Rob Christensen

How North Carolina’s brand is changing for the worse – Christensen

In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory with much fanfare launched a new branding effort for North Carolina with a new state advertising logo and the slogan, “Nothing Compares.”

Not long after the McCrory administration rolled out its new brand, the legislature passed HB2, bringing down an avalanche of bad publicity on the state as it waded deep into the weeds of transgender politics.

Well, we got a new brand alright.

Consider Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s State of the Commonwealth address the other day, where his message to the legislature was: Whatever you do, don’t mess up like North Carolina.

“As we begin our work together this session,” McAuliffe said, “our neighbor North Carolina remains mired in a divisive and counterproductive battle over laws its legislature passed that target the rights of LGBT citizens. As we have seen in that state and others, attacks on equality and women’s health care rights don’t just embarrass the states that engage in them – they kill jobs.”

McAuliffe, a Democrat, could afford to openly criticize North Carolina’s Republican legislature.

But neighboring Republican governors, while more circumspect in their language, have run as fast as they can away from job-killing legislation similar to HB2.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal last year vetoed a bill that critics said would have curtailed the rights of Georgia’s LGBT community. “I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which I and my family have been part of for all of our lives,” Deal said.

Nikki Haley, then South Carolina’s governor and now U.N. ambassador, last year said a bathroom bill was not needed.

“I don’t believe it’s necessary,” Haley said. “There’s not one instance that I’m aware of. When we look at our situation, we’re not hearing of anybody’s religious liberties that are being violated, and we’re again not hearing any citizens that are being violated in terms of freedom. Like it or not, South Carolina is doing really well when it comes to respect and when it comes to kindness and when it comes to acceptance. For people to imply it’s not, I beg to differ.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam helped defeat legislation last year that would bar transgender students in public schools from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity rather than their birth certificate.

“Personally, I am not hearing about problems out in the districts,” Haslam said. “I’m hearing that our school boards have figured out to how to adjust to each situation that arises, and to date, I’m not hearing parents say we have a problem in our schools today.”

In most of these Southern states it was the political clout of the business community and the sports world – the political mainstream – that defeated efforts of conservative evangelicals, talk radio/social media and others aligned with the political right who have used scare tactics to paint false pictures of hulking men invading women’s bathrooms and lockers.

The rebranding process that came up with the “Nothing Compares” slogan – as well as logos and more – took much of a year. The effort was funded by $1.5 million appropriated by the legislature for McCrory’s Commerce Department with the help of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

I would venture to guess that few people are familiar with the “Nothing Compares” slogan. But nearly everyone has heard of HB2.

It took only one day for the legislature meeting in special session last March to pass HB2 and for Republican McCrory to sign it into law – reacting to a Charlotte ordinance providing protections to transgender people. The new state law required people in government facilities to use the bathroom corresponding to their birth certificate, and it also banned local governments from passing nondiscrimination ordinances.

In passing HB2 in one day, the legislature ignored its own rules and procedures designed to give committees time to carefully deliberate, and to hear expert and public input.

Acting out of hubris, the legislature did not want a proper airing.

If the legislature had acted as a deliberative body, it might have avoided the political pitfalls that wiser heads in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee managed to sidestep.

It might have learned that 200 cities and communities across the country already had laws similar to what Charlotte was proposing without ill effects. It might have foreseen the pushback – from the NBA, NCAA and the ACC shunning the state for future events, businesses deciding not to move here, conventions and meetings boycotting the state and entertainers refusing to perform here.

North Carolina is losing incalculable millions of dollars in commerce as a result of the political actions of the legislature, whose entire policy agenda is supposed to be tailored to making the state more business-friendly through lowering taxes and reducing regulations.

Because the legislature’s leadership can’t find the votes to repeal the measure, there is no end in sight to the economic losses and boycotts.

Unless the courts strike it down, or a compromise can be found, a generation from now historians may very well record HB2 as the signature legislation from this era of a Republican legislature.

North Carolina has been rebranded – but not in a good way.

David Gergen, one of North Carolina’s wise men, who served as adviser to five U.S. presidents – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton – is among those worried about the brand.

“The signals coming out of the state capital in Raleigh have sent a thunderous message rolling out across America: that North Carolina is no longer a pioneer in advancing people of color, people who are gay, people living on the margins,” Gergen said at Elon University’s commencement speech last spring. “Instead, many here want to go back to a darker time.”

Gergen added that North Carolina has become “the poster child of backward-looking leadership. Now we are in the same headlines as Mississippi.”

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