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Lessons for 2018: An Interview with Gov. Pat McCrory

(Corey Lowenstein/News & Observer)

“In fact, one of my best training grounds was being a basketball referee. That taught me how to make tough decisions under tough circumstances where you already knew you were going to make half the people mad most of the time.”

Former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory came to his state’s capital with a diverse set of experiences; he’d worked at Duke Energy, served as Mayor of Charlotte, and even refereed basketball games on weekends nights while in his 20’s. His tenure as Governor saw the restructuring of North Carolina’s income tax, pay hikes for teachers, and challenging natural disasters such as Hurricane Matthew. Since narrowly losing re-election to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper in 2016, Governor McCrory has returned to Charlotte and now hosts a popular morning radio show.

On August 11th, Governor McCrory joined Merion West’s Erich Prince to discuss how a business background informs governing, the role that polarization and the media play in politics today, and his advice for the record number of people looking to get involved in politics in 2018.

You worked at Duke Energy for 29 years, thus accumulating considerable experience in the business world. In what ways do you find your business background informed how you viewed issues while in office?

I think one good thing about business experience is, first of all, you usually have some management experience, which I had. You have budgetary experience, which I got in business. Also, you understand capitalism. So many of the people who get involved in government usually work for law firms—or are retired teachers and government workers. I think that the experience of understanding basic finance, management, capitalism and problem-solving—more than anything else—is a main contributor to meeting those kinds of skill sets in government or politics.

Is business experience something voters should be looking for when they go to the polls?

I think diverse experience is the best: business, community, political, civic involvement. I think the more diverse experiences one has before they get into politics, the better. In fact, one of my best training grounds was being a basketball referee. That taught me how to make tough decisions under tough circumstances where you already knew you were going to make half the people mad most of the time.

You served on Charlotte’s city council, as Mayor of Charlotte, and then as Governor of North Carolina. What is one of the main differences in making the transition from a more deliberative, legislative-style body like a city council to being in an executive office?

First of all, it helped me to have that city council experience prior to becoming mayor because, as mayor, you’ve got to understand the legislative psyche of city council members. The same thing would be true of county commissioners, or even state legislators: the psyche of how they vote, when they vote, and how they actually write the laws. As a mayor and governor, your goal is to try to influence that legislation and apply it to not just policy, but also to operations. That’s what so few state legislators and council members think of: the application of policy versus just the policy itself.

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By the way, the other thing about governor and mayor is there’s a much more external relationship in speaking for the entire city or state, which many city council or state legislative members don’t think about because they tend to come from gerrymandered districts, or politically monolithic districts. As a leader, you’ve got to think in much broader contexts.

We’re in the midst of a strikingly partisan, polarized environment right now. You’ve had some experience combating division within your own party based on some of the decisions you’ve made—with the Light Rail when you were Mayor of Charlotte. You had to fight hard-line conservatives who opposed a Republican mayor investing so much in infrastructure. When you were governor, you sued your own legislature before the North Carolina Supreme Court. What is it like to stand up and go against factions within your own party?

I think it’s even bigger than standing up to the factions. I think we see a trend that’s been occurring for the last 20 years where our two-party system is becoming more like a parliamentary system.

Within the two party system, we’re having factions develop and what you call caucuses—minority caucuses within the group that you belong, a women’s caucus, Freedom Caucus, black caucus. You name it. We’re beginning to almost have parties within the party, which make it much more difficult to form a consensus or a majority. And, that makes it much more difficult to compromise because it’s a litmus test within each of those caucuses.

Is this something you’ve seen get worse since you first entered politics?

Yes. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m not an advocate of caucuses within legislative bodies—whether it be local government or within the federal government. I think it makes it extremely difficult. I don’t think that’s how the Founders meant us to work.

So there’s something about a healthy two-party system?

A healthy two-party system is very good. But within the two-party system, we’re being divided into subgroups based upon many different factors, which are demanding a litmus test: a purity litmus test. That, in addition to gerrymandered districts is making a lot of the elections transfer to the primaries as opposed to the general election.

Are these litmus tests especially strong on social issues like abortion or gay marriage?

Yes. Those are increasing because of the amount of focus, especially in the media, on social issues. If the media focuses on them, that means the politicians and fundraisers will also focus on them. Even though—in all my political experience—less than 5% of the time is spent on social issues by politicians of either party, but it probably consumes 70% of the oxygen.

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So you’re mostly looking at things like fiscal policy, or even dealing with crises like natural disasters?

Infrastructure policy, fiscal policy, budgetary policy, operational issues, security issues, health care issues. But those issues tend to be much more complex, thus the media doesn’t cover them because complex issues take time and focus by the consumer.

So is part of the media’s preference for covering these social issues the simplicity of them, or is there something about the people they’re catering to—especially the MSNBC crowd vs. the Fox News crowd—where they want to see the bloodsport that is social issues?

I compare it to slowing down for a car wreck. You know you shouldn’t look, but everyone slows down. That’s how a social issue is on TV, or on the Internet. People know that they shouldn’t click on it, but they do. It’s a human dynamic, and, therefore, they get the highest ratings and then they get the advertisers.

Is this something that has also gotten worse, or evolved further since you first were elected to city council?

I don’t think it’s gotten worse, but it’s much more visible because of the variety of outlets in media that are available now. Especially how media is more segregated, where you have your conservative and liberal, men and women, black and white media outlets that subdivide us even more—very much like the caucus system.

Last question: a record number of candidates have been running for office and looking to get into politics in 2018. What are some of the most important things you can say to folks who are considering getting into politics at this juncture in American history?

Remind them that it’s not about them. It’s about something bigger: your community, your state, or your nation. Don’t do it for ego, fame, or money. You’ll be sorely disappointed at the end. Do it for the right reason, enjoy the moment, and be ethical.

Thank you for speaking today, Governor.

Thank you, and looking forward to the article.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.