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“Is HB2 the worst self-inflicted wound in the history of North Carolina politics?”

That’s what a young whippersnapper asked at breakfast the other day. (When you’re my age, you get a lot of questions about history.)

I couldn’t think of a worse one.

Terry Sanford’s food tax? It hurt him politically, but Sanford didn’t push for the food tax because he thought it was popular. He knew it wasn’t popular, but he thought it was right.

Republicans thought HB2 would be popular.


The Speaker Ban Law, maybe. But nobody lost an election over it, as best I recall. The ban was repealed because it was hurting North Carolina.

HB2 is doing worse damage to North Carolina, and that’s why it’s doing so much political damage to Governor McCrory and the legislators who supported it, especially those who are beating a hasty retreat weeks before the election.

Suddenly, they want to “stop playing politics.” After playing politics with the issue since April.

They say they want to “revisit” HB2 and “replace” it with something “just about bathrooms.”

No. They just need to get out of the bathrooms. There is no problem that needs solving here. It’s illegal now for men to go into a women’s bathroom (or men’s, for that matter) and peep or harass or molest or assault somebody.

HB2 was about politics from the beginning. Republicans thought they could gin up a wedge issue. They did. But they got caught on the wrong side of the wedge.

They thought they could use a vulnerable group of people as a political target. It backfired.


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Another police shooting of a black man. Another city ripped by unrest, protests and, the media says, “riots.”

This time it’s Charlotte. This time Charlotte is in the news for something other than bathrooms.

Carter’s blog on this, by the way, is thoughtful and insightful. I commend it to you.

So often in cases like this, the people we know take the positions we can predict. But there are two sides here.

As a white man, I can see it through the eyes of a police officer who is trying to enforce the law and is constantly alert to threats.

I also can see it as if I were a black man with a young son. I’d worry every day about what would happen if he encounters a police officer. Or if I did.

I have enormous respect for the difficult jobs – and the dangers – that police officers face every day. I have a brother and sister-in-law who were officers.

But we give police officers enormous powers. They carry guns. They are empowered to shoot to kill.

That’s a power that demands tight oversight. Because police officers aren’t perfect, and they aren’t free from bias and prejudice.

This inevitably becomes political: What will be the impact on the elections?

I don’t know. But I do know that our state, our nation and our society need leaders who build bridges, not walls. Leaders who bring us together, not drive us farther apart.


Posted in: General, Issues
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Yesterday two reporters asked me if the riots in Charlotte were going to have a ‘political impact.’  On the radio, while driving to work, I’d heard about the riots but hadn’t read any news reports and didn’t know the answer—then last night at home I turned on the television and the second night of riots was on every news channel.

This morning another reporter called and said, The Trump people are saying the riots will help Trump. Do you agree?

After watching television last night, I had no doubt the Charlotte riots will have, as Donald Trump would say, a huge impact on political campaigns in North Carolina.  But how they change Governor McCrory’s race against Roy Cooper, or Donald Trump’s against Hillary Clinton, will depend on each candidate’s judgement.

I can’t recall the last time we had riots and looting North Carolina, so this morning I’m sitting here wondering, Why did this happen?

Voters – or, more precisely, swing voters – are going to want to know the answer to that question and they’re going to watch what the Governor says and does, compare it to what Roy Cooper says and does, and decide who has sound judgment.

The same is true of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. If Mr. Trump speaks with judgment instead of political hyperbole – well, judgment matters right now. On the other hand, if Trump pours gas on the fire – that will matter too.

The same standard will apply, even more, to Governor McCrory and Roy Cooper.

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Pat McCrory acts like the Queen City has become Queer City.

Now, the city that made him may break him. He got elected because he had a reputation as a moderate, pragmatic, pro-business Mayor of Charlotte. He may lose reelection because he has a reputation now as a gay-bashing, bathroom-obsessed, bad-for-business Governor.

He won in 2012 because he won big margins in Charlotte and its media market. He may lose in 2016 because his embrace of HB2 chases away thousands of those voters.

