OPINION: The source of all McCrory’s troubles?

Dec. 05, 2013 @ 04:59 AM

Moderate voters in Charlotte and across the state are kicking themselves for supporting consensus-building “Mayor Pat” only to find that Gov. Pat McCrory can be quite different. But my interview with him last week and a breakfast with him a couple weeks earlier make clear he hasn’t changed a bit in one respect: This is a man obsessed with his image and how he’s portrayed. It’s clear he doesn’t go a day without being deeply frustrated by what he sees as unfair attacks on his good name. 

My hour-and-40-minute one-on-one with the governor began with him complaining about an editorial cartoon and ended with a complaint about how Art Pope, one of his chief advisers, is depicted. In between, McCrory repeatedly sprinkled asides and bromides about how the media are out to get him and his administration. When I sat next to him at a recent breakfast, he tugged on my sleeve every couple of minutes, leaned over and murmured his displeasure with this cartoon or that editorial or a news story from six months ago.

It’s not that he has no grounds for complaint – in the mountains of coverage about him, there are bound to be elements that he and his supporters find unfair. What is remarkable is that after 24 years in public life, McCrory fills a role that inevitably will elicit ongoing criticism yet he is as sensitive to it — no, personally hurt by it — as someone entering public life for the first time. 

I asked him about a series of hiring and pay controversies surrounding his health secretary, Aldona Wos. McCrory jumped to the cases of Ricky Diaz and Matt McKillip, two then-24-year-olds who worked on his campaign and then were given well-paying positions in Wos’ department without the jobs being posted. “They weren’t political cronies. Your editorials often use the word cronies. Slash and burn is another word you often use. Slash and burn is repeated often.” (I couldn’t find a single editorial in our history with the phrase slash and burn.)

“Y’all have been pretty tough” on Wos, he added. “And the editorial cartoons and everything. She’s brilliant, and it’s kinda sad public servants get .... I hate that she’s got hit probably harder than I have and she doesn’t deserve it.” 

Now McCrory was on a roll: “That’s my only request, is take a deep breath before you write an editorial based on a news story, because some of the editorials were based on inaccurate news stories. ... Once it starts, it’s just, a lot of it is the headline writers. They change the words, put a new word in it, and then when the headline goes out the next thing, it becomes the story. That’s probably the biggest issue I have with the media is the headline writers.” (My colleagues on the news side at the Observer know of no instance when they ran a story or headline with any factual errors that weren’t corrected.)

I asked McCrory about North Carolina’s inadequate funding for public education. “I increased pre-K funding and K-12 funding. You wouldn’t know it by the headlines,” he said. “By the headlines it looks like we cut, you know the headlines, ‘McCrory slashes and burns education’.” (The Observer has never run that headline, but the state’s per-pupil funding is down from previous years.) 

“What are the other eight things I said wrong by the way? You had an editorial where ‘McCrory’s misstatements. Eight misstatements.’ I forget how many.” I tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about, and an adviser points out that he’s thinking of a news story written by a (Raleigh) News & Observer reporter. “No,” McCrory says. “That was their editorial. Or was that a repeat? Maybe, I don’t know which ones I’m reading.”

I asked him about his comment at a Washington event that North Carolina might be required to accept the federal Medicaid expansion. “That’s where you totally misinterpreted,” McCrory replied. We didn’t, according to the Medicaid spokesperson and several experts. 

Polls show a majority of North Carolinians disapprove of the job McCrory is doing. I asked him about whether his decision to cut off federal unemployment benefits hurt his standing with the public. “Absolutely, especially the way it was communicated.”

He disputed the idea that he has moved to the right, but says he can’t blame the public for thinking he has, given what appears in the media. He said the media uses a “new technique” in which they accuse him of something by asking a question, such as, “Does McCrory have a conflict of interest?” “I have to prove a negative. I’m seeing more and more of that in journalism now.” 

There’s much more he sees, but you get the idea. Most of McCrory’s troubles stem, in his mind, not from his support of policies that a majority of North Carolinians disagree with but from a media that, through bias or incompetency, just can’t understand his greatness.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter, @tbatten1. 

Taylor Batten is The Charlotte Observer’s editorial page editor.