Q&A: Behind Council’s Repeal - HB 2 Losses And A Dose Of Pragmatism

Dec 20, 2016
Originally published on December 21, 2016 2:51 pm

North Carolina's political scene has been full of surprises lately, like last week's unexpected special legislative session to limit the governor's powers. This week, it was the Charlotte City Council's turn. Monday, the council unexpectedly repealed an ordinance expanding legal protections for LGBT people. Morning Edition host Marshall Terry talks with WFAE reporter David Boraks, who’s been following the news out of both Raleigh and Charlotte.

MARSHALL TERRY: The ordinance already was invalid - after the Republican-controlled legislature last March passed the controversial House Bill 2, which limited LGBT rights. Lawmakers had said they'd consider repealing HB 2 if Charlotte repealed its ordinance first.
This week, the council finally agreed, on the condition that the legislature repeal HB 2 by December 31, or the council's vote is wiped out. That means the legislature is going back to Raleigh Wednesday for its third special session in a week.
David, why is this happening now?

DAVID BORAKS: I think there's a recognition on both sides of the HB 2 debate that the law is still hurting North Carolina. Until now, neither side was willing to make the first move. Council members considered that a couple of times - in May and September - but they didn't act.

Officials have been bargaining behind the scenes for months to end the stalemate. Here's Democratic state Representative Becky Carney of Charlotte.

CARNEY: I think everybody is recognizing the damage that this whole issue since last March has done to our state. And I think everybody's trying to find that that window to compromise.

BORAKS: It wasn't just Democrats like Carney. Republican state Senator Jeff Tarte of Cornelius agreed.

TARTE: I think the big thing is … let's just reset. Go back to where we were prior to both ordinances. And then let's move forward. Let's not necessarily just drop the topic. But let's get all the stakeholders around the table and work for a collaborative solution going forward that protects everybody appropriately.

BORAKS: Remember, Marshall, that the state has lost at least 3,000 jobs, based on statements from companies and chambers of commerce. Business recruiters say a lot of companies see HB 2 as a liability when it comes to hiring, and they're not looking at North Carolina the same way they did a year ago. The Charlotte Chamber has reported business inquiries are way down, for example.  

And then there are all the sports and entertainment events and conventions that have left North Carolina – the NBA all-star game and NCAA and ACC championships, to name a few ... because they believe HB 2 sends the message that LGBT people aren’t welcome.

TERRY: But those events and jobs were already gone when the council refused to repeal its ordinance in September. So what changed the council's mind?

BORAKS: It's just that consistent and persistent loss of business and jobs ... the damage to North Carolina's reputation ... and maybe a dose of pragmatism. City council member and Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles put it this way:

LYLES: When we adopted our nondiscrimination ordinance, the intent was to make us a more welcoming city for economic development. When the state passed HB 2, the unintended consequences were that we are not welcoming and we were losing jobs. So we have a big stake in making a change and having HB 2 repealed.

I think these days, talk about lost jobs and visitors has mostly eclipsed talk about which bathrooms people have to use - the most controversial part of the state law.

TERRY: How have people reacted to yesterday's announcements?

BORAKS: Well as you can imagine, it's a mix. Of course leaders who worked out the deal think it's a good one - even if it means Charlotte is taking the first step.

City council member Al Austin, who is gay, said it's not the path he would have liked. But he says he voted for it because he wants to see HB 2 repealed. That’s that pragmatism I was talking about.

Activist groups including Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign welcome the possibility that HB 2 will be repealed. But they aren't happy with the city council.

Matt Hirschy of Equality NC said the city council's vote caught him by surprise.

HIRSCHY: I have to be very clear here -- I cannot endorse or support Charlotte rescinding any protections for LGBT folks regardless of the ordinance being superseded by state law"

His reaction is to say groups like his are going to work even harder now.

MARSHALL:  What does this mean for LGBT people?

DAVID:  Great question. The practical effect of repealing the local and state laws is that LGBT people in the state will be in the same place they were before last February. That's when the city council passed the ordinance that spurred lawmakers to call the special session that approved HB 2.

One of the biggest disagreements in all of this was over which bathroom transgender people can use.  A majority of council members wanted a rule that acknowledged and protected what many transgender people already do – they use the bathroom of their gender identity. Lawmakers passed a law that for the first time expressly forbade that.

So if HB 2 is repealed, at least for the moment, it won’t specifically be illegal for a transgender woman, for example, to use the women's room.

But LGBT people still don't have all the same protections as other groups. They're not specifically protected against discrimination in public places – like restaurants, shops or even taxis.  [The city ordinance does prohibit discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender, but not sexual orientation.]

Charlotte Council member John Autry - a Democrat - said getting HB 2 out of the way was a necessary first step.

AUTRY: With HB 2 in place, we have no protections. None. As long as HB 2 remains on the books there is no path forward.

Activists say they'll keep fighting. And there may yet be a fight – last night the conservative NC Values Coalition, which supports HB 2, urged its members to tell legislators not to repeal the law.  

MARSHALL - Thanks. That’s WFAE reporter David Boraks.

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