WILSON — After facing angry activists, second-guessers and lawsuits in 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory likely found some relief in small-town North Carolina as he began in his second year in office.
It’s in places such as Wilson where the state’s first Republican governor in 20 years visited regularly during the past year. That’s where McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, has been able to promote his message of fixing a broken government and reviving the economy before groups either loyal to him, cordial enough not to push back, or just pleased to have a governor come visit.
“I’m thankful that he’s here, that he’s interested,” said Wilson County Commissioner Rob Boyette, a Democrat, before offering muted criticism of McCrory’s education policies in response to a reporter’s questions. “He’s dealt with issues that are difficult to deal with, and it’s not that we agree with everything that he’s done.”
The governor visited farmers and an intimate gathering of 30 community leaders earlier this month to try out part of his 2014 agenda before unveiling it to the state capital media last week, and to defend the dramatic changes he and fellow Republicans made last year.
“We had to take some very quick and immediate action and yes, at times controversial action,” McCrory told about 200 people at the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission annual meeting, talking about tax and unemployment insurance overhauls. “But there were too many people out of work, and there were too many things not going right regarding a future strategy to repair the economy of North Carolina.”
Participants in business attire at a Wilson bistro gave occasional nods of approval as McCrory spoke and took questions for an hour. Earlier there was one dose of extemporaneous applause from sweet potato growers as McCrory discussed his expectations for employment growth this year.
“I’m behind him all the way,” said Jim Lewis, a registered Democrat, retired trooper and farmer living in Tyrrell County. “He’s doing more than what we’ve had before by far.”
Some in attendance weren’t yet decided on McCrory.
“I’ve always said that in school you have to give someone time to learn and give them a chance before you grade ‘em,” said farmer Timmy Cox of Cove City, a registered independent who voted for Democrat Walter Dalton over McCrory for governor in 2012. “You have to give them time to prove themselves.”
McCrory’s most vocal critics say they’ve already seen enough. They argue the governor and the Republican-led General Assembly have done tremendous damage to North Carolina by declining to accept Medicaid expansion through the federal health care law, reducing jobless benefits and placing restrictions on in-person voting.
“He continues to solidify this pattern of denial,” the Rev. William Barber, president of the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told reporters recently while criticizing McCrory’s decision to delay a special congressional election until November.
Barber led the “Moral Monday” rallies in Raleigh in 2013 that led to hundreds of arrests of nonviolent protesters in opposition to the GOP agenda. The elections overhaul law and other public education changes are now being challenged in court.
While McCrory received nearly 55 percent of the vote in 2012, his job performance numbers have taken a hit. Thirty-three percent of registered voters surveyed by Elon University in November approved of his performance, compared to 46 percent in April and 36 percent in September.
Elon University Poll director Ken Fernandez said McCrory’s ratings fell as the legislature pushed through major changes. McCrory signed nearly all of them into law. In 2012, the governor “was seen as very pragmatic, a moderate, a centrist sort,” Fernandez said, but “the average voter tends to be afraid of change in either direction, either left or right of the ideological continuum.”
Eldon Newton, a retired insurance agent from Wilson, blamed the media for focusing on the protests, rather than good things McCrory has accomplished. “If you make enough noise and disturb the process of trying to govern and you disrupt it enough and get arrested, than you’ll get more attention, and obviously it has worked,” said Newton, the father of a Republican state senator.
Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is already preparing to run against McCrory in 2016.
The big question ahead is whether McCrory’s approval numbers can rebound, said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University.
Dinan said McCrory’s 2014 initiatives indicate he may be seeking to reclaim his moderate label. An agenda of teacher pay increases, expanding the state’s energy sector, Medicaid reform and improving government efficiency lacked any big surprises. It also likely reflects the short time the General Assembly meets in even-numbered years.
McCrory’s key to finding renewed popularity may come from rural eastern North Carolina counties, where Republican success has been disjointed over the past 50 years and Democrats still dominate voter registration rolls. McCrory swept large swaths of Down East counties in 2012 but still failed to win Wilson County, where a GOP gubernatorial candidate hasn’t won since 1988. The county’s most famous citizen is former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat.
The current governor focused on rural issues during his Wilson appearances, talking up an economic plan that promotes agriculture and manufacturing and fight pockets of stubbornly high unemployment. Wilson County’s jobless rate is 9.5 percent, 2 percentage points above the state average.
“It’s a good plan for the future,” he said.