The proposal to repeal House Bill 2 and place a moratorium on local nondiscrimination ordinances prompted a rare split among Senate Republicans, who typically vote in lockstep with their leader, Sen. Phil Berger of Eden.
Sixteen Republican senators voted in favor of repeal, while another 16 voted against it – including Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Jacksonville. That put the Senate’s 16 Democrats in the driver’s seat to control the bill’s fate, and they all voted no.
Many of the senators who broke with Berger and opposed the bill came from socially conservative rural counties.
“While I regretted to not follow the vote of the remainder of my caucus, I felt like it’s important that we put a long-term, permanent solution in place” to the bathroom issues at the center of HB2, said Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Hendersonville Republican. “The bill that was proposed to us yesterday didn’t offer us such a solution.”
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Berger divided the bill into two separate votes: Senators voted first on repealing HB2, and if that portion was approved, they’d vote separately on the local ordinance moratorium. Berger’s hope was that Democrats would vote for repeal, and that Republican opponents of repeal would support the moratorium. The bill would have then headed to the House as a single piece of legislation – so Democrats felt that any “yes” vote was a vote for the entire bill.
Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Fayetteville Republican, said he would have backed the moratorium but couldn’t vote for the repeal. “I feel that we need to have some type of regulations in place to keep men out of women’s bathrooms, and I’m not going to compromise on that.”
Meredith says it’s understandable that Senate Republicans weren’t united on this issue. “I think the demographics of every district are different, and that’s what makes us different as a state,” he said, adding that he wasn’t under pressure to change his mind. “Sen. Berger was very clear every time he met with us that this was a personal decision.”
Berger said he knew the vote would be a challenge because a portion of his members would never agree to it.
“I fully understand and respect that many of my members would not be in favor of a repeal of HB2, for numerous valid reasons,” he said.
Only four of the 16 Republicans who voted against repeal represent one of North Carolina’s 10 most populous counties – the areas that have seen most of the economic losses from sporting events, conferences and jobs boycotting the state over HB2.
The 16 GOP senators include some of the most socially conservative, including Sen. Deanna Ballard of Blowing Rock, who works for evangelist Franklin Graham’s organization, and Sen. Chad Barefoot of Wake Forest. Barefoot’s mother-in-law is Tami Fitzgerald, who leads the N.C. Values Coalition that lobbied against repeal.
One of the rural senators who voted for repeal, Sen. Louis Pate of Mount Olive, cited his loyalty to Berger. “Sen. Berger is as fair a leader as I’ve ever served under, and I’d jump out of the airplane he just jumped out of,” Pate said.
Despite opposing HB2 repeal, Edwards said he’d like to see the legislature revisit the issue next year. “I’m confident that given additional time, we can come up with a workable solution if all parties involved are sincere in resolving this issue,” he said.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed