Peter St. Onge

Is HB 2 backlash a storm or a passing shower?

The Observer editorial board

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory speaks Monday to the media about House Bill 2.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory speaks Monday to the media about House Bill 2. jhknight@newsobserver.com

This week, a half-dozen officials from state and national equality groups stopped by to talk with the Observer’s editorial board about North Carolina’s new discrimination law. They were defiant. They were energized. They had good reason.

These are encouraging days for the LGBT community. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal bowed to business pressure this week and vetoed a religious liberty bill that would’ve opened more doors to discrimination against gays. Now, North Carolina’s HB 2 also is being met with a fierce and deep response.

Companies are signing on by the hour to declare their opposition. And these are big names – Apple, Facebook – the kinds of corporate leaders that influence perceptions.

As for the other side? Not such a good week. A pro-HB 2 group released its own short list of business supporters, which in comparison looked like a lineup of lemonade stands. Also, Gov. Pat McCrory put out a pleading video and did a post-HB 2 news conference in which he complained about being “blindsided” by an HB 2 question – clear signs of some sweat on the brow.

That doesn’t, however, mean the governor has lost the battle.

While LGBT supporters can point to Georgia to illustrate the power of protest, HB 2 backers are looking at a different place this week: Houston.

That city, you might remember, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance a couple years back. Texas state lawmakers responded with the same unfounded bathroom fears, then put the ordinance up to a public referendum. It lost.

There was pushback from LGBT groups and businesses then, too. But this weekend, Houston is hosting the NCAA Final Four. In the end, the storm of protest turned out to be a passing shower.

Yes, there are big differences between the Houston referendum and the North Carolina law, including that one was a public vote and the other a legislative act of bigotry. But there also are reasons to fear that North Carolina could find itself in the same place as Houston two years out.

Here’s the biggest: Although more than 100 companies and organizations have protested against HB 2, no one truly fearsome has crossed the threshold from expressing disappointment to actually threatening business dollars in North Carolina.

In Georgia, the political waters didn’t start to boil until Disney and Netflix threatened to stop filming there and the NFL said the Atlanta might not get a chance to host a Super Bowl. So far, the closest North Carolina has come to that is the NBA saying it will monitor things with regards to Charlotte hosting the 2017 All-Star Game. There’s no real pain yet, no first domino falling that will rattle HB 2 supporters.

To that end, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told the editorial board Wednesday that LGBT allies, including his organization, will make HB 2 “an issue” each time a convention visits or a business invests in North Carolina. But it’s also natural that the intensity of this week will wane, and that new fights in other states will draw the focus from here.

One more obstacle: McCrory has little leverage now to do the right thing – even if he wanted to. That power resides with Senate leader Phil Berger, who like many lawmakers only has a conservative district back home to answer to.

That might explain why McCrory seems to be digging in on HB 2. If he tried to reverse course, a non-compliant legislature would make him look both waffly and weak. The governor had his chance to be a leader. Now he’s back in the sidecar, going wherever Berger wants to go.

For now, that means going nowhere. Still, the LGBT community has to be heartened by the volume of this week’s support, something that was hard to imagine even less than a decade ago.

But it’s not enough. Not yet. Not with a governor and lawmakers stuck even further back in time.

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