Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The Old North State: We Are Not This

North Carolina has long been viewed as a model of prosperity, modernity, progressivity and decency for the rest of the South – a brightly shining star in a region of the country that has otherwise been slow to keep up with the rising tide of change.  North Carolina is the South’s success story; a pines-strewn oasis in an otherwise thick forest of deadwoods.  North Carolina’s ever-expanding, ultra-vibrant economy – driven by biotechnology in Research Triangle Park and the financial services industry in and around Charlotte – has provided the catalyst for exploding population growth, rendering North Carolina the 9th largest state in the Union.  The influx of people from around the country – indeed, around the world – has created our very own melting pot – enhancing the diversity, culture and humanity of the area.  Couple this with the inherent beauty of a state sandwiched perfectly between pristine beaches to the east and soaring, majestic mountains to the west, and you have a place which is consistently ranked among the best spots to live on earth.  I could not be more proud of the state I call home.

With this as the backdrop, I watched in horror, disbelief and with profound sadness last week as North Carolina summarily became the laughing stock of America, a punch line for late-night comics, and a punching bag for human decency.  With the speedy and secretive passage of House Bill 2, North Carolina, literally overnight, reduced itself to a caricature of hate, exclusion, backwardness and division.  After years of hard-fought progress separating itself from the region with which it is surrounded, North Carolina once again joined the Old South.  The well-earned image of North Carolina as a leader for social policy, as a beacon of hope for inclusivity, tolerance and equality is now badly damaged, perhaps irreparably so.  With one stroke of his ill-fated pen, Governor Pat McCrory has turned back the hands of time from which it will take years, if not generations, to recover.

In February, the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance which expanded existing rules preventing businesses from discriminating against customers based on race, age, religion and gender, to include the protection of gay, lesbian or transgender persons.  Let me be clear: this is the key component of the ordinance – incorporating the LGBT community as a protected class under the law.  This designation makes it possible for folks in this community to properly seek their legal remedies, just as one would were they the victim of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, age or any other protected class.  But more importantly, at a very basic level, it provides the foundation for these folks to protect their fundamental rights of freedom and equality, and to seek – as is promised to us all – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  This was the crux of the law.  However, the bill did go further to include a controversial provision allowing transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender with which they identify.  Such provisions are not uncommon—many major cities, as well as smaller ones, have them on the books.

While I do not generally have an objection to the “bathrooms” provision itself, I also do not believe that it was a necessary component of the ordinance at this time.  One did not have to be clairvoyant to have predicted that this provision was going to provide a major hurdle, as well as a public relations nightmare, for its supporters.  Moreover, it was also highly predictable that the Republicans in the legislature – and Governor McCrory – would focus their attention and attacks solely on the bathrooms provision.  Thus, the supporters of the ordinance conveniently provided the Republicans with a formidable shield against their own bigotry.  Of course, the bathrooms provision was merely used as a distraction which exempted the Republicans from having to defend their more egregious, and politically untenable, opposition to the more fundamental protections afforded the LGBT community by the ordinance.  In short, it provided the perfect smoke screen.

If the Republicans, as they claim, had only been offended by the bathrooms provision of the ordinance, why, then, did they write legislation that went far beyond simply obviating this controversial piece of the bill.  In reality, the Republicans crafted legislation that even went well beyond overturning the entire ordinance.  In addition to fully eliminating Charlotte’s ban, the bill also prevents any local governments from passing their own non-discrimination ordinances, and prohibits cities and other municipalities from enacting minimum wages higher than that of the state.  (Minimum wage?  Where the heck did that come from?)  A bill that was sold as a correction of government overreach is, for all intents and purposes, a prime example of serious government overreach.  Apparently, conservatives love the idea of local governmental control when it suits their political agenda, but they take a very different view when it does not.  The irony, together with the appalling hypocrisy, would be comical if it weren’t so sad.

