Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory wants to stay focused.
In an interview this week marking the end of his first 100 days in office, McCrory talked about the need to ignore peripheral issues, to stay away from legislative peccadilloes and spend time on his "Three Es:" economy, education and efficiency.
But as the first Republican governor in 20 years has found out, running a state government with a $20 billion budget – nearly $50 billion if you count federal spending – that serves 9 million people isn't a task that allows for absolute focus.
"I thought I would immediately be able to come in and work on a vision and strategy and new legislation," McCrory said. "But the fact of the matter is, we had some basic operational issues we had to fix."
Those operational issues included the natural pains of a Raleigh outsider – someone who has never served in the legislature or elsewhere in state government – getting a grip on the state bureaucracy. There were personnel hires to be made, decisions about how to run daily schedules, questions about how different parts of government communicated. There were also problems he may not have expected.
McCrory often uses the word "broken" to describe aspects of the state now under his control, most prominently information technology systems and the sprawling, budget-gobbling Medicaid program.
Observers say that, until recently, McCrory has worked quietly to define his job and his expectations for state government. With recent announcements about the budget, creating a public-private partnership to run much of the Commerce Department and remaking Medicaid, he has begun to lay out that vision and strategy.
The governor will hit day 100 on April 15, but he shrugs off the milestone and questions about whether he has shifted from following the legislature's lead to taking the lead himself. As he describes it, 100 days might has well have been a frenetic 100 hours.
"We're putting in very full days and nights," McCrory said.
Those days and nights are likely to remain full as McCrory faces his next 100 days and what could be some of the most crucial tests of his administration.
Which Pat came to town?
McCrory's office in the historic State Capitol building is littered with the bric-a-brac of 14 years as Charlotte's mayor: shovels from groundbreakings, pictures with old colleagues and a pair of boxing gloves given to him by George Foreman after the 2008 election.
"With this hand, I missed a lot but I kept swinging," McCrory says, reading a marker-scrawled inscription from Foreman.
As McCrory talks enthusiastically about meeting the boxer, it's a reminder of the political odyssey he has been on. In 2008, he ran as a pragmatist, a Raleigh outsider with big-city experience. His campaign was overwhelmed by the Obama campaign's voter-turnout machine, which helped former Gov. Bev Perdue and other Democrats to victory.
Four years later, McCrory ran again, still leaning on his experience as a mayor but with a harder lean to the political right.
"The big question I think everybody had around his inauguration is which Pat was going to show up – the moderate mayor from Charlotte, or the energized tea-party Republican," said Michael Bitzer, chairman of the political science department at Catawba College and a longtime McCrory watcher.
For his money, Bitzer said the more pragmatic side of McCrory has shown through.
That's certainly the image McCrory is trying to project. He talks about wanting to bring "a mayor's attitude" to the office. For example, he's looking to broker a compromise between backers of using the former Dorothea Dix campus for a park and legislative leaders, who are running a bill to undo a lease agreement between the state and Raleigh.
Democrats disagree. They describe his support for legislation that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls as "extreme" and try to paint McCrory with the broad brush provided by some of the more outlandish bills filed by lawmakers. There's little doubt that ideas such as hiring managed care companies to run the state health insurance system for the poor and turning job recruiting efforts over to public-private partnership hew to a conservative direction.
"That's who he was as mayor of Charlotte. That's who he is. He's a privatization guy," said Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant and lobbyist based in Raleigh.
Those who were paying attention to McCrory as a candidate last year shouldn't be surprised at how he is governing, say Mills and other observers. In terms of promises made on the campaign trail, McCrory is sticking by his biggest policy proposals. Early legislative victories on setting up two-track high school diplomas, a budget that would follow through on a pledge to end the estate tax and signing a bill that accelerates repayment of North Carolina's unemployment insurance debt allowed the governor to score some early "promises kept."
McCrory never did produce a comprehensive state ethics plan as he said he would do before taking office, and journalists have grumbled that his promise to hold regular media briefings appears to have gone by the wayside. McCrory seems to prefer sit-down, one-on-one interviews to press gaggles after public events that were standard fare for former Govs. Mike Easley and Perdue.
The governor has also shown more propensity to talk to national outlets than either of his predecessors. One of those appearances, on Bill Bennett's Morning in America radio show, led to the first high-profile gaffe of his administration. McCrory's comments that the state ought to stop funding schools based on "butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs" and a perceived swipe at liberal arts education earned a firestorm of national criticism and reproach from local education leaders.
He seems to have recovered from that one flub, said Ferrel Guillory, a former reporter and director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"Except for one or two incidents like with the radio show, the governor's appearances have been structured to his advantage," Guillory said.
Even more telling, McCrory's cabinet members have been on message when they have appeared in public.
For example, Transportation Secretary Tony Tata emphasized his department's efforts to become more efficient when speaking to the House Transportation Committee this week, and he played up his work to create a 25-year plan to improve transportation in the state, something that was a key McCrory campaign promise.
An early flurry of attention on Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla's opinions on climate change and renewable energy have settled into a focus on his department's effort to improve customer service.
McCrory's highly controversial appointment of Art Pope, who is a prominent funder of both conservative public policy groups and candidates, has died out of much of the mainstream coverage of his administration.
