As the fallout from North Carolina’s House Bill 2 continues, economic development officials and others are quietly pushing for a middle ground.
But is there any?
And if there is, are the warring sides willing to find it?
“The problem is people are not listening to each other on either side,” said former Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican. “We spend too much time shouting at each other.”
Last month, state lawmakers passed HB2, striking down a Charlotte ordinance that would have extended anti-discrimination protections to gays, lesbians and transgender people. In doing so, lawmakers pre-empted similar local ordinances.
As a result, California-based PayPal announced Tuesday that it would no longer open a planned Charlotte operations center, at a cost of 400 jobs. More than 130 executives from companies such as Bank of America, American Airlines, General Electric and IBM have signed a letter urging Gov. Pat McCrory and lawmakers to repeal the bill.
The Charlotte Chamber has called for Charlotte and North Carolina officials to “contribute toward a solution that is in the best interest of our city and state.”
Both sides appear entrenched.
Ordinance supporters, which include national gay rights groups, say not allowing transgender persons to use the restroom of their choice is both wrong and impractical. They say HB2 not only jeopardizes jobs but threatens billions in federal aid for schools, transportation and housing.
McCrory and Republican lawmakers say the Charlotte ordinance would have endangered women by allowing men, posing as transgender women, into bathrooms and locker rooms.
HB2 also curtails the ability of local governments to pass anti-discrimination or minimum wage ordinances. And according to analysts, it restricts the legal rights of workers who believe they lost their jobs because of discrimination.
There have been few signs of reconsideration from McCrory or GOP leaders. Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, said she is “having conversations” with Republican leaders in Raleigh but declined to say who she spoke to or what was said.
Critics: Both sides overreached
So where do they go from here?
“It would require everyone in the debate to take a breath and really comprehend and understand what the other side is saying,” said John Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation.
He said City Council Democrats who voted in favor of the ordinance this year didn’t appear to take seriously the concerns of those who believe it would endanger women. “They treated the privacy and potential safety concerns as insincere and irrelevant,” he said.
“On the other side, did people fully appreciate the difficulties that transgender people experience? Probably not.”
Critics say both sides overreached. Some, including Democratic consultant Thomas Mills, say a compromise could involve the city backing off its bathroom stand while the state backs off provisions like those involving employment discrimination claims.
Under HB2, however, the city no longer has authority to enact an anti-discrimination ordinance. The City Council could in theory pass a resolution signaling it would agree to a compromise, but there has been no movement to do so.
“I hope that common sense prevails and there’s an ability to walk back some of what’s been done,” said David Ichel, a conflict resolution expert who teaches at Duke Law School. “I would be shocked that a deal could not be reached.”
Bob Beason, another conflict resolution specialist who teaches at Duke, said a mediator could help.
“If the concern is truly sexual predators, maybe mediation could assist,” he said. “Finding laws to protect or punish true deviants instead of focusing on a group that has not been proven (to be) might happen with some informed discussion. At least the process could assist to ensure that misunderstanding is not the impediment.”
Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican who voted for the bill, said he’s willing to sit down with critics.
“I don’t want men in girls’ showers; that’s not negotiable,” he said. “(But) you can’t have jobs not coming here. … So is (there) some language that allows us to … get between those two? We can’t ignore this. We need to be listening when these businesses have these kind of concerns.”
Martin said listening is key. One problem, he said, is the political polarization that keeps the sides apart.
Charlotte is a strongly Democratic city. According to Common Cause, 90 percent of lawmakers that voted for HB2 are either unopposed for re-election or come from relatively safe districts.
“I just think that if you can get people willing to listen to each other and understand what the problem is, they can find a reasonable solution,” Martin said. “I don’t think I have ever checked who was standing next to me in the bathroom.”
When the City Council first debated the ordinance in early 2015, former council member David Howard suggested a possible architectural compromise. At the time, he floated the idea of requiring new buildings to have a third, single-stall bathroom that could be used by families, transgender individuals or whoever wanted to use it.
But the idea didn’t gain traction. A big concern was it would be too costly for developers.