In the battle to repeal – or at least modify – the ruinous HB2 law, all agreed that a moral principle was at stake. The problem was to identify the principle. Are all forms of sexual discrimination, including against people who are transgender, immoral in principle?
Recent legislative acts have gained North Carolina an unsavory reputation for sexual bigotry -- beginning with a constitutional amendment of some years back banning gay marriage but subsequently quashed by the federal courts. HB2 immeasurably worsened it.
Can it be true, as some legislators pretend to believe, that our piney woods are crawling with male voyeurs panting to don faux dresses and invade ladies changing and bathrooms or, worse, prey upon children? Few if any of us would fail to say that the victims of such a disorder need psychiatric treatment.
A different moral concern arises from the compromise legislation pushed through under the sponsorship of Governor Cooper, whose critics are howling for its repeal. It returns North Carolina law to the status quo with a salient exception: It bans local anti-discriminatory ordinances for a period of years. That proviso probably was crucial in the passage of the modifying law.
Its origins are obvious: When the Governor attempted an earlier repeal it failed in part because the Mayor of Charlotte announced that as soon as the ink dried she and her supporters would restore the ordinance that prompted HB2: notably including transgender protection. That was enough to persuade staunch friends of HB2 looking for an excuse to dig in their heels that they would be wasting time and breath on the compromise the Governor-elect proposed.
The “different concern” is this: Is it strictly moral behavior to be so thirsty for the profits of big college sports events as to subordinate other concerns? No doubt the NCAA boycott of North Carolina as a host for championship events drove the legislature to act. Moreover, CEOs of a number of concerns offered their good offices; and plausible estimates of financial damage to the state prompted them to act. We don’t know what personal motives were also at work, but this was a triumph of Calvin Coolidge’s adage that “the business of America is business.”
The intervention of the CEOs stirred a memory: In his classic book Southern Politics, a study now more valuable as history than as current politics, the Harvard political scientist V. O. Key called his chapter on Tar Heel politics “A Progressive Plutocracy” – a blend of political enlightenment with motives vital to the affluent. Whoever thought of the label, it had the ring of truth. Nor was it hard to identify the civic-minded “plutocrats” Key and Heard had it mind – the Reynoldses of Winston-Salem, for instance, and others – whose influence was usually on the side of enlightened government. The contrast with the present Republicans is striking. One example was Governor Luther Hodges Sr., who prospered in Chicago and returned to run for lieutenant governor. The death of Gov. William B. Umstead made him governor in the early 1950s. Hodges guided the state with restraint and good sense through the crisis precipitated by the Supreme Court anti-segregation decision, while Deep South states, led by demagogues like Alabama’s George Wallace and Mississippi’s Ross Barnett, exploded. Even sedate Virginia closed public schools to avert desegregation – for a time. Far from incidentally for this region, and North Carolina, Hodges was instrumental – along with George Watts Hill Sr. – in founding the Research Triangle Park.
If it was commercial motivation that compelled a timely modification of HB2 that is very much in the Tar Heel tradition identified 60 years ago as “progressive plutocracy,” and whatever its ethical limitations it isn’t cynicism on the scale of Henry IV of France who excused his religious conversion for the sake of a crown with the remark, “Paris is worth a mass.” Even half-loaves are better than empty stomachs. And politics is, as ever, the art of the possible.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org