Halfway through a news conference last Monday calling for repeal of House Bill 2, one of the most recognizable figures in North Carolina politics walked in and stood next to the House Democrats sponsoring the repeal bill.
The Rev. William Barber – leader of the state NAACP and the Moral Monday movement – wasn’t introduced by the legislators or invited to the podium. And later in the day, when Barber led a rally of hundreds of HB2 opponents, there were no politicians on the stage.
On the other side of the bitter battle, Republican lawmakers were eager to appear Monday with the conservative religious groups that pushed for HB2.
A rally in support of the law featured House Speaker Tim Moore, attorney general candidate Sen. Buck Newton, Rep. Dan Bishop of Charlotte and House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam of Apex.
They were on stage with the Rev. Mark Creech’s Christian Action League, Tami Fitzgerald’s N.C. Values Coalition and Ron Baity’s Return America. Those groups have been the state’s strongest opponents of LGBT rights, and their leaders have made controversial statements.
Creech recently called HB2 opponents “social terrorists” who seek “total domination.” His group is lobbying against allowing beer sales in dry areas of Johnston County. Baity made headlines a few years ago when he said same-sex marriage would prompt judgment from God that would include plagues worse than Ebola.
The GOP lawmakers sought the podium in front of the thousands of conservatives who attended the rally. So why weren’t Democrats embracing Barber?
For one, Barber doesn’t allow politicians to join him on stage at Moral Monday events. He says he doesn’t want his movement to be viewed as partisan or supportive of any individual politician.
“We don’t look at people based on whether they’re Republican or Democrat,” he said. “Our job is to change the political atmosphere. This issue is too big to be seen as a Republican or Democrat issue.”
Instead of inviting politicians to speak, Barber prefers to give the microphone to “advocates and people who are impacted” by laws such as HB2.
Many Democratic politicians, meanwhile, have avoided aligning themselves with Barber or publicly praising his work – which includes the sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience that resulted in 54 arrests at the legislature last week.
Asked why Barber wasn’t invited to speak at the House Democrats’ news conference, Rep. Darren Jackson of Knightdale said Barber’s appearance was “unexpected.”
“I have made efforts not to coordinate with any group,” Jackson said of his work pushing for repeal. “People may not believe it, but I’m (working) on repeal because this is bad for the state – not doing it for politics.”
Republicans have sought to tie Barber and Moral Monday activities to such Democratic candidates as Attorney General Roy Cooper, who’s running for governor. Cooper has spoken out against HB2 but doesn’t mention Barber, and his campaign was silent on Monday’s events.
“Democrats know that Barber is toxic with middle-of-the road swing voters in the suburbs, because of his over-the-top tactics and disgusting rhetoric,” N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse said. “Democrats have for the last several years used him to stir up trouble and then hid him in the month going into the election.”
Barber is indeed a polarizing figure – in part because of his fiery, biblically charged rhetoric, and in part because of his group’s civil disobedience tactics.
At Monday’s protest, his supporters entered the House speaker’s office and began loudly chanting slogans before police moved in and began arrests. A second round of arrests took place later when protesters refused to leave when the Legislative Building closed for the night.
Longtime Democratic strategist Gary Pearce said it’s that approach that could prompt politicians to keep their distance from Barber.
“There may be a hesitancy there to be involved with something that does end up in civil disobedience or arrests,” Pearce said.
There’s no such hesitance among Republican lawmakers who sought the spotlight of the Monday’s HB2 supporter rally. Aligning with the Christian Action League and the Values Coalition could be a political gamble that might alienate some moderate voters, but it could also help mobilize social conservatives in November.
Newton’s speech at Monday’s rally indicates he’s betting on the latter outcome. He invoked God and called the Charlotte City Council “a bunch of crazy people.”
“I am not worried about how I am judged by some people at another rally,” Newton said. “I am worried about how I am judged by the man upstairs. And if I can’t win this election because I ran HB2, then so be it. Bring it on.”
Newton then made national headlines when he ended his speech by calling on the crowd to “fight to keep our state straight.” Some considered that an anti-gay statement, but he later said he “never mentioned anything about homosexuality.”
Pearce said Newton’s “straight” comment illustrates the political risks of joining such rallies. “Politicians associated with these get carried away,” he said. “You can get involved with people who can be on your side, but can make really off-putting statements or extreme statements that you end up being associated with.”
Barber said he’s frustrated with pro-HB2 politicians and religious groups for claiming the mantle of Christianity. He compares it to “the politics of Jesse Helms,” the late U.S. senator from North Carolina. He noted that leaders from a wide variety of religious denominations joined the NAACP’s events on Monday.
“What’s so sad about it is when somebody stands up in the name of Christianity and then promotes the politics of hate,” Barber said, adding that the groups avoid addressing minimum wage issues and Medicaid expansion. “It’s a form of theological malpractice and borders on theological heresy.”
Staff writer Colin Campbell
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