It’s a law that sparked a national backlash, brought economic reprisals and became a running joke on late night television. Polls showed most voters opposed it. The man poised to become governor vowed to repeal it.
But an election that transformed national politics did little for those hoping to make House Bill 2 go away. It only reinforced those who support it.
“The discussion about HB2 is over, the people have spoken,” says Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, which strongly supports the law.
After Tuesday’s election cemented Republican control of the General Assembly, there appears to be no groundswell to change HB2 – the law that overturned a Charlotte ordinance extending legal protections to the LGBT community. The state law bars local governments from enacting similar measures and requires transgender people to use the public bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate.
The election may have not only reaffirmed the legislation in Raleigh, but in Washington.
That’s because the law is currently in federal court, a legal challenge on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a Virginia case involving transgender rights. That case, which would have a direct bearing on the N.C. law, could be decided by a court with a new justice appointed by a Republican President Donald Trump.
And a new Republican-led Justice Department would likely no longer fight HB2 like the current department.
“This issue has been scrambled by the election,” says John Hood, president of the Pope Foundation. “A Trump Justice department and Supreme Court is not going to do what a Democratic Department of Justice and Supreme Court did.”
Supporters say the so-called “bathroom bill” guarantees privacy and safety, particularly for women and children.
But some companies have cited it as their reason for going elsewhere. It’s why celebrities have canceled appearances and why the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference pulled tournament games from the state. And why business leaders continue to push for change.
“We don’t know what the answer is but we need a solution,” says Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber. “The status quo will likely result in further economic damage to our state… Whether you’re for or against what the state did in passing HB2, we have a problem.”
While some lawmakers say there could be some changes, they don’t expect the law to go away.
Last month an Observer Poll found that 55 percent of likely N.C. voters believed the law should be repealed. But nearly as many support requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms of the gender on their birth certificate.
Republicans emerged from Tuesday’s election with their legislative majorities intact. They preserved their super-majorities, even gained a seat in the Senate. Charlotte Republican Dan Bishop, an architect of the law, won election to the Senate with nearly 57 percent of the vote.
But HB2 was an issue in a handful of legislative races and, possibly, in the governor’s race.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory trails Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper by about 5,000 votes, though thousands of provisional and absentee ballots have yet to be counted. McCrory signed HB2 into law last March. While other issues hurt McCrory – including opposition to tolling on Interstate 77 in Mecklenburg County – some voters said they voted against him because of HB2.
The law factored into legislative races in Wake and Mecklenburg counties.
Republican Rep. Chris Malone of Wake Forest was one of at least three GOP lawmakers who called for repealing parts of the law. He won a close re-election race.
Malone says he favors an idea floated last summer: essentially, to start over and let a committee of all interested parties sit down together and try to find common ground.
“I think it still is the best thing to do,” he said after the election. “It’s what we should have done from the very beginning.”
Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius says other Republicans also want changes.
“There are enough of us who realize we have to address it,” he says. “I mean, we don’t live under a rock for God’s sake. We know something’s got to be done.”
He said all the controversy has distracted from the state’s economic gains. He wants lawmakers to deal with the law’s component parts. For example, they could extend anti-discrimination protection to people based on their sexual identity.
“C’mon, it’s 2016,” Tarte says. “You can’t allow people to be fired because they’re gay. That’s wrong.”
A ‘non-factor’ Tuesday
But any changes would require buy-in from legislative leaders, who so far have defended the law.
“Voters voted based on the economy,” House Speaker Tim Moore told the N.C. Insider. “I continue to believe that HB2 has been misrepresented by the left and the media and was blown out of proportion.”
Moore said the law was a non-factor in three rural areas where Republicans won what had been Democratic seats.
Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger could not be reached. But spokeswoman Shelly Carver says it’s premature to comment on the law before the new Senate GOP caucus has even met to set their agenda.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte isn’t hopeful of change.
“It would be a welcome surprise if Republicans were willing to seriously reconsider their stance on HB2,” he says. “I don’t expect it.”
Hood, of the Pope Foundation, says the question isn’t necessarily to repeal or not repeal. The administration could take other steps such as requiring more single-occupancy, gender-neutral restrooms in public buildings.
“If you ask (leaders) ‘Do you think there will be conversations about these issues going forward?’ The answer is probably yes,” he says.
The controversy over the law has driven a wedge further between Charlotte, which is governed by Democrats, and the Republicans who control the General Assembly.
John Autry knows that.
A Charlotte City Council member, he was a prime advocate of the ordinance that prompted HB2. Since his election last week to the N.C. House, the Charlotte Democrat has practiced for the reception he expects in Raleigh.
At home, he wears a sign taped to his back. It says simply, “Kick me.”