To say he grew a pair might be putting it a bit strong. But last week, Gov. Pat McCrory rebelled for the first time against some of the more extremist measures being advanced in the General Assembly: a Senate budget that raises taxes on poor people and a bill that would renege on a contract regarding Dorothea Dix Park with the City of Raleigh.

Prior to this, McCrory had seemed content to be a fair-weather governor, giving little direction to the Legislature and rubberstamping the bills that crossed his desk.

As mayor of Charlotte, where he pioneered a tax increase to pay for better public transit, McCrory was a moderate Republican. But when he arrived in Raleigh this winter, that history collided with the current political reality: a Republican-controlled Legislature intent on making government small enough to drown in a bathtub.

The prevailing tea party winds are testing McCrory’s political integrity: Is he really a moderate or will he govern to the times?

No matter how committed McCrory is to moderate values, the Republican majorities in both houses are so large that they can override his veto, which nullifies the most significant leverage of his office. And yet McCrory did some big talking during his State of the State address in February.

“I already know that during my short tenure here, I’ve already stepped on some toes on both the left and the right,” he said, staring down the gathered legislators with squinted eyes. But that was news to most.

By the time he delivered that speech, McCrory had already signaled approval of bills that would slash unemployment benefits and another that denied the extension of Medicaid to 500,000 low-income North Carolinians. Several Republican governors across the country have supported Medicaid expansion.

The clash of values seemed settled.

But early last week, McCrory presented a laundry list of things he disliked about the Senate budget. Among the undesirables were cuts to pre-kindergarten, failing to compensate eugenics victims and eliminating routine legal services and funding for drug courts.

“It was a very positive move to see him come out as what we thought he would be, which is moderate, and speaking out as a leader,” said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange County. “I’m very encouraged by that.”

Then later in the week, McCrory joined forces with Raleigh’s Democratic mayor, Nancy McFarlane, to find a way to turn Dorothea Dix campus into a public city park. McFarlane had already signed a 75-year lease on the state-owned park with former Gov. Bev Perdue, but the Senate introduced a bill that would immediately revoke the lease.

McCrory didn’t ask for the bill to be squashed altogether. But he said he wanted an additional year to re-negotiate the lease, and he included the possibility of throwing the Governor Morehead School campus into the deal.

Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, barely contained his contempt in a press release: “This proposed agreement delays doing the right thing until 2014why not do the right thing today?”

“The purpose of the Senate’s bill was to put the state on equal negotiating footing with the City of Raleigh,” Berger went on. “Instead the executive branch has ceded more ground.”

Picturing the affable McCrory as someone unafraid to offend is a pleasant notion, but it’s hardly the reality, says Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer.

“With the overwhelming numbers in the Legislature, the governor really can’t go that far against his own base and his own party,” Bitzer said, “because they can simply override him, and that would be a big sign of weakness.”

By stepping out on Dix and the Senate budget, McCrory seems to be picking small battles that he might actually win. Even in his budget press release, which mentioned seven points of dissatisfaction, McCrory kowtowed: “We are very pleased the Senate’s budget proposal aligns with some of our major priorities,” he said.

A true litmus test of McCrory’s resolve will be whether he vetoes a budget he doesn’t like, as former Gov. Bev Perdue did two years ago. It would be nice to know where McCrory’s mind is on that count, but his office refused to schedule an interview with INDY Week, despite a request five days prior to press time.

“I think he wants to work with the House to undo this budget,” said Sen. Kinnaird. “Right now, that’s our only hope.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “McCrory, the moderate?”