Last spring, just after North Carolina passed House Bill 2 into law, House Speaker Tim Moore took a family vacation to Prague. When his youngest son told Moore he was on TV, he turned to watch himself starring in the B-roll of an HB2 story.
“I’ve got to tell you,” the Cleveland County Republican said, “when you’re in Prague on spring break and you’re seeing yourself on CNN International, that’s a weird feeling.”
In a recent, wide-ranging interview, Moore reflected back on key subplots of one of North Carolin’s biggest political controversies in years.
“The biggest regret I have on House Bill 2 is messaging,” he said. “We, for a solid year and a half, really avoided a lot of controversial social issues. We focused on jobs, taxes, economic development, improving education — the things that we wanted to deal with.”
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The Charlotte City Council voted in February to expand its nondiscrimination law to cover LGBT people. The expanded ordinance also would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identify. In response, the General Assembly passed HB2 in March, pre-empting the Charlotte ordinance and other local laws stricter than state anti-discrimination law that doesn’t specifically protect people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. HB2 also requires people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates — the portion of the law the U.S. Department of Justice has challenged.
Moore said he has no remorse about presiding over the March 23 House special session that approved the law. And he said he was happy with the social reforms the House passed last year. Lawmakers adopted a measure allowing court officials to refuse to perform gay marriages because of their religious beliefs. They also changed the rules regarding ultrasound images that abortion providers must give the state.
When the Charlotte City Council “went down a radical path” and passed its bathroom ordinance, it forced the state’s Republican leadership to react, Moore said. “The messaging of what their ordinance did and why we responded got lost in the shuffle,” Moore added. “Listening to the narrative being explained out there, it is being misrepresented and it still is. The left wanted to make it about discrimination, when it is really about safety.”
Moore would not go so far as saying HB2 overshadowed the news about North Carolina's improving economy. But he did say he hates that conventions were cancelled, and especially how some Democrats celebrated business boycotts. “We are continuing to grow and job announcements are continuing to happen,” Moore said. “The North Carolina unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in years.”
HB2 shifted the spotlight so dramatically the 2016 session began in April with North Carolina the butt of late night comedy show monologues, celebrity boycotts and businesses threatening to relocate. But the state also became the hero of social conservatives.
During the session, House Democrats pushed back against HB2 with a procedural move known as a discharge petition.
Filed by Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, the petition needed 61 House signatures to force HB2 out of the Judiciary Committee and onto the House floor for a repeal vote. The House has only 43 Democrats so Republican support was required. Jackson filed the petition on May 16. Jackson and several of the chamber’s younger, urban Democrats, including Rep. Grier Martin of Wake County; Rep. Graig Meyer of Orange County; and Rep. Susi Hamilton of New Hanover County, began shaking hands to line up signatures. First came fellow Democrats who initially voted for HB2 but regretted their decision for various reasons: Rep. Billy Richardson of Cumberland County; Rep. Garland Pierce of Scotland County; and Rep. Larry Bell of Sampson County.
One prominent Democrat who didn't sign the petition was Rep. Ken Goodman of Richmond County. Goodman heads the Main Street Democrats legislative caucus, which promotes a “middle-of-the-road, pro-business” agenda. While other Main Street Democrats did sign, for Goodman inertia was key. The Main Street Democrats try to avoid social issues and while HB2 evolved from a social issue into a business issue, at the time Goodman saw the political reality. “My view was that it (the petition) was not going to go anywhere,” he said. “If it was going to go somewhere I would have signed it.”
Jackson and his colleagues hit a wall when trying to pry Republicans away from their caucus.
“In the end nothing happens in the House and the Senate without Republicans wanting it,” Martin said. “We made overtures to the Republican caucus. We heard from some members they were concerned about HB2 and wanted to see it gone. A few said they were willing to move if enough other Republicans went on record against it.” But no Republicans came aboard and by July 1, the end of the 2016 session, only 27 Democrats signed the petition. It was less than half needed to trigger a discharge. “I tried everything,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “Working behind the scenes, repealing the bill, the discharge petition, even a budget amendment.”
“I really thought we could combine the moral outrage and the business community,” Jackson said. “I thought it was something they had to fix. I thought moderation and common sense would rule the day.”
Responding to Moore’s comment about losing control of the narrative, Jackson said, “I would say that he lost control of a false bathroom narrative. (HB2) was not only about bathrooms and I think people saw through that.”
Jackson added that he thought the Republicans used HB2 as a way to bundle together a host of issues they thought would appeal to their base in an unpredictable election year. “Everyone was getting concerned about Trump,” he said. “So they took everything but the kitchen sink and threw it into the bill.” In addition to reversing the Charlotte bathroom ordinance, HB2 contained several lesser-known provisions, which impacted state employment laws.
For Goodman, who said he is passionate about revisiting the issue and fixing the economic damage done, his regret is about a breakdown of process. HB2 passed in less than a day. “There should have been time to vet the implications,” he said. “This should have gone through the normal process of vetting and hearing so that people could see the possible ramifications.”
Martin took a historic perspective. “It shouldn't be surprising to anyone,” he said. “In North Carolina, we have a history of discrimination and a history of overcoming that discrimination. Speaker Moore and Senate President Berger should have been well aware of that, not to mention Governor (Pat) McCrory.”
Moore’s feelings are mixed about HB2’s economic impact. But the moral side remains clear. With staff in his office, he reflected on a recent federal HB2 hearing and said he’d heard the Department of Justice was asking for states to move away from labeling things for men and women. To Moore it is federal government overreach. “This is part of a bigger agenda,” he said, “to get to some sort of a genderless society.”