Raleigh, N.C. — With three weeks to go until Election Day, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper and Libertarian Lon Cecil engaged the final debate of the gubernatorial campaign on Tuesday.
The hour-long debate, hosted by WRAL at its Raleigh studios, was even testier than the back-and-forth McCrory and Cooper engaged in a week ago, with frequent personal attacks interrupted only by Cecil's calm answers to questions posed by moderators David Crabtree and Laura Leslie of WRAL News.
"As attorney general, you should resign right now for saying that," McCrory said when Cooper mentioned an FBI investigation into a state prison contract to a McCrory campaign donor.
"Gov. McCrory has been stonewalling not only the media but people who ask for public records. He's had to be sued three times," Cooper said in response to a question about transparency.
The sniping between the two men continued through questions on the state economy, House Bill 2 and coal ash and even a discussion of Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts.
McCrory said the state's reserve fund will help pay to repair damage from the hurricane, and he noted Cooper has criticized money in the state budget being put into the reserves instead of being spent on public education.
"Thank God we didn't have a governor that didn't have that short-term political aptitude, to look at the next election as opposed to the next storm or the next hurricane," McCrory said.
Cooper dismissed McCrory's empathy for the eastern North Carolina residents hurt by the storm, noting the governor never showed concern for them when he refused to expand Medicaid or decided to cut unemployment benefits.
"Gov. McCrory talks about people who can least afford it in rural eastern North Carolina, and here he is opposing Medicaid expansion that could help health care in eastern North Carolina," he said. "He talks about extending unemployment benefits (to storm victims). He pushed legislation that made North Carolina's unemployment benefits the most restrictive in the country and did it on the backs of working people."
Cecil, an engineer by trade, discussed the need to learn lessons from each storm to prevent the same problems from flooding occurring again and again. He also noted the problems of disposing of the tons of coal ash that have built up over the decades that the state is now in a rush to get rid of after a 2014 ash spill in the Dan River.
"There's a tremendous amount of ash in those things," Cecil said. "When you start looking at how many truckloads do we have to haul to a pit to bury it properly, we're going to need some major highways and a lot more trucks."
McCrory agreed that it's impossible to put all of the coal ash in lined landfills, as pushed for by environmental groups. He also rebutted Cooper's allegation that he worked behind closed doors with Duke Energy, his former employer, on plans for disposing of coal ash at the company's plants. The governor said he vetoed a coal ash bill against Duke's wishes, noted Cooper had never taken legal action against Duke over its leaky ash pits and even took campaign contributions from the utility.
When Cooper didn't respond to those charges and discussed instead the legal battle between McCrory and state lawmakers over the cleanup of ash ponds, McCrory said, "What Roy Cooper is good at doing is changing the subject."
McCrory, who has built his campaign on his so-called "Carolina Comeback," again touted the state's growing economy and tax cuts as evidence of his leadership. But Cooper said the tax cuts have primarily benefited corporations and the wealthiest individuals. Even Cecil said he found the state's current tax structure "burdensome" on the poor.
"Are you going to repeal it and raise the income tax on every working person who gets a paycheck in North Carolina?" McCrory asked Cooper.
"We don't need to increase taxes," Cooper responded. "What we need to do is fix some of those taxes he put on the middle class and small businesses."
When pressed by Crabtree, he said growing state revenue should be invested in education and not in more business tax cuts.
McCrory also turned to Cooper on the subject of House Bill 2, the state's controversial law on LGBT rights, and offered to push for a repeal of much of the law if Cooper would push for Charlotte to repeal its transgender nondiscrimination ordinance.
"Since the Supreme Court decision regarding (same-sex) marriage, I think there needs to be protection at the federal level," McCrory said about LGBT protections against discrimination. "But I will not accept the radical changes that Roy Cooper and (Charlotte Mayor) Jennifer Roberts have brought to North Carolina."
The governor accused Cooper of encouraging businesses to boycott the state and said the push for LGBT rights has caused male inmates in state prisons to request transfers to women's prisons. For his part, Cooper said he lobbies to bring business to North Carolina and said McCrory's criticism of businesses that have come out against the law is turning off other companies looking for places to expand.
When asked about his vow in a 2012 gubernatorial debate about not signing into law any new abortion restrictions, McCrory insisted he had helped stave off "more extreme" rules for abortion providers that lawmakers wanted by agreeing to extending the waiting period for a woman seeking an abortion from 24 to 72 hours. Other rules put in place during his term, he said, only improve the safety of clinics.
Cooper noted, however, that a law McCrory signed requires doctors to send ultrasounds taken before some abortions to the state Department of Health and Human Services for review.
"Regardless of how you feel about this issue or this policy, to have a woman's ultrasound sent to bureaucrats is wrong. It is a restriction, and it shows you whether you can trust Gov. McCrory," he said. "This is just one of the many issues where he has said one thing and has done another."
Cecil merely said abortion is an issue between a woman and her doctor. "Throwing the big hand of government in there to stir it around does not help," he said.