Gov. Pat McCrory had hoped the opportunity to trumpet a $1.8 billion insulin plant in Clayton – the largest single manufacturing investment ever in North Carolina – would emphasize his first term’s success in creating jobs and improving the economy.
But at a brief news conference after the Novo Nordisk groundbreaking Monday in Clayton, the governor appeared surprised by the large turnout of reporters who wanted to ask about the new law he had signed dismantling anti-discrimination protections based on gender identity.
A rapidly growing list of companies had been calling for the law to be repealed, and the fallout was creating national attention. Once again, McCrory was being tugged toward a contentious social issue while he tried to emphasize the state’s improving economy, lower unemployment rate, projected budget surplus and its concerted effort to attract jobs, especially in growing industries.
That message was getting lost in the blowback from House Bill 2.
The new law invalidated a Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. It also prevents cities and counties from adopting their own anti-discrimination ordinances and prohibits them from imposing such policies on contractors. And it eliminates the ability to sue an employer in state court for discriminatory firing.
One week before the new law was introduced and enacted in a special session lasting one day, Braeburn Pharmaceuticals announced a $25 million expansion in the state. One week after, it released a statement: “We are reevaluating our options based on the recent, unjust legislation.”
So far, more than 120 companies, including some of the nation’s largest, have called for a repeal, while conferences and sporting events have warned they might stay away.
As last week played out, however, conservative activists took to talk radio and Twitter – giving voice to a less vocal segment of the population that isn’t comfortable with sharing bathrooms with the opposite sex and resents being called prejudiced because of it.
Whether there is a middle ground left in all this, and how it might affect McCrory’s re-election, will play out over the next eight months.
It’s likely that the legislation will go over well with the Republican governor’s conservative base. But it could undermine McCrory’s portrayal of himself as a centrist countering a liberal opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
Mac McCorkle, an associate public policy professor at Duke University and former consultant to Democratic governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, says the business backlash over HB2 – the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act – could pose a challenge.
“The McCrory brand is probably the one he wanted to emphasize the most against Cooper: moderate Pat, ribbon-cutting Pat, pro-Carolina Panthers Pat, pro-big business coming in – non-ideological, bringing in business every which way. At the very least what’s happening now complicates that message and delays his ability to establish that kind of individual identity.”
McCorkle says the presidential campaign, not this issue, will have the most impact on voters in November.
Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican campaign consultant, said the legislature probably packed too much into the bill and complicated the issue. But the decision to roll back Charlotte’s ordinance won’t hurt McCrory, he said.
“I think it probably helps him,” Wrenn said. “The debate has gotten tied up in knots. Basically, the reaction to men using women’s bathrooms and vice versa is it doesn’t make common sense.”
Builder of consensus?
The governor has said many times that he is a consensus builder who isn’t afraid to take on the left or his own party. On Wednesday he released a video underlining that image.
He reminded everyone that it wasn’t his idea to call a special session to impose the new law, and allowed that the result might have been imperfect but not intentionally discriminatory.
“This is not about demonizing one group of people,” he said. “Let’s put aside our differences, the political rhetoric and, yes, hypocrisy, and work on solutions that will make this bill better in the future,” McCrory said. “I am open to new ideas and solutions.”
Yet McCrory quickly signed the bill late in the evening on the day it was passed. And while sounding conciliatory, the governor took to the national airwaves to attack other states that had banned official travel to North Carolina and invited its businesses to relocate. He singled out New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, both Democrats, for criticism.
Help with conservatives?
McCrory’s relationship with Charlotte, where he served 14 years as mayor, has deteriorated since he left office in 2009.
At an uptown rally before the Super Bowl in January, McCrory was roundly booed by Panthers fans. Much of the animosity was likely due to the governor’s support of toll lanes on Interstate 77 in north Mecklenburg, an issue that cause numerous conservatives to turn against him.
Will the governor’s signing HB2 bring some of those voters back to McCrory?
Nicole Revels of Lenoir led a campaign against the successful statewide bond package that McCrory supported in March. Revels, a Republican, said many of conservatives who opposed the bonds will eventually vote for McCrory in November, in part because of his stance on HB2.
“HB2 will rally a lot of his base back,” she said.
For now, the impact is unclear. None of the state polling services have surveyed the immediate aftermath of the HB2 vote. A Public Policy Polling survey the day before the vote showed 35 percent of self-described very conservative voters saying they were either dissatisfied with the governor or uncertain about him, while 65 percent said they approve.
There has been a slight uptick in the number of young registered voters this year compared to the last presidential election year of 2012, and younger voters are thought to support wider non-discrimination policies. At the same time, however, there has been a bigger increase in the number of older voters registered. There has been a dropoff between the ages of 26 and 65.
Veteran state Rep. John Blust, a Republican from Greensboro who is running for Congress this year, says conservative voters will align with McCrory once the dust settles from the HB2 controversy.
“I believe common sense will prevail as people understand the issue,” Blust said. “A year ago nobody even knew it was an issue. I’m sure there will be a concerted effort to keep stoking outrage.
“If everybody surrenders on this then they’ll find the next thing farther down the road and make you a bigot if you don’t support it. It ain’t never going to stop.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who has led the charge to overturn the Charlotte ordinance, spoke on an Asheville radio station Thursday and said efforts are underway to contact all of the businesses that have called for a repeal to explain the other side.
Forest said no one in the legislature wants to discriminate against anyone. “I get there are people out there who are transgender and are struggling with the issue of the bathroom,” he said.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.
What the new law does
The “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory on March 23 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.