State Politics

HB2 referendum has risks, rewards

General Assembly police get ready to arrest the last of the 54 activists that staged a sit-in in front of House Speaker Tim Moore’s office in opposition to House Bill 2 at the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. on Monday April 25, 2016.
General Assembly police get ready to arrest the last of the 54 activists that staged a sit-in in front of House Speaker Tim Moore’s office in opposition to House Bill 2 at the State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. on Monday April 25, 2016. rwillett@newsobserver.com

House Bill 2 seems destined to dominate North Carolina’s fall election. Some on both sides of the debate see advantages in ensuring that happens — by placing the law on the ballot.

The U.S. Justice Department announced Wednesday the law known as HB2 violates the U.S. Civil Rights Act and jeopardizes billions in federal education money. But Senate Republicans are still considering putting HB2 up for a vote of the people, said Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, powerful chairman of the Rules Committee. Apodaca floated that idea as the legislative session was beginning and said Thursday that it remains a possibility.

With Democrats calling for the law to be repealed, Democratic political consultant Gary Pearce may seem like an unlikely referendum supporter. But he says he’s all for it.

“I feel like it’s going to be a magnet for young voters who were attracted to (Bernie) Sanders and many not be excited about Hillary Clinton,” Pearce said.

HB2 is hurting Republicans, he said, and putting it on the November ballot would end up helping Democratic candidates by drawing young voters to the polls. That would help Democrats win metropolitan, swing legislative districts, he said.

Bishop Patrick Wooden, a speaker at pro-HB2 rallies in Raleigh and leader of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ in Raleigh, also likes the idea of a referendum, but for a different reason.

“It would only strengthen HB2,” Wooden said. “Regardless of how it’s covered, a majority of North Carolinians agree with HB2, from what I understand. And it shows that this is not some rogue piece of legislation that doesn’t reflect the thinking of everyday North Carolinians.”

Wooden was an outspoken supporter of the state’s last referendum on a social issue – the spring 2012 vote to add to the constitution the definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The same-sex marriage ban cruised to a 20-point win. A federal court ruled it unconstitutional about two years later.

Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant and congressional candidate in the 8th District, said trying to turn a controversial law into a constitutional amendment is bad policy and a dangerous political strategy.

“Making this the central issue of the 2016 elections has risks for both sides,” he said. “Democrats should be talking about Trump and Republicans should be talking about the economy in North Carolina.”

Beyond the question of whether a referendum would help Democrats or Republicans is that of the popularity of HB2 itself. Even on that, there’s no agreement.

A Houston anti-discrimination ordinance that opponents dubbed “the bathroom bill” was soundly defeated last year in that Texas city.

HB2 has several parts. The most talked-about section overturned a Charlotte ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the public restroom of their choice. The law nullifies the ordinance, requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificates. HB2 includes several other sections that limit municipal anti-discrimination ordinances, prevent municipalities from requiring contractors to pay their employees more than minimum wage, and bar the filing of employment discrimination lawsuits in state court.

Most of the debate about the law, however, is about the bathroom part. Poll results vary. The poll questions on HB2 are worded differently, which helps explain the results.

But all four polls show Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor, leading incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Brad Anderson of RABA Research said HB2 seems to be a drag on McCrory.

▪ An Elon University Poll taken April 10-15 summarized the Charlotte ordinance as “allowing transgender individuals to use public facilities, such as bathrooms, that best match their gender identity.” The poll asked whether the state should prohibit cities from passing such ordinances, and 49 percent said it should, while 39 percent said cities should be allowed to pass such policies, and 11 percent didn’t know.

▪ A survey by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling taken April 22-24 asked registered voters if they “support or oppose House Bill 2” and found that 45 percent opposed it, 36 percent supported it, and 19 percent weren’t sure.

▪ A poll conducted on April 27 and 28 by RABA Research asking registered voters if they “approve or disapprove of HB2 – the state’s new anti-transgender law” – found 50 percent disapproved, 35 percent approved, and 16 percent weren’t sure.

▪ A poll by the conservative Civitas Institute conducted April 23-25 found 61 percent agreed that the Charlotte ordinance “creates a loophole that gives sexual predators access to women’s locker rooms and bathrooms, and women and girls feel unsafe and uncomfortable being forced to share the women’s bathroom with a biological man who may or may not identify as female.” Twenty-nine percent in the Civitas poll agreed more with the statement that the Charlotte ordinance is “a reasonable policy for transgender people who may prefer to use the bathroom of the opposite biological sex because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable using the bathroom of their own biological sex.”

The language of poll questions influences responses, said Tom Jensen, pollster for PPP.

PPP asked a simple question about HB2, without defining it, to figure out what people already knew or had seen or read in the media, he said. The level of awareness of HB2 is much higher in the Triangle than in other parts of the state, he said.

Divergent lines of argument have already formed, with supporters calling it a “commonsense bathroom bill” that keeps men out of women’s bathrooms, while supporters emphasize the economic damage from lost jobs, and convention and concert cancellations.

Those arguments offer a preview of the ad messages voters would hear if HB2 makes it onto a ballot, Jensen said.

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