Capital Goods: November 2012

McCrory lifts the Charlotte curse

Fifty years ago, a political scientist penned an oft-cited study that concluded big-city mayors “have little in common but the lack of a political future — that they are, as a profession, predestined to political oblivion is a historical fact.”

Apparently no one told Pat McCrory. After 14 years as mayor of Charlotte, he is about to become our next governor. Still, beating Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton by 12 percentage points in last month’s election may not answer two lingering, related questions: First, has the political landscape changed so that mayors are better positioned to run for higher office? Second, has the dreaded Charlotte curse — under which candidates for statewide office from our largest city must minimize their ties to it or accept defeat — finally been laid to rest?

It’s worth noting that McCrory is not the first mayor to become governor. Cameron Morrison, who had been mayor of Rockingham, was elected in 1920, and Gregg Cherry, onetime mayor of Gastonia, won in 1944. Neither made the leap directly, both serving in the state legislature before their gubernatorial bids. McCrory is a first — a big-city mayor who sold himself to voters as such. After the third and final televised gubernatorial debate, he told me his experience would help him win office and be effective as the state’s chief executive. “A mayor, first of all, knows how to deal with a crisis. Being mayor is just a great ground to gain the skills necessary to be governor.”

Most political scientists wouldn’t disagree. Governors and mayors deal with similar issues. Budgets have to be balanced. Transportation systems must operate. Businesses and the jobs they provide need to be wooed and wowed. Running for governor is where history suggests mayors are at a disadvantage. According to a recent study by the National Lieutenant Governor’s Association, just 8% of governors between 1981 and 2006 held a locally elected post prior to winning the state’s top office.

The reason? Many rural voters look with suspicion on urban areas, their inhabitants and their political leadership. They see cities as the root of society’s ills, with higher crime rates and decaying neighborhoods, or as economic powerhouses that steal the affection of political leaders. In 2008, Gov. Beverly Perdue used that type of wedge to defeat McCrory. Her campaign ran ads in rural parts of the state accusing him of wanting to divert road money to Charlotte. The rural-urban divide feeds nicely into feelings of North Carolina natives who see Charlotte as culturally, politically and geographically separate from the rest of the state. Some dismiss that bias as overblown or even myth. It’s not. It’s why in his first bid for governor McCrory announced his candidacy in Jamestown, where he grew up in the Triad. It’s why former Gov. Jim Martin emphasized his ties to Davidson and Lake Norman — not Charlotte.

On election night, McCrory proclaimed, “The curse is over.” He even name-checked previous Charlotte mayors who lost statewide races. There was Eddie Knox, defeated in a crowded Democratic primary for governor in 1984. Then Harvey Gantt, who lost to Jesse Helms in U.S. Senate races in 1990 and 1996. Sue Myrick, before her career in Congress, fell in a Senate primary to Lauch Faircloth in 1992. McCrory’s immediate predecessor, Richard Vinroot, lost a general election and two primaries for governor in three straight elections, beginning in 1996.

Still, McCrory’s breaking the Charlotte curse may indicate it is fading into history. This is a different state than it was. Transplants don’t harbor the same bias against the Queen City. The state is becoming increasingly urban, with half its voters living in just 13 of the 100 counties. A recent poll even shows 55% of eastern North Carolinians view Charlotte in a positive light.

National trends stacked against mayors may be fading as well. In January, McCrory will join four other former metro mayors who are now governors — Martin O’Malley in Maryland, Bill Haslam in Tennessee, John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Jerry Brown in California. That’s 10% of the nation’s governors. Maybe urbanization was a factor in their success as well, or perhaps voters today want something different in their governors. Whatever the case, that doesn’t look too much like political oblivion.

Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com.