Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts says City Council agreed to rescind its nondiscrimination ordinance because, for the first time, Republican legislative leaders in Raleigh gave their word that such action by the city would cause the General Assembly to fully repeal House Bill 2.
“It was the first time we had heard the actual word ‘repeal,’ ” Roberts, a Democrat, told the Observer in an interview last week.
In the days following the council’s Dec. 19 vote to rescind its ordinance, many have wondered why it took such a step after previously drawing a hard-line position on keeping the ordinance on the books.
There had been discussions in May and September about a possible deal, but Roberts and the mostly Democratic council had rejected both times the idea of symbolically rescinding an ordinance – designed to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination – that had been nullified by the legislature’s approval of House Bill 2.
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During those previous conversations, “I never heard the word ‘repeal’ used by the Republican leadership. I heard them say ‘We’ll do something.’ And that was not enough for me to support talking about taking our ordinance off the books,” Roberts said.
On Dec. 19, though, City Council voted 10-0 to do just that hours after Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper called Roberts and other members of the council to say that Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore had committed to repealing House Bill 2 – if the Charlotte council acted first by rescinding its ordinance.
“So what was (also) different was that ... the governor-elect was personally engaged in working with the legislature and working with all parties involved to say that this is really going to happen,” said Roberts, who did not personally talk to Berger or Moore prior to the council’s December vote. “(Cooper) contacted several of us on the council and said, ‘My team has been working on this. We have the word of both Phil Berger and Tim Moore that the votes are there and that, if Charlotte takes a step, they will actually remove HB2.’ ”
Cooper and his staff had even met with the NBA, the NCAA and businesses that oppose House Bill 2 and had boycotted the state because of it.
Berger and Moore could not be reached for comment. But on Sept. 17, during a period when a possible deal was being discussed, House Speaker Moore never promised repeal in a statement released by his office. In part, it read: “The legislature and governor (Republican Pat McCrory) did not create this controversy – the Mayor and City Council of Charlotte did. If the Charlotte City Council and Mayor fully and unconditionally repeal their ordinance, then I believe we have something to discuss. As for the House of Representatives, any specifics to be done would be subject to discussions and a decision of the (House GOP) caucus.”
Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and Council member Julie Eiselt, who also talked by phone to Cooper last week, echoed Roberts’ version of what happened in December and earlier in 2016.
In previous talks with legislative leaders, said Eiselt, “it was always, ‘You repeal your ordinance and then we’ll talk about it.’ Well, that (vagueness) is ridiculous.”
Last week, Lyles said, “for the first time, we had conversations (through Cooper) with both the speaker and the president of the Senate that indicated their willingness to actually bring it forward for a vote.” And, Lyles added, City Council’s vote to rescind its ordinance meant the legislative leaders “could no longer say, ‘We want to do something but Charlotte is in the way.’ ”
The ‘blame game’
But City Council’s vote did not lead to a repeal of House Bill 2. By the time the General Assembly adjourned its special session Dec. 21, the deal negotiated by Cooper, legislative leaders, and the council had fallen apart.
Because House Republicans were divided, no bill to repeal the controversial state law reached the House floor. The Senate voted, but only after Berger added language calling for a moratorium on local ordinances like Charlotte’s. This “cooling off period” was an effort to placate GOP lawmakers who distrusted Democrats and their allies. But it also alienated Democrats, including Cooper, who said it wasn’t part of the deal.
Also complicating things: Republicans in the legislature charged that Charlotte City Council had deceived them by not rescinding a separate ordinance that prohibited discrimination by companies that do business with the city. It was not blocked by House Bill 2. So the city had only rescinded the ordinance that was affected by HB2 – one relating to “public accommodations,” including bathrooms and locker rooms. The most controversial part of this local ordinance that legislators rushed to nullify allowed transgender persons to use the bathroom of their gender identity. House Bill 2 said they had to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said there was never any intention by the city to trick the legislature. “We believed what we did (on Dec. 19) was understood and acceptable to the (legislative) leadership,” he told the Observer this week. “But we were prepared to take another step.”
So, on Dec. 21, the council voted again, this time to undo all of the amendments to its non-discrimination ordinances that the council had passed in February. It also repealed a provision that would have restored the ordinances if the legislature didn’t repeal House Bill 2 by Dec. 31.
Berger, the Senate’s top Republican, blamed the Democrats for the deal’s collapse. Other Republicans, pointing to the timing of City Council’s reversal on rescinding its ordinance, charged that Roberts and Democrats on the council were playing politics. The accusation: They wanted to give the new Democratic governor a win even before he took office.
Roberts’ answer? “What I say (to Berger and other Republicans in the legislature) is that they’re too worried about who gets credit for what when our state is suffering,” she said. “They’re playing the blame game over and over again. All we want to do is let Charlotte be Charlotte. And let our cities thrive and prosper. And be laboratories of innovation and creativity and talent that we know they can be if they’re not preempted by the state every time they try to do something innovative.”
