Politics & Government

Will Democrats’ split over HB2 replacement hurt the party in elections?

House Democratic Leader Rep. Darren Jackson, listens as Democratic Rep. Susan Fisher of Asheville speaks against the HB2 replacement bill on the House floor on March 30, 2017. Jackson encouraged Democrats to support the bill, but many voted no.
House Democratic Leader Rep. Darren Jackson, listens as Democratic Rep. Susan Fisher of Asheville speaks against the HB2 replacement bill on the House floor on March 30, 2017. Jackson encouraged Democrats to support the bill, but many voted no. cseward@newsobserver.com

For about a year, North Carolina Democrats have been united in their quest to reverse House Bill 2.

That unity fizzled last week within minutes of Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement that he’d support a compromise with Republicans to replace the controversial LGBT law.

As soon as the deal became public Wednesday night, LGBT advocacy groups and Democrats blasted the Democratic governor on social media for what they viewed as a bad compromise that keeps elements of HB2 intact. Some vowed to challenge the legislative Democrats who voted for the replacement bill.

“The Democratic Party raised money and ran on an issue and then turned their backs on that community,” said Chris Sgro, the executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina who also briefly served in the legislature as a Democrat. “That’s not going to go over well with a lot of people.”

Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that backed Democrats running for legislature last year, issued a statement saying that “each and every lawmaker who supported this bill has betrayed the LGBTQ community.”

Sgro says he thinks the bitter divide among Democrats will make it difficult for the party to energize voters and volunteers in 2018 – a crucial election year in which Democrats hope to break Republicans’ veto-proof majorities in the legislature.

“It unquestionably makes it harder for Democrats in 2018,” he said, adding that he thinks N.C. Democratic Party leaders were wrong to formally back the HB2 replacement bill when so many legislators voted no.

“It makes it harder to organize folks into one central place like the Democratic Party if we don’t feel like the Democratic Party strives to protect our civil rights.”

But N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said last week’s action should unite Democrats to win more House and Senate seats so the state can enact more nondiscrimination laws.

“All of us who had been opposed to House Bill 2 should maintain a focus on what is the solution, and that’s having more progressive, forward-looking Democrats” in office, he said. “Our LGBT community deserves to have full access to the law, and we will continue to fight for that.”

Goodwin defended the state party’s decision to endorse the HB2 replacement bill, which included a temporary ban on certain kinds of local anti-discrimination ordinances.

“As the party chair, I think it’s critical that we support Gov. Cooper and his work,” he said. “If we cannot obtain the full, clean repeal of House Bill 2, this was the only option that the Republican General Assembly would ever provide for many years to come.”

Sgro, however, says the LGBT community and its allies feel betrayed by Democrats who campaigned on promises to fully repeal HB2. Shortly after House Democrats voted 30-15 in favor of the replacement bill, Sgro called out Raleigh Reps. Cynthia Ball and Joe John for breaking campaign promises that helped them unseat Republican incumbents last year.

Ball, however, defends her vote and says she’s been working hard to explain her position to concerned constituents.

“I always wanted a clean repeal,” she said. “It became clear to me that it was going to be impossible to have a clean repeal. ... This is a step forward, but not the step I want us to take if we can.”

She says she accepts the possibility of a Democratic primary challenge but thinks it’s not the best approach to expand LGBT rights.

“The only way that we’re ever going to be able to get statewide (LGBT) protections is to break the supermajority,” she said. “I don’t think that challenging in primaries Democrats who voted for it and want to support the community is the best way to elect more Democrats.”

Political observers are skeptical that last week’s angst among Democrats will continue into the 2018 election.

“I think there’s going to be a period of recriminations for the next few weeks, but it’s a long time between now and the 2018 elections,” said Thomas Mills, a longtime Democratic strategist. “The legacy of damage that the Republicans have done to this state should be much more unifying of Democrats than a single vote on a contentious issue.”

While some have suggested that holding out for a full HB2 repeal could have benefited Democrats in 2018, Mills isn’t so sure.

“It became a very hot emotional issue in the 2016 election, but I don’t think the anger was necessarily sustainable to the 2018 election,” he said. “Some of the internal polling seems to be that the majority of people in areas where there are swing districts just want the issue to go away.”

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, also thinks the backlash against Democrats who supported the bill could fizzle. “You’re talking a year and a half, and that’s going to take some real momentum and energy,” he said, adding that the issue would likely be more potent in urban districts than rural ones.

Mills says it will be Cooper’s job to unify Democrats after the vote. “He’s got to reach out and try to bring folks back together,” he said. “I feel confident he’s going to do that. He needs to listen to (LGBT) concerns and stand up for them where he can.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter