Politics & Government

Cooper’s HB2 emails show constituent vitriol – but no messages from governor

As he worked on a compromise to repeal House Bill 2 this spring, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper faced sharp criticism from backers and opponents of the controversial LGBT law, emails obtained by the Observer show.
As he worked on a compromise to repeal House Bill 2 this spring, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper faced sharp criticism from backers and opponents of the controversial LGBT law, emails obtained by the Observer show. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

As he worked on a compromise to repeal House Bill 2 this spring, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper faced sharp criticism from backers and opponents of the controversial LGBT law, emails obtained this month by the Observer through a public records request show.

The more than 500 pages of emails are comprised largely of constituent messages critical of the compromise legislation but for opposing reasons. The records request included a small number of emails sent by Cooper’s staff but no emails sent personally by the governor.

Cooper’s predecessor, Pat McCrory, signed HB2 into law in March 2016 to nullify a Charlotte ordinance that allowed transgender people to use public restrooms based on their gender identity. HB2 also overrode local ordinances around the state that would have expanded protections for the LGBT community.

Cooper, a Democrat, defeated McCrory, a Charlotte Republican, in the November election and immediately began pushing the legislature to repeal the law, which had caused sports organizations, musicians and corporation to shun the state in protest. By late March, Cooper and the legislature agreed on a replacement law that repealed HB2 and its controversial bathroom provision. But the new law forbids cities from passing their own non-discrimination ordinances until 2020, upsetting LGBT activists.

The emails display the passion the original law – and its replacement – stirred in North Carolina citizens, and the challenge for politicians in reaching a compromise.

“I am 72 years old and a lifelong NC democrat,” a Chapel Hill resident wrote to the governor. “Shame on you for supporting the disgusting replacement for House bill 2. This law gets Republicans off the hook and continues their disdain for human rights.”

On the other end of the spectrum, a Graham resident opposed to the repeal wrote: “You sick, sick man!!!! It is all about money and gays to you. God help you, because I sure would not.”

Face-to-face person

Amid the debate over HB2’s repeal, the Observer in February requested emails from Cooper’s office related to HB2. Earlier this month, his office provided communications from the beginning of the year through early April.

The messages include a message sent out by the governor after the passage of the repeal law, but no personal emails from Cooper. The emails also included a handful of messages from staff members, mostly related to a news conference in March.

“Hi Boss–anticipated questions for today should be attached,” Jamal Little of the governor’s press office, wrote in one email to Cooper about the news conference.

The messages provided by Cooper’s office contrast with those delivered to the Observer by McCrory’s office last year after the paper filed a lawsuit over a request that went unfilled for six months. The tens of thousands of pages of emails were mostly messages sent by constituents but the documents also included emails that McCrory and his staff members sent to lawmakers and each other.

In one email, for example, the governor’s former general counsel, Bob Stephens, told a former colleague that McCrory battled the legislature over HB2.

“Bob, here are the facts: We fought against this bill,” Stephens wrote in a March 26 email to Bob Turner, a lawyer in Charlotte. “You have no idea how hard the Governor worked to limit it. He told the legislature that it went too far. We lobbied against it and even drafted our own version of the bill but it was not accepted.”

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper, said her boss is “more of a face-to-face or talk-on-the-phone person,” which wouldn’t be reflected in emails.

Similarly, an August 2016 WRAL review of more than 36,000 of pages of records from Cooper’s time as North Carolina attorney general found only a few emails sent from Cooper’s official email account.

“It’s certainly his choice how he chooses to use the tools available as governor and as attorney general,” said Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Records Coalition. “It’s a little disappointing when you don’t have that record available because email has become such an important part of the function of government. It’s a record that really gives us a lot of insight into what government officials are thinking when they’re making important decisions.”

Criticism on both sides

Many of the emails obtained in the Observer’s Cooper request were form emails sent the governor’s office by people who were worried that efforts to repeal HB2 didn’t go far enough.

“House Bill 2 has done untold damage to our state’s economy and reputation, but those most harmed by this discriminatory law are our LGBT friends, family, and neighbors,” the emails read.

“I urge you to stand firm in your commitment to demanding HB2’s repeal. Please do not accept any bad deals that would repeal HB2 in name only while still enshrining anti-LGBT discrimination into law.”

Meanwhile, supporters of HB2 condemned the governor’s effort to overturn the law.

“I have voted democrat (for) many years. (Then) you went and repealed House Bill Two for a ball game,” wrote a Roanoke Rapids resident, referring to the 2017 NBA All-Star Game that was pulled from Charlotte over HB2 and rescheduled for 2019 after its repeal. “What will you rollover for next. (sic) You need to set down and read your Bible. You will not find a gray area. If you were born male go to male restroom. If female go to female restroom. What is so hard to understand about that. (sic)”

Cooper did find some support, however, amid the messages.

“I see myself as physically (sic) conservative/socially liberal,” wrote an Apex resident. “I also want a complete repeal of House Bill 2. I’m greatful (sic) for your leadership and will continue to support you. Let me know if I can be of any help in this cause and others so our state remains competitive. We need more like minded folks in The General Assembly. God Bless.”

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker