CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Immersed in an intense re-election campaign and besieged for a law about transgender people and restrooms, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory answered questions last week before Charlotte’s small business community. The written questions were supposedly from audience members and a newspaper.
“Anything you like. No filter here,” McCrory told the event moderator at the start of the Q-and-A, according to The Charlotte Observer.
Turns out, the three questions identified as from the Observer actually came from McCrory’s campaign. The newspaper knew nothing about them. The planted questions generally were favorable to the Republican incumbent and opened the door for him to criticize his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten attended the event and said Tuesday after hearing the first question, “I knew that hadn’t come from me.” Later, two other Observer reporters who were there told him the same thing, raising suspicions about the questions.
When Batten did try to ask a question, McCrory responded: “We’ve got three Observer questions answered already. I think you guys dominate the news enough.” The governor moved on.
McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz acknowledged to the Observer the campaign provided questions because he said “we were asked to in order to keep the conversation format going.”
The head of the group that hosted the event disputed that account. Jenn Snyder, executive director of the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club, told the newspaper she expected McCrory to take live audience questions. She said his campaign insisted on a format that included questions of its own.
Diaz declined comment Tuesday at an event in Charlotte, where he helped escort McCrory out without taking questions. In a statement later Tuesday, Diaz disparaged a column Batten wrote about the questions.
During the event a week ago, the crowd wasn’t told some questions had come from the campaign, and it’s not clear exactly how the campaign’s questions became attributed to the newspaper.
Any question falsely attributed to the Observer was a mistake, event moderator Ken Gill said in a statement released Tuesday through McCrory’s campaign.
Gill said it was the campaign that was asked to provide “sample questions to help me prepare to moderate the discussion and move the Q-and-A format along if there were no audience questions.”
Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, said it’s fair for a governor or his staff to suggest certain questions for a moderator, as long as people know where those questions originate.
“The part that is disturbing and very important for all to understand is the sources of those questions should be transparent — completely transparent — so that people know where the questions are coming from and what the agenda behind those questions might be,” Sesno said Tuesday.
Injecting pre-fabricated questions is somewhat surprising for a governor who has been more comfortable than his predecessors in town hall-style formats. The event also was in his hometown, where he was a popular mayor for 14 years.
His standing at home has taken a hit during his four-year term, with critics saying he’s not the moderate he once was. He has signed several bills written by a conservative General Assembly, in particular House Bill 2.
That measure limits anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and directs transgender people to use the bathroom and restroom at schools and government buildings that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate. He has been the most high-profile defender of the law.
McCrory was feeling the heat acutely last Thursday: the Atlantic Coast Conference had announced the day before that it would take 10 championship events away from North Carolina venues because of the law, including the lucrative ACC football title game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
Robertson reported from Raleigh.