In the aftermath of North Carolina’s 2014 election season, I interviewed several women who’d run and lost on the Democratic ticket in Rutherford County. One of them summed up the Republican rout as: “Across the board, voters want jobs and education. But they voted against gay marriage and abortion.”
Two years later, it’s shaping up to be déjà vu all over again. The same LGBT culture war rages on, with the same ability to suck all of the oxygen out of the political sphere. And in a familiar reaction, Democrats appear poised to remain almost solely focused during the election on this culture war’s latest battle, transgender bathroom access.
Relegated to the sidelines – again – will be some truly alarming economic threats, including House Bill 2’s far less discussed mandate that effectively freezes a sub-poverty-level minimum wage of $7.25 in place.
It’s difficult to see how this is politically wise. For all the attention it garners, LGBT rights don’t seem to motivate more supporters than opponents to the polls in North Carolina. Take the 2012 ballot that included a ban on same-sex marriage. According to the Institute on Southern Studies, only 20 percent of North Carolina voters showed up to vote against Amendment One, which ultimately passed by a vote margin of 61 to 39 percent. Since then, LGBT rights supporters haven’t flocked to the polls in large enough numbers to vote out the legislators who put Amendment One on the ballot.
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In an interesting parallel, both HB2 and Amendment One contained additional mandates that affected many North Carolinians outside the LGBT community. And when voters were made aware of these mandates, it changed their support for the bills to opposition.
For example, Amendment One took away legal benefits for unmarried heterosexual couples, something many voters were unaware of. Once they were enlightened on this aspect, only 38 percent of Amendment One’s original supporters continued to approve of it, according to a Public Policy Polling survey. So it goes with HB2 and how it prohibits counties and municipalities from raising a truly disgraceful minimum wage. An April Elon University poll found that while almost half of state voters approved of legislators prohibiting city ordinances like Charlotte’s, as compared with only 39 percent who disapproved, a full half opposed state ordinances that banned counties and municipalities from raising the minimum wage.
Yet Democratic candidates like Roy Cooper and Deborah Ross have said very little, if anything, about HB2’s effect on tens of thousands of North Carolinians who earn at or around the minimum wage. Why?
A more important question is whether making transgender bathroom access a central campaign issue is worth sacrificing low-income North Carolinians to more years of punishing Republican rule.
To date, GOP lawmakers have made unemployment insurance benefits among the lowest in the country, required drug testing to receive meager welfare assistance and enacted a slew of new and regressive sales taxes and fee hikes. In rural Rutherford County, we’ve made up no ground on the number of people who dropped from the employed rolls during the Great Recession, and our entire school district now qualifies for free breakfast and lunch. Further, based on the steady stream of trucks filled with coal ash arriving in the county, Duke Energy apparently plans to turn our economically depressed county into one of North Carolina’s premier coal ash dumps.
Meanwhile, in nearby Morganton another bathroom issue recently came to light, one that pulls back the curtain on some of the most exploited workers in North Carolina. An Oxfam report found that poultry plant workers at Case Farms are routinely denied access to the bathroom, with some workers reportedly having to soil themselves instead of leaving the processing line. There has been no public outcry from North Carolina Democratic leaders. There has certainly been no declaration from gubernatorial candidate Cooper that he refuses to countenance such an injustice against workers, unlike his public denouncement of HB2’s language concerning transgender bathroom access.
But then, low-wage and exploited workers aren’t reliably engaged in the political arena. As one of the Democratic candidates I interviewed after the 2014 elections also noted, “The people we were trying to help didn’t vote. They just don’t think their vote makes a difference.”
In 2016, is there really any reason for them to believe otherwise?
Stephanie Janard is a freelance correspondent for The Daily Courier of Rutherford County.