State Politics

Gov. Pat McCrory calls for special legislative session Wednesday to repeal HB2

Following a surprise move by Charlotte City Council on Monday, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has called for a special session Wednesday to consider repeal of House Bill 2.

The governor’s statement came in a series of rapidly unfolding events that could signal an end to the nine-month drama that has catapulted North Carolina into national headlines. HB2, seen by critics as an anti-LGBT measure, prompted boycotts and cost the state millions of dollars as well as lost jobs.

Monday’s events also underscored the continuing tensions between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper.

McCrory’s call came hours after Charlotte City Council voted 10-0, with the support of Cooper and Democratic Mayor Jennifer Roberts, to rescind the LGBT ordinance that prompted HB2.

“This sudden reversal, with little notice after the gubernatorial election has ended, sadly proves this entire issue, originated by the political left, was all about politics at the expense of Charlotte and the entire state of North Carolina,” McCrory said in a video statement.

Cooper, who lobbied for the council action, announced earlier that GOP legislative leaders had promised to repeal HB2.

“Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore assured me that as a result of Charlotte’s vote, a special session will be called for Tuesday to repeal HB2 in full,” Cooper said in a statement. “I hope they will keep their word to me and with the help of Democrats in the legislature, HB2 will be repealed in full.”

In a joint statement of their own, Berger and Moore said politics was behind the council vote.

“Today Roy Cooper and Jennifer Roberts proved what we said was the case all along: their efforts to force men into women’s bathrooms and shower facilities was a political stunt to drive out-of-state money into the governor’s race,” the Republican leaders said. “For months, we’ve said if Charlotte would repeal its bathroom ordinance that created the problem, we would take up the repeal of HB2.”

This is the third time such an offer has been floated.

First in May and then in September there were efforts to get the council to rescind the ordinance that extended anti-discrimination protection to the LGBT community and allowed transgender people to use the public bathroom of the gender with which they identify. Most council members never went along with the deal.

Since then Cooper defeated McCrory in a hard-fought race that wasn’t settled until McCrory conceded Dec. 5 as a recount entered its final hours.

Late-night lobbying

Council’s Monday morning vote came after late-night lobbying by Cooper himself. He called Democratic Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles at 10 p.m. Sunday and Democrat Julie Eiselt a half-hour later.

He said “if we cleaned up our books, that the General Assembly was motivated to call a special session to repeal (the law), and we felt this was our best opportunity,” Eiselt told the Observer.

Cooper and others believe that the best chance to repeal HB2 is this month before new legislators take office in January.

Roberts and council members had considered a similar deal earlier in the year but had rejected it.

Roberts on Monday was in the difficult position of defending the repeal. The vote “should in no way be viewed as a compromise of our principles or commitment to nondiscrimination,” she said.

But earlier this year, and as recently as last week, the mayor said that LGBT rights weren’t negotiable. Local and national gay rights organizations had adamantly opposed a symbolic repeal vote. The Human Rights Campaign said earlier this month that there should be no compromise between the city and the state.

But Monday they applauded the city’s move.

“HB2 is precisely why North Carolinians went to the polls and ousted Gov. McCrory last month,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “It’s time for state lawmakers to repeal HB2 and begin repairing the harm this bill has done to people and the damage it has done to North Carolina’s reputation and economy.”

State Rep. Chris Sgro, a Guilford County Democrat who is president of Equality NC, said earlier this month that he opposed any compromise.

“I firmly believe that Roy Cooper, Jennifer Roberts and the majority of City Council are committed to winning the full complement (of rights) for LGBT people both in Charlotte and across the state,” he said Monday. “All eyes …are on Raleigh watching for the General Assembly to do the right thing.”

Republican council member Kenny Smith, who is considering running for mayor, said the Democratic-controlled council was “playing politics” with the decision. He said the same deal has been available for months, but that council members waited until McCrory lost the election.

State GOP Chairman Robin Hayes agreed. He said the Charlotte ordinance was “never more than a nakedly partisan political weapon aimed at sabotaging Gov. McCrory’s re-election bid, while inflicting economic suffering on the people of North Carolina.”

It’s unclear how a vote to repeal HB2 would go. Democratic votes are virtually assured. Many Republicans remain in support of the bill.

“Lawmakers shouldn’t now betray those who supported them and compromise common sense principles, like privacy, dignity, and freedom for all citizens,” Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, said. “To do so would be to advance the Obama administration’s agenda, not freedom and common sense.”

A ‘reset’

The city’s repeal includes language that says its nondiscrimination ordinance will be revived if the General Assembly doesn’t repeal HB2 by Dec. 31.

Republican council member Ed Driggs said he’s worried legislators will see that deadline as Charlotte dictating to Raleigh. He proposed that the Dec. 31 deadline be removed, but his motion failed.

Some business leaders were surprised but happy at the news. Maxwell Hanks, a broker with Spectrum Properties leasing the new 300 South Tryon office building, said HB2 has been hurting business recruitment in the state

“Rescinding HB2 will be a great way to close out 2016 and start 2017,” said Hanks. He said the move would be a “reset,” and that it would help him and other brokers lure companies to move to the state.

There was no advance notice that the ordinance would be discussed at the City Council meeting. The city charter allows the manager or mayor to place any item on the agenda – even without public notice first. Democrat James Mitchell made the motion to vote on the matter and Smith seconded.

Roberts said voters’ feelings about the issue have been known and voiced. But when the issue was last discussed, many in the LGBT community urged the city not to repeal the ordinance.

“The community always has a chance to weigh in,” Roberts said. “There will be much more conversations about equality.”

Lyles said council members would try in 2017 to pass some LGBT protections, though it’s unclear what they would be.

It’s possible the state might allow Charlotte to pass legal protections for gay and lesbian individuals in places of public accommodation, but any new ordinance that allowed transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity would likely be rejected again by legislators.

Some Democratic council members have long said they don’t want to “leave the transgender community behind.” But if there are future protections, the city will likely be forced to do just that.

Democratic council member John Autry said Monday’s vote turned his stomach. But he said he decided to support the compromise after talking with one of his daughters, who is gay.

He said she told him that the city’s vote was the best thing to do “in the long run.”

Democratic council member Patsy Kinsey didn’t attend the meeting.

A special session on Wednesday would come five days after lawmakers completed another special session in which they passed measures taking away many of the new governor’s appointment powers.

By itself, Charlotte’s move will not have any immediate impact on the status of lawsuits against HB2 by the federal government and the American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups.

UNC law professor Maxine Eichner, an expert in LGBT matters, said if the General Assembly follows through with the removal of HB2, the opposing sides in the court fights could both ask that the cases be dropped. Or the courts could rule that the lawsuits are now moot.

Staff writers Ann Doss Helms and Ely Portillo contributed.