Even the most severe misstep of McCrory's early tenure, appointing a woman who had advocated against government-run child care to head the state's Pre-K office, has not left a lasting mark.
The challenge for McCrory now achieving the goals he set during his first 100 days.
McCrory still learning to work with legislature
McCrory's voice was not the loudest on some of the biggest issues that cropped up early in his administration.
"I would say the governor seemed to get off to a slow start," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham.
The biggest policy items facing the state in January and February were whether to reject a federal effort to expand the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor and disabled and how to restructure the state's unemployment program.
"Both of those were being debated in the legislature before he took a position," Luebke observed.
It's worth noting that Republicans took control of the General Assembly two years before McCrory was elected.
While they're happy enough to have someone who shares their philosophy, Bitzer said, lawmakers aren't likely to slow their roll just to give McCrory time to acclimate.
Since then, lawmakers have taken note of McCrory's wishes. Senate budget writers deliberately set up their calendar in part to wait for McCrory's first budget proposal.
Sen. Peter Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, called McCrory's proposal "helpful." While no governor's budget will dictate the nuts and bolts of what lawmakers ultimately decide, McCrory's plan is at least philosophically aligned enough with GOP lawmakers that his policy proposals will get serious consideration. That was not the case when Perdue, a Democrat, sent over her spending plans, Brunstetter said.
"I have noticed a change from the start-up phase to, 'I'm here, I understand my job, and I'm moving forward,'" Brunstetter said of McCrory recently. "I've seen that occur in the last couple weeks, and in fairness, that's pretty quick for as big of a turnover as there was."
Lawmakers said McCrory, as someone who has never served in state government, has had to learn how to navigate the legislative process. For example, the governor's appointees to the State Board of Education were not approved in time for what McCrory hoped would be their first meetings. It was a high-profile example of an eager governor running smack into institutional prerogative.
"I think it's been somewhat difficult for him to distinguish between a legislature and a city council," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said of McCrory.
As mayor, McCrory was part of a much smaller decision-making group. In Raleigh, the executive branch is an equal unit of government, and even the House and Senate don't always see eye-to-eye with one another, shared party affiliations or not.
Told of Apodaca's remark that he needs to act differently with a legislature than a city council, McCrory laughed and said, "Especially with Sen. Apodaca." The powerful Senate Rules Committee chairman has the power to expedite the governor's agenda – or stall it.
More seriously, McCrory acknowledges that he is still learning to work with different groups, including the legislature, the cabinet and the Council of State.
"A lot of the work that needs to be done is relationship building," he said. "Even when you have conflict, if you have a relationship, you can get through the conflict much easier."
Part of that relationship building has taken place over a series of breakfasts with lawmakers, who have visited McCrory in small groups over the past few months. Lawmakers report those conversations have varied – sometimes pleasant exchanges, sometimes tense exchanges over policy differences.
For his part, McCrory has said he's both asked how he can help lawmakers achieve their goals and pushed his own agenda.
"I explain some of the things I want to accomplish and get their advice on how we can make it happen," he said.
McCrory's success could hinge on tax reform plan
One piece of advice McCrory might get is "hurry up." In a recent announcement, the governor and Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker said they want to remake the job-recruiting functions in the Commerce Department as a public-private partnership, but they had few details during their announcement this week and said it would be 60 days until they had a plan.
At that point, lawmakers will be ending their regular session for the year, leaving McCrory to contemplate his proposal until they return to session in May.
Still, it seems likely McCrory will come away from the legislative session with a number of victories, and public opinion polls show that he is viewed more favorably in the state than lawmakers or national political figures such as the president.
Observers say that a looming battle over reforming the state's tax system will test, and almost certainly diminish, that popularity.
"Anytime you touch the tax reform stuff, you're wading into some politically risky territory, because you're never going to make everybody happy," Mills said, noting that some of the people you will make unhappy are big campaign donors.
There is near-universal agreement that the state's antiquated 1930s-era tax code needs to be restructured in order to be more fair and provide more steady revenues for the state. But previous efforts at remaking the system have fallen flat, speared both by the enormity of the task and the dozens of industries that stand to lose tax breaks.
Senators have already begun unveiling pieces of their tax proposal, although a comprehensive plan is still at least two weeks from rolling out.
"If there is a major tax reform initiative and he signs it, that will become a critical, indispensable part of his reputation," said John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation.
Any such plan, he said, would certainly become "the McCrory tax plan" in the eyes of the public by 2016, when he would be facing re-election.
McCrory ran on tax reform, pounding home the theme that North Carolina's current system stifles economic growth.
"This is akin to what Barack Obama faced with health care," Bitzer said. There was universal agreement that some insurance reform needed to happen, although broad disagreement on what.
"As with the federal health care debate, you've got a unified party government," Bitzer said. "You've got what is going to become, whether he wants it to or not, a signature issue that he's going to have to run on, and he's got a wide spectrum of views within his own party."
To boot, he'll have pressure from the public and outside groups, much like Obama faced as he pushed the Affordable Care Act.
McCrory has said that he is working on his own tax reform proposal.
"We're letting the process work so a lot of ideas can be explored," he said.
Bitzer, Guillory and others say how and when McCrory steps into the process will be closely watched.
"The question becomes," Guillory said, "will the governor's tax plan reshape the debate?"
That is a question for the next 100 days.