It’s a product of a fundamental divide in the Republican Party, one McCrory never figured out how to bridge.

It’s Trump vs Romney/Bush/Establishment. It’s Megachurches vs Megabusiness. It’s City Mouse vs Country Mouse. It’s Charlotte vs Kings Mountain and Eden.

Unfortunately for McCrory, Kings Mountain, Eden & Co. control the legislature. They’ve gerrymandered themselves into a belief they’re bulletproof. He has never figured out how to handle them. And now he’s paying the price.


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One poll question asked, Should transgender men be allowed to use women’s bathrooms? and another question asked, Do you support HB2?  and the answer to both questions was ‘No’ which sounds like a contradiction but isn’t: It’s a paradox – a case of voters saying to Republicans, We agree with what you set out to do but don’t agree with the way you tried to do it.

When Charlotte passed its law to let transgender men use women’s bathrooms the Republicans in the General Assembly said ‘No way’ and passed HB2, then said allowing gay and transgender men to use women’s bathrooms meant letting sexual predators and child molesters into women’s bathrooms.

Democrats shot back saying equating gays with sexual predators was unfair and, suddenly, the debate was no longer about who used what bathroom – it was Democrats slamming Republicans for being ‘unfair’ and ‘discriminating’ and voters hearing Republicans shoot back saying unkind things about gays that sounded like they might not blink twice at a little unfairness.

It turned out we Republicans had shot our own foot off; now everyone from the NCAA to the ACC to Coach K opposes HB2 and the newspapers are running stories about Republican legislators striking the flag which is bound to be tempting to a lot of politicians – expediency has a way of triumphing over principle seven weeks before an election. But turning back the hands of the clock (by repealing HB2) won’t wipe away people’s memories of all that’s been said and done over the past six months.

Republicans didn’t lose the debate over HB2 because voters supported Charlotte’s ordinance – Republicans lost because of how they fought Charlotte’s ordinance and that’s a mistake we have to fix. Only then will Republicans be able to effectively make a case that transgender men using women’s restrooms isn’t a good idea.

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Dan Kane’s N&O series this week (“Carolina’s Blind Side”) shows anew that UNC leaders never learned The First Rule of Crisis PR.

The rule: It’s the crisis. Not the PR.

When you think it’s the PR, you ask, “How do we put this behind us?”

When you recognize it’s the crisis, you ask, “What the hell is going on here? And how do we fix it?”

UNC leaders kept asking the first question. They tried to put it behind them. Now, it’s in front of them, behind them, on both sides of them and on top of them.

And there’s no end in sight.

They should have asked: What would Bill Friday do? Bill Friday would figure out what the problem was, and he would fix it. He would depend on his own sense of right and wrong – and a trusted advisor, veteran newsman Jay Jenkins (father of the N&O’s Jim).

Friday would do what was right. And the PR would take care of itself.

Kane’s series raises another good PR rule: Don’t call somebody an “asshole” in an email.

Or you may see it reprinted in the newspaper.


Posted in: General
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Carter and I were interviewed by The Charlotte Observer Monday about the election outlook. So, instead of having to organize our thoughts and actually write something, we’ll just post the following story by the Observer’s editorial board, “50 days out, here’s what political experts think (and predict!) about N.C.’s biggest races”:

We’re less than 50 days out. Seven Tuesdays away. No matter which milepost you choose, one thing is certain: North Carolina’s biggest races are also close races. The presidential race here is deadlocked. The U.S. Senate race might be. The race for governor is as volatile as the issue most affecting it, HB2.

What’s ahead in these last seven weeks? To help answer that, we’re happy to bring back two veteran N.C. political strategists, Republican Carter Wrenn and Democrat Gary Pearce. Wrenn and Pearce wrote popular columns for the Observer on the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer. We’ll be checking in with them as the election approaches for their insight – and yes, predictions – on North Carolina.

Q. An HB2 compromise might have been scuttled Monday morning when Charlotte’s mayor said the issue wouldn’t appear on the City Council agenda. If a compromise had happened, would it have been a gamechanger in North Carolina races?

