Politics & Government

Mayor’s texts to McCrory provide window into HB2 fight: ‘Please do not sign’

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts speaks at an HB2 forum at the Sheraton Charlotte Hotel. A review of texts and emails from Charlotte city officials show division within the city on how to respond to HB2.
Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts speaks at an HB2 forum at the Sheraton Charlotte Hotel. A review of texts and emails from Charlotte city officials show division within the city on how to respond to HB2. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

As the General Assembly debated House Bill 2 on March 23, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts tried to reach Gov. Pat McCrory.

She texted the city’s lobbyist, trying to find a phone number so the company PayPal – which was planning to expand in Charlotte and create 400 jobs – could talk to someone in the governor’s office about the bill.

“PayPal wants to call Gov. McCrory but no one is picking up phone,” she texted lobbyist Dana Fenton.

(Because of HB2, PayPal would later cancel the Charlotte expansion.)

Three hours later, after the both houses passed HB2, Roberts texted McCrory directly.

“Please do not sign this awful bill,” she wrote. “Ask your attorney, we could lose Title IX funding for the university system and others. I have been hearing from concerned business leaders all day about the new bill. Poorly conceived and written. There is no provision for any enforcement for race, religion, etc. It will be legal for restaurants to hang a sign saying ‘no gays allowed’ out front. Is this the N.C. we want?”

The governor did not text her back. He also did not call her, according to Roberts’ spokesperson, Gregg Watkins.

The mayor did reach McCrory’s aide, Jimmy Broughton, and she pleaded her case.

“I may have convinced him to take some time and get more info and not sign tonight,” she texted Ron Carlee, the Charlotte city manager.

McCrory signed the bill about an hour later.

A review of texts and emails from Charlotte city officials, as well as interviews, show how surprised the city was over HB2, and McCrory’s decision to immediately sign it.

The records also show a split in the city about how to handle the fallout.

Carlee, the city manager, was outraged. He encouraged Roberts to defend the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance aggressively.

On the other side, Ron Kimble, the city’s deputy city manager and second highest-ranking employee, urged city leaders and others to take a more conciliatory tone toward Raleigh. Kimble was an assistant city manager in Charlotte when McCrory was the city’s mayor.

The records also show Roberts reached out to McCrory again on April 5, after PayPal officials announced the company was killing their Charlotte expansion.

Her text said: “Wanted to let you know PayPal just announced they are pulling their relocation. 400 jobs. We have got to stop the losses. As Mayor to former Mayor I am asking your help. You have the power to help, I don’t.”

McCrory did not respond.

Watkins said that the Charlotte mayor and McCrory did not speak about HB2 until a week later. That was on April 12, when McCrory issued an executive order designed to mitigate the fallout over HB2.

Josh Ellis, McCrory’s communications director, said Friday “the governor prefers verbal dialogue via phone or in person.”

Differences on message

When HB2 was signed, Carlee, Charlotte’s outgoing city manager, told Roberts by text that it was “stunning,” “very sad,” and a “new low for N.C.”

Carlee also gave Roberts advice for a March 25 interview she had on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, urging her to “acknowledge the fears of people who don’t actually know people who are transgendered and/or those who were taught by their cultures and religions that same sex is wrong. There is a huge gap in understanding. (HB2 co-sponsor State Rep. Dan Bishop) has agenda. Many who are concerned do not.”

In that interview, Roberts said she was “appalled” by HB2, and that someone might see a sign in front of a business “that says no gays welcome here, and that will be perfectly legal.”

But in the days after HB2 was passed, the city changed course. Gone was some of the more intense rhetoric from Roberts.

On April 6, Roberts texted Carlee and asked whether the city was going to hire an outside PR firm to help manage the crisis. (The city did not hire a firm.)

“We have to figure out messages for some dialogue with the state,” she wrote in a text. “I think we have to give them a way to back down but save face. I don’t know what that looks like.”

The Charlotte Chamber lobbied hard for the city to be less combative, according to people familiar with the meetings.

On April 8, Tom Gabbard, president of the Blumenthal Performing Arts, had forwarded Kimble, the deputy city manager, a draft of a statement the group was preparing to release about HB2.

The draft statement said: “HB2 has shocked North Carolina and brought negative attention to our state. HB2 is bad for businesses and arts groups. We must come together to resolve this.”

Kimble said the opening paragraph it was “very hard hitting and ‘back in your face’ ” and suggested it be toned down.

Gabbard thanked him. He said the paragraph in question was written by Edwin Peacock, a Republican who lost the 2015 mayoral election to Roberts and who is a Blumenthal trustee. Gabbard said Peacock felt “(The Blumenthal) needed to be stronger.” In an interview, Peacock confirmed writing the language in question.

Executive order

On April 12, McCrory issued an executive order about HB2 that extended protections to state workers based on gender identity and sexual orientation, but left HB2 intact.

Roberts sent a tweet that day that followed Kimble’s and the Chamber’s plea for deescalation.

“Pleased to see movement from @GovOfficeNC. Historic to include LGBT protections for state employees. Look forward to more dialogue.”

The city decided to not make any other statement about the order. City officials were also surprised when the chamber made a statement about the executive order, which, to some leaders, appeared too supportive of McCrory’s action.

“We applaud the Governor’s actions today which demonstrate that North Carolina is an open and welcoming state,” the Chamber said. “We support efforts by all leaders at city and state levels to promote North Carolina and Charlotte as places that promote diversity, inclusiveness and equality.”

Other groups, such as the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign, criticized the order as not doing enough.

It’s unclear whether the city’s plans for deescalation worked. Roberts would not meet face-to-face with the General Assembly’s top Republicans until Thursday – six weeks after HB2 was passed.

On Friday, she appeared again to draw a hard line in releasing this statement: “Charlotte cannot go backwards. We cannot write discrimination back into our laws. The General Assembly and Governor must comply with the Department of Justice and repeal HB2 immediately.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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