A day after a special legislative session in an election year, candidates for governor and other statewide offices sought to score points with voters while dodging some of the new law’s most controversial elements.
Wednesday’s special session at the legislature came in response to a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance that allows transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
But the bill that Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law Wednesday night went beyond revoking the bathroom rule, replacing local ordinances with a statewide nondiscrimination law that doesn’t include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories.
Democrats running for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general say the new law legalizes discrimination, but several of them wouldn’t say whether they back the Charlotte ordinance or answer questions about transgender bathroom use.
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Their Republican opponents took prominent roles in Wednesday’s special session, arguing that the bathroom provision represented a public safety issue. They said Charlotte’s ordinance would allow men to use women’s restrooms and locker rooms – and they sought to focus on the bathroom issue instead of the bill’s other elements.
“I feel very strongly that as governor, I need to protect the basic expectations of privacy that all individuals should be allowed to have, especially in the sanctity of a restroom,” McCrory told WXII 12 News of the Triad on Thursday, criticizing his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper. “Mr. Cooper obviously agrees with a more radical type of agenda.”
Cooper has not taken a position on the Charlotte ordinance, but he opposed the bill McCrory signed as “making discrimination part of the law.”
On Thursday, Cooper campaign manager Trey Nix did not directly answer a question on the bathroom issue, focusing his comments instead on the broader bill.
“It is as clear as day that (McCrory) is losing votes and losing support because of what is an extreme piece of legislation,” Nix said.
McCrory signed the bill without a formal ceremony, issuing a news release around 10 p.m. Wednesday. The release barely mentioned the parts of the bill that went beyond the bathroom issue, with McCrory saying only that “although other items included in this bill should have waited until regular session, this bill does not change existing rights under state or federal law.”
Nix says McCrory’s decision to sign “in the dark of night” means he knows it was “a bad piece of legislation.”
Meanwhile, McCrory’s campaign spokesman, Ricky Diaz, said Cooper should explain where he stands on bathroom use and why he didn’t take action as attorney general to block the Charlotte ordinance.
“From day one, the attorney general has been dodging this issue,” Diaz said.
Opinion polls have found varying results when asking about the bathroom issue and the special session – with responses differing based on how pollsters phrase the question.
The conservative Civitas Institute found that 69 percent of North Carolinians agree with the statement that Charlotte created “an unreasonable and unsafe policy because it allows men to use the women’s bathroom and locker rooms in front of women and girls.”
But the liberal Public Policy Polling survey described Charlotte’s action only as “an antidiscrimination ordinance,” and it found that 51 percent of those surveyed thought that “Charlotte should be able to pass its own ordinances.”
Political consultants disagree on which side will benefit from the issue – assuming voters are still thinking about bathrooms and discrimination laws when the November election arrives.
“The whole political debate has been sort of silly,” said Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican campaign consultant. “I think most folks are going to agree with stopping that ordinance.”
But Democratic consultant and blogger Thomas Mills called the bill “a colossal blunder” because legislators went beyond bathrooms.
McCrory, Mills wrote, “just handed his opponents another issue that will alienate him from the moderate voters.”
The issue won’t be limited to the governor’s race. Senate leaders tasked Sen. Buck Newton, the Republican candidate for attorney general, with leading the charge for the bill in his chamber.
With TV cameras rolling, Newton said that Charlotte had approved “a very radical and dangerous policy” that “clearly violates common sense.”
Newton’s Democratic opponent, Josh Stein, resigned his Senate seat to focus on his campaign earlier this week. He said he hasn’t read the Charlotte ordinance but voiced opposition to the new state law.
“This law is about discrimination against gays and lesbians broadly and should be condemned because of that,” Stein said. “Sen. Newton said yesterday that enacting nondiscrimination ordinances is to bow to the altar of radical political correctness. This is the type of language that Donald Trump uses.”
Asked about his view on transgender bathroom use, Stein said he’s “focusing on this overarching bill.”
One statewide candidate did voice support for the Charlotte ordinance: Democrat Linda Coleman, who’s running against Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. She said she agrees with the provision on transgender bathroom use.
“I believe when you elect a city council, you have to let that body govern,” Coleman said Thursday. “If you do not like what has happened, then you have another election coming up.”
In his role as Senate president, Forest joined House Speaker Tim Moore in calling Wednesday’s special session. Forest argued that the Charlotte ordinance would have given “pedophiles, sex offenders and perverts free rein to watch women, boys and girls undress and use the bathroom.”
Coleman criticized Forest for calling the session after McCrory said he wouldn’t call the legislature back on his own. “I just think it shows a lack of respect for the governor’s role,” she said.
Supporters of the bill have described Wednesday’s vote as “bipartisan” because 11 House Democrats voted yes. Three of them – Reps. Brad Salmon, Billy Richardson and Elmer Floyd – face Republican challengers in November. They did not return calls Thursday.
Many of the Democrats who voted for the bill represent rural districts where many voters have conservative views on social issues.
Rep. Larry Bell – who represents parts of Duplin, Sampson and Wayne counties in Eastern North Carolina – voted yes but said he wishes the bill only addressed the bathroom issue. He is running unopposed for re-election.
“I dislike the provision of taking away local authority, and I wish that could have been separate,” he said. “My constituents in this area would have weighed (in) heavily on the bathroom issue than they would have on the other parts.”
Bell said he’s befuddled by issues of transgender identity and how schools should address them. “I don’t understand it fully, and I’m not sure that even the children understand it,” he said.
What the new law does
House Bill 2, the “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday after a special legislative session.
It prohibits local governments from enacting their own regulations that ban discrimination. Instead, the bill would create a statewide law that would ban discrimination on the basis of “race, religion, color, national origin or biological sex” at businesses and other “places of public accommodation.” But the law wouldn’t include sexual orientation and gender identity as categories protected from discrimination.
Local school districts would be banned from allowing students to use communal bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates. Schools still could allow transgender students to use single-occupancy facilities.
The legislation also restricts local governments from regulating employment practices. Cities and counties could not require contractors to abide by regulations or controls on employment contracts as a condition of bidding for work. So, for example, localities cannot require contractors to pay a higher minimum wage.