Raleigh, N.C. — The day before the Charlotte City Council passed its controversial nondiscrimination ordinance on Feb. 22, Gov. Pat McCrory called the effort "misguided" and warned it would cause an immediate reaction from the state legislature.
"(C)hanging basic long-established values and norms of access to public restrooms is misguided and has major statewide ramifications," McCrory wrote in an email to Charlotte City Council members.
He continued, "This shift in policy could also create major public safety issues by putting citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy."
Charlotte went on to pass that local law, and the General Assembly went on to pass House Bill 2.
That email from McCrory and others obtained under a public records request sketch out the narrative of how the measure that would become House Bill 2 came to exist, largely confirming McCrory's public statements and much of what has been reported about the law. The measure, which deals with LGBT rights and, most famously, the use of bathrooms and locker rooms by transgender individuals, has become a flashpoint in the political campaign and an issue of national prominence.
WRAL News has a longstanding request for emails related to House Bill 2 to and from the governor and his staff just before and just after the bill was developed. That request is still pending. However, the Charlotte Observer earlier this month sued for a similar set of emails it had requested months ago.
The Governor's Office delivered that material to the newspaper earlier this week, and WRAL News requested access to the same batch of correspondence. This report is based on those emails.
Initial reluctance draws ire
Although McCrory clearly didn't like the Charlotte ordinance, he declined to call the General Assembly back for a special session to respond to it. That reluctance drew criticism from social conservatives.
Jason Oesterreich, a Concord attorney, compared the cost of a special session to the interest payment on a recently passed bond referendum.
"So for far less than one day’s interest on the money he wants to borrow, he is willing to expose dressing women and children to predators and allow our little girls to potentially see a naked man standing in front of them as they simply walk into a locker room. I see where his priorities are. I will be voting for someone other than McCrory in the general election," Oesterreich wrote as part of an email that originally went to Fred Steen, McCrory's legislative counsel but appears to have been widely circulated among the governor's top advisers.
Others also threatened political consequences.
"This kind of inaction is exactly what is feeding the anti-establishment rage," wrote Frank Turek, a conservative author from the Charlotte area. "If the Republicans don’t want to be engulfed by the Trump wave, they better get off their butts and do something before this dangerous ordinance goes into effect in April."
Once lawmakers did call themselves back into session on March 23, the email records provided this week are light on details regarding any exchanges between the Governor's Office and lawmakers.
However, it's clear that the measure was moving quickly.
At just after 5 p.m. on March 23, Chris Book, a lawyer for the ACLU, emailed Bob Stephens, McCrory's general counsel.
"I was hoping to get an idea of the Governor's perspective on HB2 as well as your timeline for consideration," Brook wrote.
Stephens wrote back a short time later, asking Brook to call the next day.
"Will do," Brook replied. "Things aren't going to be moot here by tomorrow morning, are they?"
At 6:47 p.m., Stephens wrote, "I don't know the answer to that."
At 8:20 p.m., Brook forwarded a veto request from his group. Shortly before 10 p.m., McCrory had signed the bill.
Dealing with blowback
The same conservative voices who were critical of McCrory before the House Bill 2 session celebrated after the bill's signing.
"Now that we have passed the immediate challenge thanks to everyone who took action to heart. Franklin Graham told me he had called his good friend Governor Pat McCrory to thank him and the Governor shared with Franklin that his office was receiving a lot of heat from corporations," wrote Ken Barun, chief of staff at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Other feedback was less positive.
Even before the bill passed, Stephens fielded a request to connect McCrory with Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president of worldwide government affairs and policy, who wanted to speak about House Bill 2. Days later, a representative of computer maker Dell wrote to the Governor's Office to say the company's board would meet to decide "how to protect their North Carolina employees."
Hundreds of emails also poured in objecting to the law, a few of which Stephens fielded himself. While McCrory was publicly on the offensive, circulating a "facts versus myth" sheet on the law and vigorously defending it during press gaggles, Stephens expressed reservations on behalf of both himself and McCrory.
"I think there are a number of 'misunderstandings' about this bill but, there are some provisions in this bill that I don’t like either," Stephens wrote to Kevin Walker, a Charlotte accountant.
But Stephens goes on to say that, had McCrory vetoed the measure, he would have faced a near-certain override from lawmakers.
"Also, very few people understand that, yes, the Governor could have vetoed this bill but that veto would have been overridden by the legislature in a matter of days," Stephens wrote.
In another email exchange, Bob Turner, a Charlotte lawyer and Stephens' private-sector law partner, decried the bill.
"I'm a Republican but you have completely lost my confidence. I voted for you but (will) not again," Turner wrote to one of McCrory's public feedback accounts. "You have caved to right wing, actually, redneck types. Guess how much this will make our state be affected by loss of jobs and events bringing money to the communities."
Stephens wrote back, describing McCrory's reluctance about House Bill 2, saying that it was "not fair" to blame the governor.
"We fought against this bill. You have no idea how hard the Governor worked to limit it," Stephens wrote. "He told the legislature that it went too far. We lobbied against it and even drafted our own version of the bill but it was not accepted. We talked to large numbers of legislators but couldn't convince them, and they passed it. And don't tell me the Governor should have vetoed the bill. His veto would have been overridden in a matter of days and we'd be right where we are now. If you have other ideas about what the Governor should have done, let me know."