CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For Pat McCrory, it was a triumphant but sentimental return.
North Carolina’s new governor returned Wednesday to the place his political career began, and to a warm reception from people who’d been a part of it.
“If you want to continue to call me ‘Mayor Pat,’ that’s fine with me,” he told around 300 mostly familiar faces in the lobby of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
The visit ended a whirlwind tour of four cities for the former Charlotte mayor that he sandwiched between last weekend’s swearing-in and Saturday’s inauguration.
“This is a week of celebration,” McCrory said. “And one thing I’ve realized is that you can’t just listen to the people inside the beltline of Raleigh.”
As he has elsewhere, he met separately in Charlotte with local officials. In the same room he convened city council workshops for 14 years, he spoke to nearly 100 elected officials and community leaders from Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
In a give-and-take session that lasted about 45 minutes, he said he backed state support for Charlotte’s light rail extension, listened to judges concerned about the loss of state drug courts and expressed support for as much local government control as possible.
He empathized with officials like Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray who complained about a lack of state funding.
“Nothing’s changed,” McCrory said. “I remember that from 15, 20 years ago.”
As if reciting a mantra, he made it clear that at least for now he can offer little more than sympathy.
“There is no new money that’s going to come out of the sky,” he repeated more than once. “We’ve got to work with what we have and do it better.”
Won’t comment on Medicaid
It was McCrory’s effort to reach out that appeared to please some officials.
“Hopefully we have someone who understands the urban issues a city like Charlotte faces,” said Mayor Anthony Foxx. “The major thing you want with a governor is a relationship. And Pat and I have one that’s baked in.”
McCrory declined to wade into an issue posing a particular headache for Mecklenburg County: Medicaid.
The state has decided to transfer responsibilities for the county’s Medicaid money for mental health services to a private agency. At stake is oversight of $235 million in federal, state and county money. Mecklenburg commissioners voted Tuesday to fight the state’s decision.
McCrory said the possible lawsuit prevented him from discussing the issue.
“We look forward to an ongoing dialog especially with county officials,” he said.
The visit marked McCrory’s first visit to the government center since leaving office for the last time in December 2009. More than once he waxed nostalgic.
As he was led to the second-floor governor’s office that he helped open in 2009, he said, “I cut the ribbon for Gov. (Bev) Perdue.”
Spotting Police Chief Rodney Monroe, he interrupted a media interview.
“Call the police – call the damn police will you,” he joked before greeting the chief he’d helped hire.
“How’s your golf game?” he asked him.
Group protests fundraising
Before the reception, a small group of protesters gathered across the street in Marshall Park with signs such as “Access for Sale.” Spokesman Justin Guillory said while McCrory campaigned as a reformer, he’d brought a “culture of pay-to-play.”
He cited in particular a new group called the Foundation for North Carolina. The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that the foundation is wooing donors with a chance to rub elbows with the new governor along with special memberships for $25,000 and $50,000.
“I made no commitment to access to any particular group,” McCrory later told a reporter. “I’m giving access all day today and all week.”
Speaking to supporters in the lobby, McCrory gave a shoutout to his predecessor as mayor, Republican Richard Vinroot, who also ran for governor.
And one of the people who shared a stage with McCrory was the last Republican governor, Jim Martin, who appeared happy with the opportunity.
Said Martin: “I never got to introduce a real governor before.”