With early voting set to begin, North Carolina residents got another side-by-side look of Governor Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper Tuesday night. The two sparred – along with Libertarian Lon Cecil - over a range of topics in their final scheduled gubernatorial debate.
For more than a year, McCrory and Cooper have launched verbal grenades and attack ads, and questioned each other’s job performance, character, and credibility.
Inside the WRAL-TV studios Tuesday night, they sat at individual desks within arm’s length of each other, smirking, grimacing and shaking their head as the other spoke. Fittingly, the debate took place in a television studio where professional wrestling was once staged.
In one of the more contentious moments of the debate, Cooper brought up a news story about an alleged FBI investigation of McCrory and a meeting he had over a prison contract.
“If you want to talk about political contributions, Governor, you’re the one who now has an FBI criminal investigation,” Cooper said.
McCrory interjected: “As attorney general, you should be resigned right now for saying that. That is not true. You should apologize right now.”
The FBI has never confirmed or denied looking into McCrory. After the debate the Governor was still upset, and said that while he had talked to the FBI, there was never an investigation.
McCrory and Cooper remained civil, and kept their hands to themselves for the rest of the debate. Libertarian candidate Ron Cecil joined them for this debate. The economy, a leading issue for voters in any election year, was another point of contention.
“Our economy is so much better than it was three years ago,” McCrory said. “Is it good enough, absolutely not? Is there more we need to do? Absolutely. But one thing we found out when we were coming into office is that we owed $2.6 billion for unemployment.”
Supporters have praised McCrory for the state’s repayment of that debt to the federal government. Critics say it came through cuts to unemployment, and hurt those in need. The candidates were asked about a “Carolina Comeback” – McCrory’s campaign slogan. Here’s Cooper:
“Since the recession, there has been a national recovery, but North Carolina is lagging behind,” Cooper said. “You go ask everyday working people whether they have seen a Carolina Comeback and they will tell you that they are working longer and harder and for less money than before the recession.”
Coal ash clean-up was among the new subjects also covered during the debate.
“One of the things I’m going to do is listen to the scientists who are providing the advice, unlike Governor McCrory,” Cooper said.
That was a dig at the Governor, who had his state epidemiologist resign this summer, after she was upset with how the administration communicated water advisories to people with well water living near storage sites.
“Particularly the underground water can never be cleaned. Surface water will clean itself or can be cleaned, but the pits themselves are a continuing hazard and the only thing we can really do with that is properly mitigate them,” Cecil said.
Cecil has never run for public office before. He is likely to receive between two and three percent of the vote, as the Libertarian candidate did in 2008 and 2012.
After working at Duke Energy for 29 years, McCrory has taken heat over how he has handled coal ash since a massive spill two and a half years ago. Still, he stands by legislative action and the decision to leave most coal ash in place.
“Well he’s right you can’t move them all because you would call more environmental damage to our state,” McCrory said.
The candidates spent an hour also discussing Hurricane Matthew relief efforts, House Bill 2 and government transparency. There was no mention of the Orange County GOP firebombing over the weekend, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
As of Wednesday morning, an aggregate of recent polls shows Cooper with a 1.3 point advantage over McCrory. That falls within the margin of error. Early voting polls open across the state Thursday morning and this race is still considered a toss-up.
Note: The photos in this post are part of a collaboration with students and faculty at the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.