‘21st century city’
Roberts pointed out that 200 cities, including Columbia, S.C., have nondiscrimination ordinances similar to Charlotte’s.
“We want to be a 21st-century city that can compete,” Roberts said. “The real issue is that people who are coming to stay in our hotels or come to eat in our restaurants don’t want the owners of those hotels and restaurants to turn them away because they don’t support what they call ‘the gay lifestyle.’ ”
Roberts, a top political ally of Charlotte’s LGBTQ community, is again hoping for its support in her 2017 re-election bid. But she is expected to face competition for the Democratic nomination, and City Council’s December vote to symbolically rescind the nondiscrimination ordinance did not go over well with some in the LGBTQ community.
What kinds of reaction has she gotten from gays, lesbians and transgender persons?
“As with any group, the LGBTQ community is not monolithic. ... So we have had lots of different reactions from people I’ve spoken with,” Roberts said. “Some people, extremely disappointed and upset with the legislature. Some people, upset that Charlotte had to go first. Some people ... weary of the battle, just saying ‘All we want is equal treatment. Is that so hard in a democratic society?’ ”
State Rep. Chris Sgro of Greensboro, who heads Equality NC, a gay-rights group, said the Charlotte council should not have been put in the position to rescind its ordinance, which had already been nullified by the legislature.
“I know that Mayor Roberts and the Charlotte council are deeply committed to protecting LGBT Charlotteans from discrimination,” he said. “But it’s also the case that as long as HB2 exists, no city, including Charlotte, can protect its citizens. Repealing HB2 is the priority.”
Charlotte’s Scott Bishop, who sits on the board of the national Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ civil rights group, said he opposed City Council’s decision to rescind its ordinance – “I don’t think Charlotte needed to do anything” – and was not surprised by the legislature’s refusal to repeal House Bill 2.
“(Roberts) went at this with good faith, hoping the General Assembly would live up to its word. And they didn’t,” said Bishop, who was instrumental in lobbying for expanding the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance to include LGBTQ persons. “I would hope (Roberts and Charlotte City Council) are looking at any and all possibilities to reinstate the ordinance on the books. I hope they’re being creative.”
Roberts told the Observer she wouldn’t speculate on what comes next in the battle over House Bill 2, but she and others have voiced support for appointing a state blue-ribbon commission. It’s an idea that Ed Driggs, a Republican on City Council, said he could back – but only after the two sides can agree on a “reset” that would repeal both the Charlotte ordinance and House Bill 2.
“The first thing we need to do is step back from this clash over the ordinance and the response to HB2,” he said. “We need to get the spotlight off of us.”
A commission, he said, could then possibly study whether the legislature could enact a state law with protections for LGBT persons or give authority to municipalities to do so.
“I have not abandoned hope,” he said, “but this all has to be done in a less confrontational way. ... We are simply paying too high a price for the public dispute between Charlotte and (the legislature) in Raleigh.”
Eiselt, a Democrat on City Council, said she expects conversations on what to do next will start again in January. She said “taking defeat” on HB2 is “not the answer” for Charlotte. Instead, she hopes the city can join with allies – other cities, the business community and others – in “putting pressure on the legislature. Charlotte is not going to get this done alone.”
But the other side will be applying pressure too, working to keep HB2 in place. Tami Fitzgerald, who heads the Raleigh-based N.C. Values Coalition, said her group and its allies – including hundreds of evangelical churches – will continue to lobby the Republican-controlled legislature against repeal.
Said Fitzgerald: “We’re not open to anything that would expose and compromise the privacy and safety of the state’s citizens (while using bathrooms, showers or locker rooms) or the freedom of business owners to live and work according to their beliefs.”
Mayor Jennifer Roberts on:
The lessons she took from the city’s handling of this year’s protests. “I think we could do a better job of communicating. I’ve said we could be more transparent. I include myself. I think that we’re all part of a city government that needs to be open and transparent to the people. And we have made major strides since then. We have a video release policy. We have transparency workshops that are going on in our city. Our (police) chief has been in a number of community meetings. We have the Police Foundation doing a full review of what’s going on. And we’re going to continue to expand community policing. ... Our communication wasn’t the best. And I think that was both among city staff and council and also with our community around things like ‘What does a curfew really mean?’ ... I think we have improved, and I will continue to push us to improve and to be better and to be more connected. We’re doing a lot of ‘Know your rights’ workshops where citizens know when you encounter a police officer how do you react?”
Her goals as she runs for re-election in 2017. “I have a lot of unfinished business to work on in 2017-2018, if I’m lucky enough to get re-elected. I have looked very carefully at the opportunity gap that we have in Charlotte. ...Things that I ran on. The two Charlottes. How do we bring people closer? How do we make sure every corner of our city has opportunity?”