It has sparked a national firestorm, polarized left and right, and drawn the attention of the NBA, Bruce Springsteen and some of America’s biggest corporations.
But last week the fight over North Carolina’s House Bill 2 seemed to get personal.
And for Charlotteans, it hit close to home.
Pat McCrory versus Jennifer Roberts. A governor – and former mayor – and the mayor.
Two people who’ve sat in the same chair have now become the faces of the fight that’s roiling North Carolina politics.
LGBT and progressive groups have attacked McCrory for signing what they call one of the nation’s most discriminatory laws.
Last week, McCrory’s re-election campaign sent out a release blaming Roberts for pushing the city ordinance that prompted HB2. It sideswiped McCrory’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, but took aim at Roberts.
“Roy Cooper Ally Jennifer Roberts Admitted She Thought About Leaving Out The Bathroom Mandate, But Pushed It Through Anyway,” a headline says. The email included TV and radio clips of Roberts talking about HB2.
McCrory says the release was simply an effort to “correct the record.” He says he and Roberts have had “two to three” phone conversations in recent weeks.
“It’s absolutely not personal on my end,” he says. “We have to correct the record of both your newspaper and national newspapers … This whole bathroom idea was the political left’s idea, not the political right.”
But the dispute makes some Charlotteans uncomfortable.
“I’m really sad all this has come about,” says former Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican. “But I do think it’s not a ‘one-side’s-right’ and ‘one-side’s-wrong’ situation. I understand there’s strong feelings, and I don’t like it one bit.”
HB2 has not only led to hard feelings, it’s had an economic cost.
“There are a lot of politics around this controversy, but from an economic development perspective we have a problem,” says Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber. “There is real economic loss. There is the risk of further loss. We continue to ask officials at the city and the state to help find a solution.”
It may have been inevitable that Roberts and McCrory have become the lightning rods of HB2.
It was Roberts who, fulfilling a campaign promise, renewed the push for the Charlotte ordinance that started the fight. Though she didn’t vote on it herself, she was backed by the election of two new City Council members who supported the ordinance the council had rejected a year before.
Passed in February, the ordinance extended anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It also would have allowed transgender persons to use the bathroom or locker room of the gender with which they identify.
And it was McCrory who signed House Bill 2 into law the night the General Assembly passed it in March.
Neither has shied from the spotlight. Roberts went on MSNBC last month to denounce “extremists” in Raleigh. McCrory has defended the law on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Fox News Channel’s “The Kelly File.” So they’re easy targets.
Shortly after PayPal’s announcement, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, both Republicans, issued a joint statement blaming Roberts “and the far-left Political Correctness Mob she’s unleashed.”
“They’re trying to shift the blame for the damage being done from HB2 to Charlotte, and it’s a lot easier if you can find a face to blame it on,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant and blogger. “Right now, to a lot of people, (McCrory) is the face of HB2. And it’s a lot easier to say ‘Jennifer Roberts’ than the Charlotte City Council.”
Blaming the mayor is justified, according to one council member.
“She was hell-bent on doing what she wanted to do and she didn’t care about the consequences,” says Democrat Claire Fallon, one of four council members who voted against the ordinance. “This is the council’s fault. The governor didn’t start this. The (General) Assembly didn’t start this. We started it and we were warned.”
After the council tried and failed to pass the ordinance in 2015, Roberts made a campaign pledge to bring it back. In the final debate of their campaign, Republican Edwin Peacock called the ordinance “a very minor issue we cannot let ourselves get distracted by.”
“Discrimination,” Roberts shot back, “is never a minor issue.” She posted both quotes on Twitter and Facebook and told Q Notes, a website aimed at the LGBT community, that she would work for extended nondiscrimination protections “including nondiscrimination based on gender identity and gender expression.”
Votes and warnings
In January, Charlotte Republican Rep. Dan Bishop warned her and the council against “kowtowing to a small group of radical LGBT activists” with what he called legal and political overreach.
A day before the February vote, McCrory echoed the warning in a memo to council members. He said the city could expect legislative intervention.
“The biggest disappointment I had with a city that I’m proud of is that the council and the mayor dismissed my initial notice that this was going to cause some serious issues,” McCrory says. “And sadly that prediction ended up being true.”
In the end, lawmakers packed more into the bill than McCrory originally wanted. They prevented local governments from raising the minimum wage and banned anyone from pursuing discrimination cases in state court. McCrory has called on lawmakers to change the court provision.
A spokesman for Roberts said she was unavailable.
Though strongly critical of HB2, she refrained from criticizing McCrory directly. At least publicly, she held back when he issued an executive order that affirmed most of the law. “Pleased to see movement from @GovOfficeNC,” she tweeted. “Look forward to more dialogue.”
There are political risks for both. Next year, Roberts could find herself with opposition emboldened by the controversy. And last month, an Elon University Poll found Democrat Cooper leading McCrory among registered voters 48 percent to 42 percent. That was Cooper’s largest lead in the poll.
UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig says attacking Roberts and Charlotte could help the governor and his party this fall.
“If they can make her the poster child of the pro-gay agenda, and run against her in conservative rural areas, that may help them,” Heberlig says.
Like Morgan, Vinroot says he hopes for a resolution of the situation.
“The state’s got to worry about anything that harms the economic generator of our state,” he says. “I would say to the state, ‘Don’t you mess up this city because this city is so important to the state’s well-being.’ ”
McCrory says he’s trying.
“I anticipate ongoing dialogue not only with political officials but businesses and citizens,” he says. “But during that dialogue, we have to respect each other’s disagreements.”