People packed Romare Bearden Park by the thousands, playing hooky from work or school to cheer for the Carolina Panthers one more time before they flew to California for the Super Bowl.
The players all got a big round of applause, of course. So did Coach Ron Rivera. And the crowd politely went along with all the cheers from the city’s political and business leaders.
But when Gov. Pat McCrory took the stage, the cheering halted. Instead, you could hear the unmistakable sound of boos.
It was a stark reminder of just how much has changed in the past half-decade.
McCrory served as mayor of Charlotte for 14 years, a record seven terms. He kept getting elected by wide margins as a Republican even as the city became more liberal. He won by a whopping 78-22 margin in 1997 and by 61-39 to start his final mayoral term in the 2007 election (by comparison, current Mayor Jennifer Roberts won 52-48).
He was known as a pro-growth, pro-business centrist who showed up to every ribbon cutting and spearheaded the effort to bring the light rail to South Boulevard. Charlotte loved him.
The Governor’s Mansion has changed that. Since he took office as North Carolina’s 74th chief executive after winning in 2012, McCrory’s relationship with his hometown has deteriorated.
“Mayor Pat” entertained reporters and passers-by on the front porch of his Myers Park home. Governor Pat sits alone on a park bench in Romare Bearden, surrounded by a black-tie security detail.
Part of the change in perception is because of the nation’s increasingly polarized political climate, brutally apparent in Charlotte and North Carolina. The city itself is becoming more blue while the state has transitioned to electing Republicans for statewide office. The state’s shift away from Democratic control since 2010 has been bumpy for everyone involved.
But you also get the sense that Charlotte voters feel like they didn’t get what they expected. They voted for Mayor Pat. They got someone who has increasingly aligned himself — at least in the bills he signs — with the more conservative wing of the Republican party.
McCrory’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
A rough year for the relationship
The past 12 months have been particularly fraught.
They started with the dregs of the controversy that consumed 2013 and 2014. Concerned with maintaining the strength of Charlotte Douglas International Airport amid a leadership power struggle, the state legislature engineered a change in control. The city of Charlotte had run airport affairs for decades. The new plan was to have control shift to an independent authority (There’s still no resolution here).
This Raleigh-Charlotte dust-up is what sparked the initial awkward hug between McCrory and former Mayor Anthony Foxx.
But McCrory also handled it in what would become a prototypical McCrory way. He, for the most part, tried to stay out of it and said the debate was for Charlotte’s municipal leaders and state representatives to figure out.
He took a similar approach with the I-77 toll lanes. He has continued to stay out of the issue even as northern Mecklenburg County — traditionally a Republican stronghold — has begged for relief. He’s kicked the decision making down to local elected officials.
There were minor things, too. Minor in their length of time in the news cycle, at least, not in global importance. McCrory used the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center as the platform to announce that he was calling on President Barack Obama to halt the flow of Syrian immigrants to North Carolina, joining many other conservative governors.
But the recent entanglement over Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance took all of that to the next level. The dispute even became personal in a way very unusual to Charlotte politics.
You probably know the story by now. Charlotte passed protections for the LGBT community that also included the ability for transgender people to choose the bathroom that fits their gender identity. The state legislature called an emergency session to override it.
After the state legislature passed House Bill 2, Roberts said she texted McCrory asking for his veto. He, obviously, did not listen.
But he also took things a step farther. On social media, he went after Roberts specifically.
It’s a falling out that’s truly unusual in Southern politics.
Roberts, in a statement emailed to the Agenda, said simply: “The governor and I have had a professional working relationship for years and I do not expect that to change.”
Can he regain Charlotte’s trust?
After all that, it’s almost hard to remember what it was like four years ago.
McCrory actually won Mecklenburg County in the 2012 election by a narrow margin, even as 60 percent of the county’s voters went for Obama.
It’s fairly safe to say that won’t happen again. If there is to be a reconciliation between McCrory and his hometown, it’s not likely to be at the ballot box in November.
“Elected officials traditionally get their biggest support from those who know them the best, and those who live close to them,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “Maybe folks in the southern part of the county, Pineville, may still be somewhat favorable to the governor, but the rest of the county has got to be really turned off by all of this.”
The 2012 election against a relatively weak Democratic candidate in Walter Dalton was a blowout. This year will be much more contested when McCrory goes up against Democratic star Roy Cooper. Losing support in Charlotte is going to be difficult. Bitzer said that McCrory is going to have to rely on the rural base of the party to show up.
But what might be more important is whether McCrory can once again be himself in his hometown. Even at the beginning of his term as governor, you would see him out around town like on the patio of Selwyn Avenue Pub.
Whenever McCrory packs his suitcase at the Governor’s Mansion for good, will his hometown welcome him back with open arms?