It was the perfect Charlotte fall day: lots of sunshine, no humidity and a civic event. After months of construction and low-level grumbling from put-upon business owners, Elizabeth Avenue was about to officially open.
It was the kind of day especially beloved by one man who has come to mean Charlotte. Tieless and smiling, he opened the morning's festivities: "I'm Pat McCrory, mayor of the city of Charlotte."
Pat McCrory loves being mayor. When anything happens in Charlotte -- and I mean anything -- he's there. Follow his schedule and there's no way you'd believe that it's a part-time job. McCrory is a character in the story known as "New South City on the Rise," and in 14 years, he's developed his own way to play it.
An August New Yorker profile of New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: "After seven and a half years in office, Bloomberg, who is now sixty-seven, has amassed so much power and respect that he seems more a Medici than a mayor." An illustrated crown floats over his head.
Charlotte is not New York and McCrory is no Bloomberg. Medici? Hardly. "From Mayberry to Metropolis" is the speech Pat McCrory gives on his "process of decision-making." It's the name of a book he says he may write after the November election and the new mayor's swearing-in. After seven terms, the only mayor that many Charlotteans have ever known is stepping down. He's vanquished many who underestimated him. But in a November 2008 bid for governor, timing was not on his side. Beverly Perdue -- propelled by the Democratic surge in voter registration and funds that carried Barack Obama over the top in North Carolina -- narrowly slid into the governor's office, with McCrory losing even his beloved city, a disappointment he still feels. (The night before the election, Obama made a last stop at a big rally at UNCC, "the campus I supported," McCrory said ruefully. "I was probably in Kinston.")
In his 15th floor office in the government building, McCrory -- who is staying till the end of his term, unlike Sarah Palin, whom he criticized for opting out early -- talked about his high and low points with self-awareness about what it means to be "Mayor Pat."
"It started with kids, and I never asked for that," he said. "I think it was because my last name was hard to pronounce. Now it's evolved so that everyone calls me Mayor Pat, including news anchors.
"I used to be worried that it was a putdown," he said. "But on the street, people scream at me -- 'Mayor Pat' -- all the time.
"I've accepted it as a compliment," he said. "I take it as a sign that maybe they feel a closeness."
It's hardly the moniker of a 53-year-old grown-up. McCrory knows it; he accepts it. "You learn from others, but you have to be yourself. Following Richard Vinroot -- he looked like a mayor -- tall and articulate and smart. But I also knew I couldn't replicate him or Sue [Myrick] or Harvey Gantt -- we all have to establish our own style."
But sometimes he feels misunderstood, bristling at the perception that the downside to likable is lightweight, that his "outwardly perception of being the advocate, the cheerleader" is all there is.
He remembers the slights -- the newspapers, cartoons and letters to the editors. "It can get pretty cruel," McCrory said. "Creative Loafing, they hate me." But "it doesn't impact me as much as it used to," he said. "Most people aren't paying attention; most people are living their own lives.
"When I get involved in an issue, I go very in-depth. That would surprise most people.
"The openings and the events are the conclusion of a lot of work," he said, laughing at the notion that he even has to explain it. "A lot of times the only things that people see are the ribbon cuttings and the shovel-digging of the hole at the construction site. But usually it's a year of work in advance of that occurring."
McCrory sees the mayor's job as building relationships with regional, state, national and international government, selling the city, selling the assets and closing the sale. "I travel a lot more than people realize," he said, "looking for potential employers," mostly under the radar screen.
I'm not sure that anyone would describe McCrory as being under any screen, though he does have a gift for off-loading controversy when the situation calls for it (see downtown arena and Lynn Wheeler). His stream-of-consciousness affability can be cringe-worthy. (I recall a 2004 George Bush campaign rally with McCrory as the comic relief, cracking jokes while Elizabeth Dole got to be the serious one.) But it's worked for him. McCrory said he never expected to run for mayor and, once he got elected, never intended to stay so long. Yet, here he is, 14 years later, everywhere at once and still finding time to write an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal on the economic stimulus package and touting a Southeast "megaregion" with the mayor of Atlanta. He said the mayor should have more decision-making authority on hiring the chief operating officer of the city. But most people inside and outside Charlotte probably think he's already in charge of it all.