Raleigh, N.C. — As Hurricane Matthew blew through the state over the weekend, Gov. Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper focused on their official duties. McCrory has been keeping tabs on storm damage and overseeing rescue efforts, as Cooper warned against scams and price gouging.
While the historic flooding wreaked by the storm continues, it has kept both candidates largely off the stump this week, but it will likely be swept into the campaign when the two men meet on the debate stage Tuesday night. McCrory, a Republican running to keep his job, and Cooper, a Democrat hoping to unseat him, are scheduled to face off during an event sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Foundation.
The debate, moderated by Chuck Todd of NBC News, will be the second of three meetings between the two and the first since June.
Libertarian Lon Cecil will also be on the ballot, although the NCAB did not invite him to participate in Tuesday's debate. Cecil is due to be on stage for a debate hosted by WRAL News next week.
McCrory has campaigned on his stewardship of the state budget, including building up a $1.6 billion "rainy day fund" that will almost certainly be tapped, along with federal disaster funds, to help cleanup the wreckage from Matthew.
Cooper has criticized McCrory and state lawmakers for not putting enough money into education, specifically teacher salaries. In a recent interview with the News & Observer's editorial board, he said the reserve had been "in excess of what’s necessary for the state" at the expense of working people.
Asked about this comment Monday, McCrory spokesman Ricky Diaz said it indicated Cooper had "failed his first test of leadership" and that McCrory was right to build up a reserve fund for emergencies.
"The fact that we've had to deal with four states of emergencies in the past four weeks shows the exact need for a robust rainy day fund, so this is further proof Roy Cooper is offering nothing more than the same kind of short-sighted policies that would leave North Carolina worse off like under (former Govs.) Mike Easley and Bev Perdue," Diaz added.
Jamal Little, a spokesman for Cooper, argued that Cooper "has strongly supported a strong rainy day fund and worked to build North Carolina’s emergency surplus funds as Senate majority leader. It’s clear that we need to be strategic with state resources and balance current needs."
Little also quickly pointed out that Republican lawmakers authorized McCrory to shift $500,000 from a disaster management fund to pay for litigation related to House Bill 2, a controversial measure dealing with LGBT rights.
"Emergency reserves are important, and it was irresponsible for Gov. McCrory to move resources away from the state’s disaster relief fund," he said.
McCrory allowed the measure in question to go into effect without his signature and later announced he would defend House Bill 2 in federal court without the extra money.
A chairman for the state
In many ways, McCrory and Cooper are similar. Both are 59 years old, although McCrory will turn 60 next week. Both are telegenic, long-time politicians who have long been tapped by friends and mentors as potential public leaders. Before 2012, both were often held up as examples of centrist elements of their respective parties.
Both now face accusations that they have moved to the extremes of their parties.
"McCrory has gotten side-tracked defending a bill based on hate," said Brad Crone, a veteran Democratic strategist.
House Bill 2 is a far cry from the bread-and-butter good governance issues that McCrory ran on four years ago. Crone argues that McCrory wasn't naturally inclined to be a culture warrior but that he has been led astray by a General Assembly led by Republicans who are far more conservative than he is naturally inclined to be.
"Here's the dilemma: Any governor outside North Carolina would give you $1 million to have Pat McCrory's record of creating 300,000 jobs, lowering the unemployment rate, etc..." Crone said. "But the House Bill 2 issue is a albatross around his neck, and he's going to take the whipping instead of the state legislature."
Crone is not the first person to suggest that McCrory circa 2016 is a different man than the man who served 14 years as the mayor of Charlotte.
John Lassiter, a former Charlotte City Council member who served with McCrory and now heads the state Economic Development Partnership, calls that narrative "lazy," saying that the description is used by people who don't know the governor.
"He's a pretty hard guy to peg, in my opinion," said Lassiter. "He is, at his core, an independent, almost a populist. He's looking for solutions."
McCrory's signature accomplishment as Charlotte mayor was pushing through a sales tax to support a light rail system, hardly the markings of a modern hard-line fiscal conservative.
Although Lassiter said McCrory's approach to governing is very much informed by his business background, including 28 years with Duke Energy, he said the moniker of the state's chief executive isn't quite right.
"He almost might be better described as a chairman of the board," he said.
McCrory, he said, is inclined to find expert people, let them do their job and then hold those executives accountable.
"He is very quick to challenge whether or not the folks who are charged with a particular task are meeting the metrics," Lassiter said.
'Regular guy' to statewide office
If McCrory has moved at all to the right, Republicans would say that Cooper has equally made a shift to his political left.
"I worked with Roy on a couple of issues. He was a regular guy at the time," Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said.
Rucho served in the state Senate during the 1990s, when Cooper made the transition from the state House to Senate majority leader under then-President Pro Tem Marc Basnight. Many lawmakers who served under Basnight's tutelage went on to higher office, including U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, State Treasurer Janet Cowell and Perdue.
Rucho, a dentist, recalled working on with Cooper a measure to provide funding for children affected with cleft palates. That comity, along with regular dinners with Republicans and Democrats alike, evaporated, Rucho said, when Cooper became majority leader, one of the top jobs in the Senate.
"When Roy got appointed to that job, he went ahead and changed his philosophy," Rucho said. No longer was he a conservative, business-friendly North Carolina Democrat. "He changed to being a flaming liberal. He was like a chameleon."
Others friendlier to Cooper said that he certainly had to deal with a diverse caucus that ran the gamut from hide-bound conservatives to such progressives as Durham's Fountain Odom and Orange County's Ellie Kinnaird.
"I think everyone certainly trusted his work ethic and his intellect and generally his instincts," said Brad Miller, a former congressman who served with Cooper in the state Senate. "If you were losing Roy on a vote, you were losing generally."
Miller, who earned national recognition for North Carolina's law against predatory lending, said it was Cooper who took a risk to push the bill through at a time when the state's banking industry opposed it.
Asked to describe Cooper, Miller credited him with "generally progressive instincts" tempered by another over-riding personality trait. "Roy has always had a cautious streak, and I don't think that's changed," he said.
That cautious streak showed up earlier this year when WRAL News requested emails sent by the attorney general over the past year. He had sent only two.
At odds over issues
When Cooper and McCrory take the debate stage Tuesday night, they will likely clash on most of the major issues that have consumed North Carolina politics over the past four years.
In addition to House Bill 2, the McCrory administration's handling of the North Carolina's coal ash – toxic sludge stored in unlined pits by his former employer, Duke Energy – and Cooper's handling of the State Crime Lab – a division plagued by slow turnaround times and accusations that it created misleading reports in the 1990s and early part of the last decade – will also come up.
Alfredo Rodriguez, a Republican media consultant, said McCrory's job will be to cut through the clutter of those side issues and get across a simple message.
"The best argument for his re-election is asking whether the state is better off than it was four years ago," Rodriguez argued. "In the last five weeks of the election, he needs to remind people of the positive trajectory the state is on."
Crone said that Cooper needed to project a message that has been central to his campaign all summer, that he would be the "adult in the room" despite the legislature's focus on social issues.
"He'll argue the super-conservative Republican majority in the legislature has tried to pull a moderate state too far to the right," Crone said. "I think Cooper goes on the offensive with the counterpoint that, while we cleaned up our ledger sheet, we could have extended out our debt service and put some of the cash back into education."