Wrenn: I don’t think you can turn back the hands of the clock. What they’re talking about is they repeal theirs and we’ll repeal ours, and we go back to where we were a year ago. But that doesn’t eliminate everything that’s happened in the past year. It doesn’t significantly have a political impact.

Republicans have taken a hit. That won’t just vanish.

Pearce: It’s a very desperate act from Republicans, and what it tells you is they’re really seeing damage. It’s clearly hurt McCrory, and now you can tell from what the legislators are saying that it’s really hurt them in these swing districts.

It would be the best thing that could possibly happen to the Democrats this year. That would mean the legislature would come back and thrash around. You’d have the Democrats standing pretty strong, because they know the politics of it. Republicans would be split. It would be a city mouse/country mouse kind of split.

It’s one of those things the longer it’s in the news and it’s talked about, the more it hurts Republicans. (The governor) most of all, really.

Q. Republicans have worried for months that Donald Trump might be a drag on state-level races. But Pat McCrory is doing worse in some North Carolina polls. Could the governor be a drag on Trump?

Pearce: I don’t know that it’s a drag on him. It seems to me more that there are just two separate dynamics going on in those races. If there’s an impact, it’s more likely in the Senate race, and that’s hard to figure. There might be some Republicans and some independents who say, “Well, I’m not going to vote for Trump, but I don’t want to vote for both a Democrat for president and Democrat for Senate.” So it’s hard to say how that will quite play out.

Wrenn: It’s two different dynamics. Trump and the presidential race are on a plane of its own. The down-ballot races aren’t going to affect how people vote for president.

Now if Trump loses the state, McCrory can compound that problem down-ballot in Council of State and State House races.

Q. Will the explosion in New York and bombs found in New Jersey on Sunday have a real impact for voters in North Carolina? 

Wrenn: I think it will. I saw a poll last week that asked “What issues concern you and your family the most?” Terrorism was No. 1 in this poll, and that’s a big change from a year ago. I think this will drive that up even more so that it will become bigger not just in New York, but in the whole country.

What people are going to do now is they’re going to watch Trump and Clinton and judge their reaction to the attack, and that’ll affect how people vote.

Pearce: You could see people liking Trump’s tough talk, or they might say Trump’s a loose cannon who could make everything worse and blow it all up. I think what it really shows is how much impact – Carter calls them “acts of God” – how much they have on a campaign. The classic example up to now was Hillary’s pneumonia.  

I have developed a theory that the really important dynamic in the campaigns this year is that if you’re in the news, you lose. It’s such a negative environment, and the more you’re in the news and you lead the news, the more you lose in the polls.

Q. OK, prediction time. If the election were held today, what would happen?

Pearce: In North Carolina, I think Hillary will win because of her ground game, and I think after the debate she’s going to pick back up in the polls. Ross and Burr is too close to call, but as a good Democrat I’ll call it for Ross.

I think Cooper is going to win. I think that’s – I don’t want to ever say locked in, but he’s really a solid favorite. I think he’s at the point that you got a good lead in the last couple minutes of a game and now you just got to make your foul shots.

Wrenn: The presidential race has kind of been frozen in North Carolina for a couple of months. Nobody knows what the undecideds are going to do. There’s about 12 percent undecided. You don’t know if they’re going to break Hillary or break Trump or not vote.

(In the governor’s race), you have a different dynamic. McCrory’s very well known and Cooper’s not as well known, but as he becomes better known he’s tended to pick up votes.

The polls I’m seeing indicate Clinton would win the presidential race, Cooper will win the governor’s race, and Burr will win the Senate race.

Q. You think those will hold?

No telling. Would I want to predict that’s how it ends up? No.


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The Washington Post recently published an article headlined: ‘Megalomaniac’ Trump vs ‘deceitful’ Clinton: How Virginia voters see the presidential race.

The Post reported, according to a focus group of thirty undecided voters Donald Trump is “phony,” “crazy,” “arrogant,” “dumb,” “bigoted,” “self-centered,” and a “charlatan.”

