did a lot of the World War II books, and that history.

CL: What's your favorite period of history?

I think there are a lot of lessons from the Revolutionary War that we maybe haven't learned as we continue in Afghanistan and other areas. I see a lot of parallels between the British in the Carolinas during the war and America in foreign countries today. It's a very delicate situation. We were divided into tribes, but the British united us, and I see a lot of those dynamics as we try to help other countries but unite opposition against us.

CL: As you campaign, is there anything in the back of your mind that you worry about at night, a crisis you might have to deal with?

There will be something that I can never anticipate. In 2008, the economy crashed two months before our election, which probably determined our election. During my tenure as mayor, we had the hundred-year ice storm, the hundred-year flood, the hundred-year drought, so Mayor Foxx may have it easier because those things probably won't happen again for a hundred years. But a leader should keep the focus on the long-term vision while putting out the daily fires that are unanticipated.

CL: How do you feel going forward to the election?

I am extremely paranoid, because I have lived one election night that will stay with me. And I do not want to repeat the election night of 2008.

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