California Forum

Is North Carolina a cautionary tale about the dangers of alienating moderates?

A crowd across from the North Carolina governor’s mansion protests House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom bill.”
A crowd across from the North Carolina governor’s mansion protests House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom bill.” News & Observer (Raleigh) file

With Barack Obama in the White House for the past eight years, congressional Republicans have had little success repealing the Affordable Care Act, restricting abortion rights, expanding “religious liberty” protections or achieving their other “values” goals.

Instead, state lawmakers and governors – North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, among them – have enthusiastically taken up these causes, enacting laws that restrict voting, permit discrimination against LGBT people, and subject women seeking an abortion to a blizzard of punitive laws.

The inevitable legal challenges that followed have achieved some successes before federal judges, notably the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision exempting some employers from the Obamacare contraceptive mandate.

In North North Carolina, Republicans have dominated the General Assembly since 2010, and when McCrory became governor in 2012, there was pent-up demand for legislation that Democrats had thwarted.

Yet the North Carolina GOP may well have overplayed its hand, making the Tar Heel state a cautionary tale for Democrats and Republicans about the dangers of alienating moderates, including in California where Democrats have a lock on state offices.

Charlotte voters with whom I’ve spoken, including Republicans, are dismayed by the millions in economic losses and the international embarrassment that North Carolina’s House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill,” have caused.

The law, also known as HB 2, was passed and signed in one day. Designed to block a Charlotte ordinance, it bars local governments from passing protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and requires that transgender people in government buildings use the restrooms that correspond with their gender at birth.

Voters are also upset that McCrory has rejected federal subsidies to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, something Republican governors in New Jersey, Indiana and Ohio have done. Voters are also frustrated that the Legislature has focused on restricting voter access and tax cuts to the exclusion, some say, of a more robust economic strategy and a more inclusive social agenda.

“This is not the Charlotte I know, that I have been a part of for a long time,” bemoaned Martha Alexander, a Democrat who represented the city in the North Carolina House from 1993-2013.

A steady influx of northern- and western-state transplants drawn to Charlotte’s booming job market in recent years has given the city a major-league skyline and fed the region’s sense of optimism and pride. Craft breweries and hipster coffee places have opened alongside traditional barbecue shacks. Southern politeness endures; my California ears are still getting used to being addressed as “Ma’am.”

Charlotte’s mayor, Jennifer Roberts, is a Democrat and the city decidedly leans blue. But like other Southern states, North Carolina is also rural, poor and very conservative. The state went for Barack Obama in 2008 but for Mitt Romney in 2012, and it is not unusual to see Confederate flags flapping from pickup trucks.

Hillary Clinton is now favored to win North Carolina in many polls, and the contests for governor and U.S. Senate, once expected to remain safely in Republican hands, have become surprisingly close.

Hillary Clinton is now favored to win North Carolina in many polls, and the contests for governor and U.S. Senate, once expected to remain safely in Republican hands, have become surprisingly close.

Alexander is among those who plan to vent their frustration with McCrory by voting for his Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Roy Cooper.

McCrory’s defeat, if it happens, should send a message to governors in other red states about voters’ limited appetite for social legislation, especially when that agenda comes with some economic risk.

HB 2 and a package of tax cuts McCrory pushed included the elimination of some deductions that, according to Mike Smiley, have hurt middle-class families and retirees, and “put the nails in the state as far as I’m concerned.”

“McCrory was a good mayor in Charlotte, worked across party lines,” said Smiley, who owns a Charlotte financial planning firm and generally votes Republican. “He’s just a different guy now; I don’t like his direction.”

Last year Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate, signed a measure similar to HB 2, undermining the civil protections for gays and lesbians. But in the face of fervent protests, Pence brokered a hastily drafted amendment intended to blunt – blur, according to critics – the measure’s harshest provisions.

In July, McCrory signed legislation restoring the right of employees to claim in state court that they were fired for discriminatory reasons. But the bathroom provisions remain in effect, as does the language preventing cities and counties from imposing LGBT protections broader than state law. The governor’s popularity has continued to slide even as he won praise for an effective response to the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew.

As a result, McCrory’s defeat may change the Republican playbook in North Carolina and beyond.

If Cooper wins and Democrats gain some seats in the General Assembly, as some observers expect, look for repeal or a significant rewrite of HB 2 and perhaps second thoughts about a hard-right strategy. The “bathroom law” has dismayed many in Charlotte, and the millions in lost revenue – from major sporting events, conventions and corporate moves canceled – have stung given the area’s steady growth in recent years.

“Charlotte has always been seen as this pro-business place; we’ve given a lot to the state,” observed independent voter and marketing executive Linda Lockman-Brooks. “What happens here and in Raleigh affects the rest of the state.”

Charlotte has always been seen as this pro-business place; we’ve given a lot to the state. What happens here and in Raleigh affects the rest of the state.

Linda Lockman-Brooks, marketing executive and independent voter

HB 2 also caused painful soul-searching. Bridget-Anne Hampden’s first reaction to the law was “I don’t want to share a bathroom with a man.” Hampden is a former banking executive who heads the Charlotte YMCA’s diversity committee. But after corporate YMCA officials worked with the Charlotte staff as part of diversity conversations that predated HB 2, Hampden realized “I can’t have that kind of attitude if I say I’m a believer in Christ.”

Voters elsewhere may also recoil when lawmakers veer so sharply right that there are pocketbook consequences. Federal judges may prove less receptive as well.

In August, a three-judge appeals court panel struck down North Carolina’s strict voter ID law, slamming the 2013 Republican-backed measure as “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow,” and that its provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The Supreme Court subsequently denied the state’s request to reinstate provisions of the controversial law, forcing North Carolina election officials to restore the full 17 days of early voting along with other ballot-access measures that lawmakers had eliminated.

Independent voter Lockman-Brooks warned, “the Republicans have just not moved us along.” Governors and lawmakers in states that swing toward the extremes would be wise to listen.

Molly Selvin was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times for 18 years and is visiting her son in Charlotte, N.C. Contact her at molly.selvin@gmail.com.

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