Hillary, the voters said, is “old,” “deceitful,” “a liar” and “slimy.” One woman called Hillary ‘a man eater.’

Another woman said, ‘Trump’s brain is a bag of cats, and it’s a crapshoot what Trump you’re going to get.’

The frustration rings true. But can thirty voters really tell us how five million Virginia voters see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?


To be reliable a poll in Virginia must survey hundreds of people – and, even then, the poll’s only statistically accurate within three or four percentage points. Statistically, a focus group of thirty people has no validity at all. It’s simply the Washington Post reporting the opinions of thirty people – a fact the Post never pointed out.

Focus Groups make great TV. Republican Frank Luntz has created a mini-career doing focus groups on Fox News. But next time you hear a reporter say, We interviewed thirty people and now we know what voters think – take it with a grain of salt.

Remember, if it’s right it’s only due to blind chance.

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Here’s the harsh reality of 2016 politics, as demonstrated by Hillary Clinton last week and Pat McCrory over the past many weeks: If you lead the news, you lose in the polls.

You’re news, you lose.

In an angry, negative political environment, more media attention translates directly into more negative feelings from voters.

The ongoing HB2 controversy – business losses, NCAA losses, ACC losses – upended the governor’s race. It has dominated all North Carolina political news. And McCrory has gone from leading to losing to Roy Cooper.

Democrats should wish Republicans would call a special legislative session on HB2. By the time legislators finish thrashing around, McCrory would be down by double digits and Republican seats at risk would be up to double digits.

The same thing has happened in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton took a solid lead after the Democratic convention, when media coverage focused on Trump attacking the Khan family, plus his other outlandish statements.

The media, of course, eventually tied of writing Hillary-is-winning stories. So Hillary gave them a chance to change the “narrative” when she called Trump voters “deplorables,” nearly collapsed after a 9/11 event and withheld news of her pneumonia.

That dominated the news last week and, sure enough, the race got closer.

Maybe everybody just needs to shut up.


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Pat McCrory just got slam-dunked by the ACC. His teammates are starting to switch sides. Tamara Barringer was the first legislator to undergo a deathbed conversion. More will surely follow.

But a long-time veteran of the legislative sausage-making machine doesn’t expect much from the Jones Street crowd:

“The latest HB2 shame on North Carolina will be apocalyptic for Republican legislative leaders, but they won’t act.

“They don’t care what the NCAA thinks, because nobody from the NCAA lives in a doublewide in their rural legislative districts or attends one of the local snake-handling tent revivals. The Greensboro Coliseum isn’t in the districts of Phil Berger or Tim Moore, so why should they care? The NBA is black. Entertainers are gay. That’s the apparent attitude of Berger and Moore.

“In a state of 10 million people, Berger got elected last time by 40,000 of them. Moore got 15,000 votes and only needed 1 because he had no opponent. Less than one half of one percent of the state’s population elected these guys. They are not statewide leaders. These are small-time, isolated bumpkins who have their heads so buried in the red clay of their districts’ dirt roads that they are incapable of leading a large sophisticated state.

“So, expect no action from these heroes, even though the state’s actual thought leaders are unanimous in their screams to fix the HB2 disgrace.

“There’s a bright side: the GOP brain trust’s inflexibility on HB2 will speed their demise and hasten their replacement with leaders who care about more than the dusty, dark corners of the backwoods where bigots fear enlightenment, tolerance and good sense.”

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Carter & Gary
Carter Wrenn
Gary Pearce
The Charlotte Observer says: “Carter Wrenn and Gary Pearce don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But they both love North Carolina and know its politics inside and out.”
Carter is a Republican. 
Gary is a Democrat.
They met in 1984, during the epic U.S. Senate battle between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt. Carter worked for Helms and Gary, for Hunt.
Years later, they became friends. They even worked together on some nonpolitical clients.
They enjoy talking about politics. So they started this blog in 2005. 
They’re still talking. And they invite you to join the conversation.
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