Incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory and his challenger Democrat Roy Cooper appeared together on stage for the first time in their heated race for the Governorship.
The two are locked in the nation’s tightest gubernatorial contest and each was quick to criticize his opponent during the hour-long forum in Charlotte on Friday.
The two met inside the same hotel ballroom at the Westin Hotel where four years ago McCrory delivered his acceptance speech and talked about the Carolina Comeback, surrounded by red balloons and supporters.
At today’s event, sponsored by the North Carolina Bar Association, the crowd was noticeably different.
Moderator Gerald Owens of WRAL opened the event with a question for Governor McCrory.
"You get the first question," said Owens. "You’re the incumbent. This is your home town. This is a home game for you."
McCrory responded, with a laugh: "I don’t think so…I don’t know if you’ve seen the amount of money [Cooper] has raised from trial lawyers. This is not my home crowd. But I’m honored to be here."
McCrory was a seven-term mayor of Charlotte and still has a home in the city. But the loudest applause at the event came for Cooper.
As re-election campaigns go, this one isn’t routine. McCrory has been out-fundraised by Cooper, faces national criticism over House Bill 2 and has at times clashed with leading members of his own party in the General Assembly.
But McCrory pointed out unemployment is down and the state has had a budget surplus for two consecutive years.
"Now is not the time to take the state back to the good old boy system, raisin’ taxes, having inefficient government, and high unemployment and no teacher pay raises," McCrory said.
At least twice during the debate, McCrory pointed directly at Cooper when he uttered the phrase "good old boy system."
Cooper is from Nash County. He’s a former legislator who has served as Attorney General for the past 15 years. Cooper said decreased unemployment is part of a national trend, and the state surplus has more to do with something else.
"Governor McCrory has increased taxes in 65 different ways – literally from birth to death—and a lot in between, during the time that he has been governor," Cooper said.
Along with taxes, the two candidates also debated guns, transportation, opioid addiction and, briefly, House Bill 2.
Cooper reiterated his call to repeal of the controversial measure, while McCrory slightly shifted his rhetoric on the debate. He didn’t use the words "safety" or "common sense" as he has before in defending HB2, but instead positioned himself as being against government serving as the politically-correct police. The two also received a question from the media panel about education.
Cooper answered first.
"Let’s just say you had a son or daughter who graduated from college – they told you they wanted to be a teacher. Would you encourage them to teach in North Carolina, or go to one of the other 40 states where they can make more money? I'd tell them to teach right here in North Carolina – because hold on I’m coming," Cooper said.
"You better watch out, he’s been there for 28 years. And during the past decade before I came into office, with no objection from him whatsoever under the leadership of Governor [Bev] Perdue and Governor [Mike] Easely, which he forgets they were in office under his support - our teacher pay ranking from 17th to 48th in the United States of America," McCrory said.
The incumbent was on the defensive listing enemies – perceived or real – in the media, local and state governments.
McCrory harped on one theme in particular: how broken the state was – from education to transportation to Medicaid – when he took office. He said North Carolina is now more competitive in economic recruitment, has improved teacher pay, and has a better tax code. And he questioned Cooper’s integrity.
"We don’t need a governor who says one thing in front of one audience and another thing in front of this audience. I say the exact same message in front of every audience," McCrory said.
In some ways, McCrory is running this campaign like a challenger calling for many more debates, portraying Cooper as the establishment candidate and criticizing the media. But Cooper tried to keep the focus on the incumbent’s record.
"I think Governor McCrory has failed us," Cooper said. “He has put his extreme, social, partisan agenda ahead of jobs and schools."
The candidates plan to debate again, although it's unclear when or how many more times.