In addition to HB2 going miles further than its stated purpose, there is yet another odious component to this already despicable law.  Namely, the way in which it was passed.  The North Carolina General Assembly hastily called lawmakers back to Raleigh last Wednesday for a special session.  Notably, the reason for this “special” session was not to address a pressing budget crisis, a natural disaster or court-mandated redistricting.  Certainly, the purpose of the special session was not to expand voter rights, increase the minimum wage or accept the federal Medicaid expansion.  These substantive issues that would have a real and immediate impact in people’s lives were not the concern of this legislature.  What was the matter of such grave public consequence that it required the legislature’s immediate attention?  The hallucinogenic specter of male sexual predators entering women’s restrooms.  Were this fear not a delusion, which it is, it undoubtedly does not rise to the level of public crisis which justifies a special session paid for by taxpayers.

What’s more, the bill was rushed through the legislature with major pains taken to avoid any resistance or backlash which could have provided obstacles to the bill’s passage.  For example, the bill’s language was only made public mere minutes before it was to be considered.  The committee first tasked with voting on the law had to make a special request to be granted even five minutes to read the bill.  It seems as though the prevailing philosophy of those governing this process was to ram the bill through now, read it and ask questions later.  Transparency and openness were clearly not invited to participate in a process better characterized by clandestine scheming.  Perhaps most troubling is that there was a total of 30 minutes reserved for public comment, ensuring that there was effectively no public comment on the bill before it was brought for a vote.  The entire process took less than 12 hours; this was less legislative action and more like steamrolling.  Governor McCrory signed the bill in the dead of night, perhaps hoping that the late hour would preclude the world from seeing what he had done.  As the governor knows all too well now, he could not have been more wrong.

Speaking of the good governor, McCrory disingenuously claimed that one of his chief objections to the ordinance was that it would have a substantially negative impact on the North Carolina economy.  It was bad for business, he said (and tweeted).  Unless you have spent the past two weeks under a rock, you are well aware that the exact opposite is true.  The governor, and HB2, have been roundly and harshly criticized by important local businesses including Bank of America, Wells Fargo and American Airlines, all of whom have “hubs” in Charlotte.  The well-respected, and Charlotte legend, former CEO of Bank of America, Hugh McColl, called the law “inappropriate and unnecessary.”

More than 100 companies have signed onto a repeal letter representing all major sectors of the U.S. economy.  Tourism is highlighted by Hilton, Marriott and Starwood hotels; AirBnB, Uber and Lyft.  The banking and finance sector includes heavyweights Bank of America, Citibank, TD Bank and PayPal.  (PayPal has subsequently announced that they are scrapping plans to open a 400-job global operations center in North Carolina.)  Restauranteurs and retailers were led by Starbucks, Barnes & Noble and Levi Strauss; and technology executives joined in force, including the leaders of IBM, Apple, Intel, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, eBay, Twitter, YouTube, and many others.  A virtual Who’s Who list of American business.

The coup de grace, at least in the view of this basketball fan, was the stern statement issued by the NBA which reads, in pertinent part, “We are deeply concerned that this discriminatory law runs counter to our guiding principles of equality and mutual respect and do not yet know what impact it will have on our ability to successfully host the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte.”  The NCAA issued a similarly strong statement regarding the upcoming tournament games scheduled for Charlotte and Raleigh in 2017.  If this doesn’t grab the attention of basketball-crazed North Carolina, I don’t know what will.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is challenging Governor McCrory in the fall, was succinct and spot on when he labeled the whole fiasco a “national embarrassment.”  Indeed, it is.  But the swift and courageous push back against the bill by North Carolinians of all stripes has been anything but embarrassing.  It has been at once heartening, refreshing and uplifting.  North Carolina at her best.   An important first step in restoring North Carolina’s image and reversing the damage inflicted by this law would be to oust Pat McCrory from the governor’s mansion this fall in favor of Democrat Roy Cooper.

The governor’s signing HB2 into law is but the opening of this drama, not the final act.  North Carolina has been too good for too long to be defined by this Republican legislature and this governor.  Despite the current darkness, North Carolina’s true colors are now shining through, led not by its government but by its people, ensuring that it will soon be the brightest star on the block once more.  Following the bill’s passage, countless North Carolinians took to twitter to voice their deep displeasure with the new law under the hashtag #WeAreNotThis.  Given our proud history of progressive leadership in the South, from Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt to Dean Smith and Ella Baker, if ever there was a state deserving of such a hashtag, it’s the Old North State.

April 7, 2016 Posted by | Charlotte, Charlotte Ordinance, Governor McCrory, HB2, North Carolina, Uncategorized | Leave a comment