Politics & Government

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, harsh critic of HB2, dials back criticism of McCrory

Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin along with LGBT supporters addressed the media last month about House Bill 2. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro, Charlotte City Council member Lawana Mayfield, and other Charlotte City Council members.
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin along with LGBT supporters addressed the media last month about House Bill 2. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro, Charlotte City Council member Lawana Mayfield, and other Charlotte City Council members. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

In the days after the General Assembly passed House Bill 2, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts was a staunch critic of the legislation.

In a national interview on MSNBC, Roberts blasted the legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision to sign the bill, which invalidated Charlotte’s newly expanded nondiscrimination ordinance for LGBT individuals.

Roberts, who said she was “appalled” by the speed of the state’s action, told host Rachel Maddow that HB2 would allow overt discrimination.

“The fact that someone can walk out of their business and find a sign in front of their business that says no gays welcome here, and that will be perfectly legal,” Roberts said.

On Tuesday, McCrory issued an executive order in an attempt to defuse the controversy over HB2 and convince companies that the state is not intolerant. Groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the state American Civil Liberties Union were highly critical of the order, which left HB2 intact.

Roberts didn’t make a public statement about the order, and her press office released a Tweet she had made earlier: “Pleased to see movement from @GovOfficeNC. Historic to include LGBT protections for state employees. Look forward to more dialogue.”

The tweet was more similar to the Charlotte Chamber’s position, which applauded McCrory’s order, than to groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, which criticized the governor.

The city has released no other statement on the executive order as of Wednesday afternoon.

While much of the national criticism over HB2 has fallen on McCrory, Republicans have attacked Roberts for her decision to support and bring the ordinance before council members.

The mayor’s change in tone suggests that at least some in the city are weary from the fight, which has led at least 13 conventions to cancel events in Charlotte and caused PayPal to cancel an expansion that would have created 400 jobs.

Scott Bishop is the former board chair of MeckPAC, a lobbying group for the area’s LGBT community. He worked with the city to expand the ordinance.

He said he wasn’t concerned that the mayor’s new tone is a sign that she no longer backs the full ordinance.

“It’s more to the reality of the position she’s in,” Bishop said. “The city is losing jobs. She’s trying to repair the damage. I think she still stands behind the ordinance.”

Some council members were also conciliatory Wednesday.

At-large council member Julie Eiselt, who voted for the expanded ordinance in February, said the governor’s order was “a start.”

“We are appreciative that he has come to the table,” she said.

Council member Al Austin, who also voted for the ordinance, declined to criticize the order.

“It was a good first try,” he said. “How about that (for a statement)?”

During the mayoral campaign, one of Roberts’ key promises was to bring before City Council the new legal protections for LGBT individuals, including the ability for transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

Two months after taking office, Roberts brought the ordinance to council, which approved it in a 7-4 vote. Leading up to the February vote, McCrory warned the city that legislators would likely overturn at least some of the ordinance.

HB2 created a new statewide nondiscrimination law that doesn’t include LGBT protections and also nullified Charlotte’s own ordinance. It also requires people to use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate.

McCrory’s executive order will provide legal protections for some state employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The governor’s office said N.C. is now the 24th state to have such protections for its own employees.

National civil rights groups applauded that decision, but said the order fell short.

“The governor’s actions are an insufficient response to a terrible, misguided law that continues to harm LGBT people on a daily basis,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the HRC. “The North Carolina Legislature must act to right this wrong as swiftly as possible.”

The HRC worked with the city in crafting its nondiscrimination ordinance and was invited by city officials to speak to council members about it in January 2015. HRC officials also met with Roberts in the days after HB2 was passed.

On Wednesday, Roberts’ spokesperson issued another statement from the mayor.

“I am completely committed to non-discrimination and inclusion,” the mayor said. “Those are my values and those are Charlotte’s values. I am working to set a tone for meaningful dialogue and discussion to achieve a better outcome on HB2.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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