The North Carolina Republican leadership could be forgiven if it thought the HB2 issue would be the political equivalent of a basketball layup.
Although North Carolina is forward thinking in many ways, the state has a conservative streak as wide as the Pamlico Sound. When faced with the prospect of social change, North Carolina voters have often responded with a collective: “Say what?”
That is why the state rejected a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote in 1920 and the Equal Rights Amendment for women in the 1970s.
That is why North Carolina was one of the first states to prohibit the consumption of alcohol, and one of the last states to allow the sale of cocktails, or as we used to call it, liquor by the drink. That is why North Carolina was one of the last states to adopt a lottery. And that is why North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment in 2012, by a 61 percent vote, essentially outlawing gay marriages – since struck down by the courts.
Tar Heels’ skepticism of social movements is rooted in its Bible Belt, rural and small-town heritage.
Few social changes have happened more rapidly than the gay rights movement, and that is even more true for rights for transgender people.
Acceptance of those changes depends, in part, on geography: different in New York than in North Carolina, different in Charlotte than in Rocky Mount.
When the Democratic-controlled Charlotte City Council voted in February to pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in public accommodations or in for-hire passenger vehicles, it was following the lead of many major cities. There are 225 cities and counties with similar laws, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
The GOP-controlled legislature jumped on the issue, in what may turn out to be one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern North Carolina history.
Instead of campaigning on a recovering economy – the Carolina Comeback – the GOP is saddled with endless stories of economic boycotts that have put Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP candidates at risk.
But back in March, House Bill 2, as the controversial new state law was called, looked like a political winner for the Republicans. The law eliminates Charlotte’s anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people, and requires that people in government facilities only use restrooms and changing facilities that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. The bill also prevents North Carolina municipalities from enacting anti-discriminatory policies, setting local minimum wages or regulating child labor.
The law, even its sponsors acknowledged, was totally unenforceable. What are you going to do: Post law enforcement officials at bathrooms and ask people to show their genitals? HB2 doesn’t even carry any penalties. It was pure political symbolism.
It also plays on people’s lack of understanding of what transgender even looks like. Under the Republican HB2, masculine-looking people with beards in men’s clothes – who were born women — are required to use women’s bathrooms and feminine-looking people in dresses – who were born men — are required to use men’s bathrooms, unless their birth certificates have been changed. Talk about awkward.
But it had major political benefits. For one thing, it could help turn out the Republican base. Exit polls taken during the March GOP primary in North Carolina found that 69 percent were self-described born-again or evangelical Christians.
It was also another tool to attack Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper. Even before HB2 became law, I was getting inundated with emails from GOP and conservative groups trying to force Cooper to take a stand on HB2, knowing that gay rights is a litmus test issue for most Democratic candidates. When he did, the GOP pounced.
“After months of hiding from the press and stonewalling, Roy Cooper chose to side with a few radicals in Charlotte who believe that men should be able to use the women’s bathroom,” the GOP said back in March.
Anti-gay politics has long been an arrow in the GOP quiver – a way to portray Democratic candidates as outside the mainstream.
Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and his allies tied Gov. Jim Hunt to gay activists in mailings, billboards and newspaper ads in the 1984 Senate race, and used the issue against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in the 1990 and 1996 Senate races.
“Gantt has run fund-raising ads in gay newspapers,” said one Helms ad, which featured grainy photos of gay bars. “Gantt has raised thousands of dollars in gay and lesbian bars in San Francisco, New York and Washington. And Harvey Gantt has promised to back mandatory gay-rights laws.”
But this time, playing the anti-gay card backfired. This is 2016, not 1996 or 1984.
The law created a national backlash. More than 200 companies doing business in North Carolina signed a letter opposing the law, including such firms as Xerox, Dow Chemical, Northrop Grumman, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Lowe’s Cos., Red Hat, American Express, Time Warner Cable, United Airlines and IBM.
Companies including PayPal and Deutsche Bank announced they were dropping plans to expand in the state. The states of Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington as well as seven counties and 27 cities issued bans on their employees traveling to North Carolina.
Countless conventions have been canceled. Numerous entertainers have dropped appearances including Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam, classical violinist Itzhak Perlman and Cirque du Soleil.
The NBA pulled its All-Star Game from Charlotte; the NCAA and the ACC canceled sports events in the state.
The U.S. Justice Department is suing the state. The next president of the United States has criticized the law — whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, although Trump changed his position after his initially critical comments.
There is no indication that the damage to the state’s economy and reputation will end any time soon. Numerous polls suggest HB2 is hurting McCrory and other Republicans.
The legislature might have avoided this unforced error if it had followed its own normal procedures. But instead of acting like a deliberative body, the General Assembly rushed the bill through in a one-day special session. Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill the same night.
Since then, McCrory and Co. have been trying to spin the issue a dozen different ways: it’s Charlotte’s fault, North Carolina is the victim of selective political correctness, it’s just politics, or that the law will open the door to sexual predators, even though that hasn’t been the case elsewhere in the country.
McCrory and Co. have portrayed themselves as the last moral men and implied that corporate America, other states and cities, the U.S. Justice Department, the NBA, the NCAA, the ACC and so forth don’t care about protecting women and children.
That seems like a tall order, even in a socially conservative state.