CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It doesn’t take much to re-brand a state. Ask North Carolina .
Here’s the formula: Have the general assembly call a special session to pass a law that revokes an LGBT-anti-discrimination ordinance approved by the state’s largest city — plus throw a few other restrictive goodies into the package. Then wait for the headlines that compare you unfavorably to Georgia, whose governor just vetoed a related “religious freedom” bill. You then become the headquarters for boycotts and petitions on one side and thankful prayers on the other. And, just like that, watch a once touted label as a progressive outpost in the South disappear.
Most of the talk has been about bathrooms, the part of the Charlotte ordinance that said people could use the one for the gender with which they identify. But there was much more in the bill, taking away the power of the state’s cities to enact their own rules or a minimum wage, limiting power to sue in the state over discrimination of any kind and the policy as written excludes protections for transgender individuals.
Not much is certain in this fast-moving story. But one thing is guaranteed. The North Carolina governor’s race that was already shaping up to be one of the most competitive in the country has placed two candidates on opposite sides of a clear line. It will be a test for a diverse state that has been unpredictable in recent election cycles.
Incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory owns House Bill 2, which he signed the same day it was quickly passed by the Republican state legislature. The former Charlotte mayor, who ran as a practical and moderate Republican, found a different world in the Raleigh capital, where a very conservative GOP-dominated legislature, strengthened and emboldened after redistricting, led, not followed. After same-sex marriage was legalized, McCrory vetoed a bill that would exempt magistrates and state employees whose religious beliefs forbade them from presiding at such; his veto was easily overturned. (That bill is now the subject of lawsuits.)
However, McCrory fully supports House Bill 2. After the bad publicity and petitions by major companies and organizations including Google, Apple and the banking pillars of Bank of America and Wells Fargo, McCrory has gone into a defensive crouch, blaming the LGBT lobby, the media and political correctness. He didn’t do himself any favors when he said he was blindsided by a question on how the law would affect a city’s housing discrimination rules. But he did release a video that clarifies not much at all. He has met with leaders of Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina who delivered a petition with signatures of more than 100 businesses opposing the law.
In November, McCrory’s Democratic opponent will be none other than the state’s attorney general Roy Cooper, who called the law a “national embarrassment” and refused to defend it in court. Posturing? Sure. But while in the past he has defended the state against lawsuits over bills he disagrees with — for example, voting restrictions — Cooper has said House Bill 2 is unconstitutional and contradicts policies in his own and other state offices.
Republicans have called on him to resign, which he won’t since he was elected. And since they made those pesky exceptions to state law for those tasked with performing same-sex marriages, there is a strong whiff of hypocrisy. (If Cooper said he has religious objections to House Bill 2, what could they say?)
In some ways, the split in the national Republican Party between business-oriented and social conservatives has filtered into states across the country, with North Carolina being the latest battleground.
Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts has only been in office a few months, and surely did not think this would be taking up her time. North Carolina is “not a one-size-fits-all” state, Roberts said in an interview. Why, she asked, is the state imposing its rules on local governments? Something it’s been doing for a while. She said a group of the state’s Metro Mayors of all parties agree that it’s a bad trend. City protections for different groups, including veterans, and some local ordinances will be “wiped out,” Roberts said, overriding citizens’ interests and desires. “Do these voters not count?”
Roberts, who said she’s never seen something passed so quickly and with this much secrecy, said she texted McCrory to “please wait several days” before signing, but got no response.
“Both sides think they have motivated their bases,” she said.
And there you have it.
Prayer vigils in Raleigh and across the state have supported House Bill 2. The North Carolina Values Coalition is standing behind the governor and what it calls “common sense” legislation, opposing Cooper and asking those who share their values to donate.
“Predictably, the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and Equality NC have filed yet another frivolous lawsuit on behalf of two transgendered people, a lesbian college professor and themselves challenging HB2 on grounds it is unconstitutional. This comes as no surprise,” the group says in an email.
But as the campaign begins, or never ends, there is something else to consider. While the fight is political, economic and cultural, the human beings whose daily lives are affected also want those in North Carolina and beyond to remember that it’s personal.
Charlie Comero, a 35-year-old operations manager in Charlotte, who does not want to break the law, carries a card that he hands to confused women he encounters in public bathrooms, including the one in the Charlotte government center where he recently met with press. “I’m a transgender man who would rather be using the men’s room right now,” it reads. “This is likely uncomfortable for both of us. Please contact your legislator and tell them you oppose HB2.” He said that he wants people to have curiosity, and educate themselves about what being transgender means.
“We are not your target,” said Erica Lachowitz, a transgender woman and member of the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce . “We’re a part of this community.”
City council member LaWana Mayfield returned to the words she hoped citizens and those who visit will always think about her state and city — “stable, smart and strong.” Mayfield, the first openly gay person to serve on the council, called the passage of House Bill 2 a “decision based on hate and fear.”
“A diverse community is a much stronger community.”
House Bill 2 ensures the world will be watching as North Carolina decides and defines its future. Or maybe citizens will just get tired of the legislature spending time and money passing laws it gets sued over.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK, who has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, Politics Daily and as a contributor to The Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for The OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her at @mcurtisnc3.
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.