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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

The McCrory Identity: a political story that might have come to its end

Pat McCrory
Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is seen in a file photo.

The polls closed in North Carolina at 7:30 on election night. Seventeen minutes later, The Associated Press made the call: Pat McCrory had lost his bid for the U.S. Senate. His supporters, gathered at Selwyn Pub in Charlotte, hadn’t finished their first beers before they suddenly needed a second.

McCrory gave a concession speech where he compared himself to Jason Bourne, the fictional spy who suffers from amnesia and doesn’t know where he belongs.

It’s an accurate description. Just maybe not the way McCrory thinks it is. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t know where he belongs. The problem is that nobody knows his real identity.

For 20 years in Charlotte politics — three terms on City Council then seven terms as mayor — it seemed clear who McCrory was: a moderate Republican whose main goal was getting deals done. He got the new arena built despite a voter referendum that said no. He got our light rail system launched despite opposition to the cost. Not everybody loved him, but he had a reputation as someone willing to work with all sides.

In 2008, he ran for governor. And for the first time in his political life, he got beat. So he aligned himself with Art Pope, the dark artist behind North Carolina’s conservative movement. Pope helped him win the governor’s race in 2012.

When McCrory took office, he veered right: cutting unemployment benefits, opting out of expanded Medicare coverage for North Carolinians and putting new restrictions on voting rights. He also signed what the world now knows as the "bathroom bill," which not only forced transgender people to use bathrooms of their birth-assigned gender in government buildings but also rolled back other antidiscrimination protections. In recent campaign ads, he called himself the most conservative governor in North Carolina history.

Unfortunately for him, he also ticked off a lot of conservatives around Charlotte by allowing Interstate 77 north of the city to become a toll road. So, in 2016, he narrowly lost his reelection bid to Democrat Roy Cooper.

This time around, in his Senate run, he tried to straddle Donald Trump, which has to be as unpleasant as it sounds. McCrory spoke at Trump rallies in 2016 and said last year that he supported “almost all” of Trump’s policies. But he refused to repeat the "big lie" that Trump was cheated out of the 2020 election. Trump endorsed McCrory’s opponent, Ted Budd. The conservative Club for Growth put out a brutal attack ad. And that was that.

Part of me feels sorry for McCrory — and for North Carolina. He would’ve been a better senator than Ted Budd. It’s hard to win as a Republican in the South these days unless you go full MAGA. McCrory, to his credit, didn’t.

But it’s hard to tell at this point whether he was sharing his true heart or calculating what he thought would win the race. In those Jason Bourne movies he was talking about, there’s always a scene when Bourne opens the safe-deposit box and sifts through a bunch of fake passports, trying to decide who he needs to be in the moment.

Those movies are pretty powerful. In the end, they’re about a decent man who lost himself.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section at wfae.org. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.