CHARLOTTE, N. C. – North Carolina finds itself in the middle of a high-profile, far-reaching culture war battle, and it’s doubtful its leaders saw it coming.
Political opponents up and down the ballot take sides and issue statements, and a governor facing a tough re-election race has seen the nut-and-bolts economic issues he campaigned on as a practical moderate pushed aside as he is defined by a bill that legislates bathroom choice for transgender individuals, takes away the power of cities to enact their own nondiscrimination rules and the right to sue in state court.
The people of North Carolina can only wonder what comes next, as they sees the mantle of the more progressive Carolina usurped by its neighbor to the south, where Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has said her state has no need of its own version of House Bill 2. This despite the fact that three South Carolina cities have anti-discrimination ordinances similar to the one in Charlotte that Republican legislators insist triggered their actions. And by the way, Haley has offered a welcome mat to any business finding the North Carolina climate less than hospitable.
North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Monday doubled down on his support of House Bill 2, answering a challenge and a deadline from the Department of Justice to show the legislation is not discriminatory with a federal lawsuit against the department and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. Lynch then announced a Justice Department lawsuit against McCrory, the state department of public safety and the University of North Carolina on whether the law violates the civil rights act of 1964, with billions of dollars in federal money hanging in the balance.
Whatever your position on HB2, the bill’s shorthand name, Lynch’s comparisons of it to racist Jim Crow legislation with separate and unequal treatment for black and white is a punch to the gut for a state trying to move forward, not back. McCrory’s protestations of “blatant overreach” in turn recall 1960s era Southern leaders’ complaints that the federal government should mind its own business when it comes to all this anti-discrimination stuff.
Lynch reminded those at her press conference that she is a North Carolina native, which no doubt means an affection for the state and a recognition of its own history. She acknowledged the “human fear of the unknown” yet added that repealing HB2 was “about the dignity and respect that we accord our fellow citizens.”
McCrory called the U.S. government a “bully” for asking for action in three business days when HB2 was discussed, voted on and signed by him in less than 24 hours. There has also been a strong whiff of hypocrisy from a GOP-controlled, anti-big government Raleigh state assembly that has spent much of its time meddling in the affairs of North Carolina cities.
In the meantime, other business of the state garners hardly a mention or, it seems, the attention of legislators. There are the controversial plans to deal with toxic coal-ash pond leaks in North Carolina by covering up rather than cleaning up.
As other states poach North Carolina teachers, pay increases for them and other state employees are far from settled.
McCrory has found the time to make the rounds, from “Meet the Press” to Fox News. He had to apologize to Bruce Springsteen after, in an appearance on “The Big Show with John Boy and Billy,” McCrory said the musician canceled his Greensboro show over low ticket sales rather than as a protest over HB2. (The Boss was close to a sold-out house.) An editorial in The News & Observer criticized McCrory for his joking radio spot while the state is suffering a loss of jobs and conferences, and boycotts over the bill.
While it may be about more than politics, the fight over HB2 – in and out of the courts – has more than its share.
McCrory and the state’s defense will be led by outside counsel, prominent conservative lawyers because North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has refused, saying when it was passed that the law is unconstitutional. Cooper is also McCrory’s Democratic opponent in the November gubernatorial race.
If the thought of the dueling lawsuits -- by the state, the Justice Department and groups including the American Civil Liberties Union – is numbing, imagine the political ads that will surely blanket the state as November nears. On the national scene, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s attacks on presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump for over his nonchalant acceptance over the thought of a transgender visitor to Trump Tower being allowed bathroom choice did not work for Cruz. Will it sway a few votes in North Carolina’s gubernatorial death match and the congressional races on the ballot?
More than money and political office is at stake, though.
As a 17-year-old high school senior in 2014, Blake Brockington of Charlotte became the state’s first transgender homecoming king, cheered for his bravery and outspoken advocacy. A year later, he was dead from an apparent suicide. Josh Burford, assistant director for sexual and gender diversity at UNC Charlotte, told The Charlotte Observer. “He had passion around his work, but he wasn’t an angry or bitter person. He was just so bright. What happened to Blake is part of a systemic problem, especially for trans students of color. ... He’s a victim of what happens every single day to these kids.”
On Monday, Lynch spoke directly to North Carolina when she said of HB 2, “This law provides no benefits to society and all it does is harm innocent Americans,” something to remember when political theater threatens to devolve into a sideshow.
(Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.)