Raleigh, N.C. — Under pressure from state lawmakers and LGBT advocates, the Charlotte City Council postponed a discussion Monday night about House Bill 2 and a potential vote on the city's non-discrimination ordinance.
House Republicans have held discussions over the past two weeks with several members of the Charlotte council, urging them to repeal the non-discrimination ordinance they passed Feb. 22. The ordinance banned discrimination against gay or transgender people in pubic accommodations such as hotels and restaurants, including a provision specifically allowing transgender persons to use the restroom of the gender with which they identify.
That ordinance, two years in the making, prompted a strong response from state Republican leaders, resulting in House Bill 2.
House Bill 2, which was unveiled, passed and signed into law in less than 10 hours, requires all persons in publicly owned buildings and schools to use the restroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate. The U.S. Department of Justice has challenged that part of the law in federal court, arguing that it violates transgender persons' civil rights.
The new law, however, went far beyond restrooms. It banned cities and counties from passing any ordinances protecting gay or transgender people from discrimination or from requiring contractors to have LGBT hiring protections. It repealed state protections against workplace discrimination on any basis, including race and gender, leaving only federal protections in place. And it banned local governments from requiring contractors to pay wages higher than the state's minimum wage.
Since its passage two months ago, the national backlash has remained steady, with rock group Maroon 5 and renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman canceling appearances in the state just last week.
Under the rumored deal offered by House Republicans, if Charlotte's city council votes to repeal its ordinance, state lawmakers will make changes to House Bill 2. It's not clear how extensive those changes would be, or whether Senate leaders would agree to go along with them.
Gregg Watkins, spokesman for Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, said the council was expected to discuss the economic fallout from House Bill 2 at its meeting Monday night. However, the item was removed from the agenda shortly before the meeting began. Watkins declined to say who requested its removal.
It was widely expected that some council members might call for a vote to repeal the ordinance. A repeal would require six votes. Four Democrats appear likely to join the two Republicans on the council to reach the needed count. However, if Roberts were to veto the repeal, which also appears likely, it would require seven votes to override her veto. It's unclear whether proponents of the deal had a seventh vote at the time the discussion was postponed.
Such a vote would be largely ceremonial, since the ordinance was overturned by House Bill 2. However, some Charlotte leaders, most notably Charlotte Chamber of Commerce President Bob Morgan in a Sunday op-ed, say it would send a message to Raleigh that city leaders are willing to compromise to resolve the issue.
On a conference call Monday, LGBT advocates called the rumored deal a "stunt" by Republican leaders in Raleigh to put the blame for House Bill 2 on the Charlotte council. They urged the council to leave the ordinance in place.
"Abandoning a commitment to inclusion and equality doesn’t fix our state’s reputation. It doesn’t solve the problem. It only compounds it," said Rep. Chris Sgro, D-Greensboro, the director of LGBT advocacy group Equality NC. "This is a political stunt manufactured to try to save face. I don’t believe it will work."
"[State lawmakers] alone hold responsibility for fixing the mess they’ve created, and the only way they can do that is to repeal HB2," said Chad Griffin, national president of the Human Rights Campaign, another LGBT advocacy group.
Griffin accused Morgan and the North Carolina Chamber, which has not taken a position on most parts of House Bill 2, of "carrying water for Pat McCrory" in asking the Charlotte City Council to rescind the ordinance.
"You really have to ask the question, who does Bob Morgan represent? Because the job creators in the state of North Carolina have made one call – repeal HB2," Griffin said, reeling off a list of major employers in the state that have spoken out against the law. "I have not seen one company call for the repeal of the Charlotte ordinance, nor would I expect to."
Most major cities in the U.S. already have similar ordinances on the books, Griffin pointed out. "North Carolina bought what the hate-mongers were peddling. Other governors and other state legislatures didn’t."
House Republicans, however, say the deal with Charlotte is less about political gamesmanship than political cover that would allow them to repeal and replace House Bill 2.
Several House Republicans, speaking on background, say they intend to make some changes to the law whether the city repeals its ordinance or not. However, if the Charlotte ordinance is no longer on the books, they say, they would be able to make bigger changes to the law without fear of reprisal from religious conservatives.
House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters Monday that the Charlotte City Council needs to repeal its measure as a precondition for lawmakers to take up any major changes to the state law.
"We've discussed a number of things," Moore, R-Cleveland, said, describing one-on-one conversations with fellow legislators, adding that there was no formal offer for the legislature to do anything in exchange for action by Charlotte.
While there has been some initial discussion of "some tweaks" to the bill, Moore said, major changes would wait "until the Charlotte City Council and the mayor back off."
Sgro said he believes there are enough Republican and Democratic votes in the House to repeal the entire law, regardless of any action by Charlotte. However, a parliamentary petition aimed at dislodging a House Bill 2 repeal bill from committee has garnered only 23 signatures of 61 needed to move the bill forward.
It's not clear where the Senate stands on any proposal to change or repeal House Bill 2. Senate leaders have repeatedly said they won't make any changes to the law, and some say privately they aren't eager to reopen the controversy by revisiting the debate.
"I don't see a need to make any changes as far as House Bill 2 is concerned," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger reiterated Monday afternoon. "I’ve made it very clear that I don’t think it is something that should be repealed or that we’d be inclined to repeal."
"But again, I think there are some discussions apparently going on among members of the Charlotte City Council and with the business community in the Charlotte area," Berger added. "Let’s see what happens, and then at that point, come back and talk to us, and we’ll see if that makes any difference."
Berger, R-Rockingham, confirmed he had met once with Roberts and several members of the city council, but said he had not been part of any ongoing talks.
Senate Republicans have less political incentive to address the controversy than House lawmakers do. While House Republicans worry the law could cost them several swing seats in urban areas, Senate Republicans have a larger veto-proof majority in seats that are, by and large, safer than the House's.
Still, the House may act anyway. "I'd like to put it on Berger's front doorstep," one House Republican said on background. "Let him take the political pressure."