By Jim Longworth
It’s a crime to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. That’s because a prank like that can make people think there’s a crisis, and that can lead to panic and all kinds of collateral damage.
Last year, Attorney General Roy Cooper, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, and the inappropriately named Human Rights Campaign, sounded a false alarm when they created a transgender bathroom crisis that didn’t exist. One of their objectives was to put Cooper in the governor’s mansion, and to that extent, the prank paid off.
But the collateral damage it caused was enormous. North Carolina became the butt of jokes and the object of national derision. We lost scores of high-profile sporting events and concerts. We also lost out on attracting prospective industries, which would have created thousands of jobs. And former Gov. Pat McCrory was thrown under the bus for a mess he didn’t create.
Prior to last year, North Carolina had an unwritten “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding the use of public bathrooms by transgender adults. There was no crisis. No need for legislative action. But thanks to a handful of crusading parents in several other states, the rights of allegedly transgender children began to attract media attention.
The epicenter was in Colorado where, in 2013, the parents of an 8-year-old boy said their child identified as a girl and therefore, demanded that he be allowed to use the girls’ restrooms, showers and locker rooms. Similar cases popped up in Illinois and Massachusetts. Over time, the high court would have ruled on the issue of gender identity. But 2016 was an election year, so transgender rights made for good political theater.
Here in North Carolina, first-term Gov. Pat McCrory, a moderate Republican and former coalition-building, seven-term mayor of Charlotte, had been busy resurrecting our state’s lagging economy. Under his administration, unemployment went down, federal debts were paid and we outpaced the national average in economic growth. He also led a bi-partisan coalition to pass a $2 billion bond for modernizing college campus facilities, and in the weeks prior to election day, he helped thousands of homeowners in eastern North Carolina recover from a devastating flood.
Along the way there were bumps in the road, like criticism from the left over a voter ID bill, and from the right when McCrory said that magistrates should be made to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Nevertheless, he was expected to win re-election over Democrat Roy Cooper, an attorney general whose only claim to fame was waging war on people who needed sinus medicine. Cooper was in desperate need of a signature issue, and in March 2016, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts handed it to him, gift-wrapped.
Roberts, supported by the HRC, was poised to pass an ordinance that would have required private businesses to make bathroom accommodations in accordance with gender identity, or else face jail time and a stiff fine. Coincidentally, the day after Roberts held a fundraiser for Cooper, she called for a vote on the bathroom ordinance, and it passed.
And, just to make sure that Cooper’s opponent would get pushed into a full blown controversy, Roberts designated the ordinance to take effect April 1, giving McCrory just over a week to diffuse a politically charged bombshell.
Last October, appearing on “Triad Today,” McCrory told me what transpired when he first learned of the mayor’s plans to order a vote.
“I begged Mayor Roberts not to pass the ordinance. I wrote her a letter saying, ‘You’re trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.'”
McCrory’s pleas to Roberts fell on deaf ears, while Cooper turned a deaf ear to the impending debacle.
“The attorney general should have declared the ordinance unconstitutional, and intervened immediately, but he refused to do it because he was in the pocket, doing fundraisers with Mayor Roberts,.” McCrory told me.
Conservatives in the General Assembly were incensed by the ordinance, but McCrory tried to discourage any legislative action, instead hoping the matter would be settled in court. Nevertheless, legislators called a special session, and drafted what became known as HB2.
It was filled with extraneous language that dealt with everything from minimum wage to denying State employees redress in state courts. But at the heart of HB2 was a requirement that people must use government-owned restrooms that correspond to their biological sex.
It was a poorly written bill, which seemed to leave minorities and homosexuals unprotected against discrimination, so I asked McCrory why he signed it.
“Because the Charlotte ordinance was going to go into effect within eight days if I didn’t sign our bill. I wasn’t going to allow an ordinance threatening a jail sentence to someone who doesn’t recognize gender identity, which is a whole new definition of man and woman, and of boy and girl in our schools. But I did issue an executive order prohibiting any types of discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
Once HB2 became law, North Carolina faced a flood of boycotts and millions of dollars in lost revenue. Mayors and governors from other states even barred their employees from attending functions in North Carolina. The NBA moved its All-Star game from Charlotte, and major film companies refused to shoot here. McCrory was excoriated daily for signing a law that he didn’t seek, didn’t write and tried to prevent. Even so, the gubernatorial race was still tight, but only because of HB2 and the perception that Cooper was a champion of transgender rights.
In July, a bipartisan deal was in the works that would have removed enough controversial language from HB2 to end some of the boycotts. It was endorsed by almost every House Republican and 10 House Democrats and was on the way to being passed.
But according to a report by WBTV’s Nick Ochsner, one man torpedoed the erstwhile repeal of HB2. A source involved with the negotiations told Ochsner, “We started losing Democrats. We were told Cooper was making personal phone calls to the 10 Democratic members, saying if they wanted to be on the team in November, they needed to vote against the bill.”
The WBTV report should have ended Cooper’s bid for governor. Instead, he ran hundreds of disingenuous TV ads in which he promised to repeal HB2. The scam worked. Cooper defeated McCrory by about 10,000 votes, and HB2 was cited as the reason for his narrow victory.
Fast forward to last week when Gov. Cooper signed HB 142 into law. The so-called repeal of HB2 was rushed through the General Assembly in response to a threat by the NCAA to boycott North Carolina for the next two decades. The hypocritical sports body had given us until April 1 to act, or else.
The problem is that HB142 is not a repeal of HB2. Instead, it only restores the status quo and prohibits localities from enacting their own bathroom ordinances until the year 2020, by which time, the courts will have ruled on the legal standing of gender identity as an orientation equal to that of biological gender.
Cooper’s HB2 replacement bill is exactly what McCrory had advocated. Cooper is now coming under fire from the same groups who once excoriated McCrory. They mistakenly thought McCrory created HB2 and Cooper would thoroughly repeal it.
Four years from now, I hope voters will remember what really happened with HB2 and who was really responsible for stirring up a faux crisis that did a lot of damage. I also hope they’ll remember who could have prevented HB2, and then deliberately blocked an effort to repeal it, just so he could get elected.
By supporting the Charlotte bathroom ordinance and helping to keep HB2 alive for political purposes, Roy Cooper is like a man who yelled “fire,” then refused to help extinguish the flames with one hand, while fanning them with the other. Pat McCrory deserved another term as governor, and because of HB142, he might still get it.
Jim Longworth writes for the Kernersville News and hosts “Triad Today” on abc45 in Winston-Salem.