Raleigh, N.C. — Top lawmakers say they are poised to return to Raleigh in order to invalidate Charlotte's transgender nondiscrimination ordinance if Attorney General Roy Cooper doesn't act to derail it.
"The vast majority of my fellow colleagues in the House and I believe the ordinance passed by the Charlotte City Council poses an imminent threat to public safety," House Speaker Tim Moore said Thursday in a news release.
The new ordinance allows transgendered people to use the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable and goes into effect April 1. That is more than three weeks before lawmakers are scheduled to return on April 25 for their regularly scheduled session.
Gov. Pat McCroy, a Republican like Moore and other top legislative leaders, said earlier this week he did not think lawmakers should return early, citing the $42,000-per-day cost to operate a special session. McCrory said he believes lawmakers could act quickly enough, despite the 25-day gap, once they reconvene.
Moore, R-Cleveland, said the matter is more urgent.
"We believe it prudent to consider immediate action because the Charlotte City Council decided to make its ordinance effective prior to the convening of our short session. We understand that special sessions have a cost, but the North Carolina House is unwilling to put a price tag on public safety," he said.
Earlier this week, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger hedged on the possibility of a special session, saying that, as of that point, the earliest lawmakers could take it on would be April 25. But on Thursday, he said it was "entirely possible" lawmakers would return for a special session if Cooper doesn't step into the fray.
"I think, as long as Roy Cooper continues to say he's not going to enforce the law, then the legislature will need to do something," Berger said.
In addition to the April 1 effective date, lawmakers must also schedule around the state's March 15 primary. Early in-person voting began Thursday, and incumbents are unlikely to want to leave the campaign trail for a special session. That leaves a two-week window between the primary and April 1 as the most likely time for a special session.
The Charlotte measure broadly defines how businesses must treat gay, lesbian and transgender customers, but as in other cities recently, the debate has focused on bathrooms.
Cooper is not just the attorney general; he is a Democratic candidate for governor and is widely expected to face off against McCrory this fall. Berger, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, himself a candidate for attorney general, used a Thursday news conference to apply both practical and political pressure to Cooper.
"We're calling on Roy Cooper to do what Roy Cooper was elected to do, and that is to enforce the law," Berger said. "This idea that he can run for governor and he can pay more attention to what's going on at the national level, following the Obama administration, to do things that are inconsistent with North Carolina ... is really inconsistent with what he was elected to do."
Cooper said earlier this week that lawmakers have more pressing issues to handle and emphasized state criminal laws remain in place. A spokesman for his office pointed to a letter Cooper authored last month telling district attorneys they have the ability to enforce assault criminal statutes, no matter what Charlotte's local ordinance says.
Jamal Little, a spokesman for Cooper's campaign, said the senators were misinterpreting state law.
"As we made clear to senators last week, local ordinances can't trump criminal law," Cooper said. "District Attorneys can prosecute criminals just as always. This news conference is at best a partisan political sideshow for an attorney general candidate and worse it's misleading North Carolinians about how the law actually works."
While McCrory has the option to call lawmakers back to work, the legislature has the ability to call a special session on its own. That requires three-fifths of the members of both the House and the Senate to request such a session.
"The idea that grown men and young girls should use the same bathroom, and middle school boys and girls should share locker facilities, defies common sense. It puts children and families at risk. This is crazy," Berger said.
While Moore and McCrory have said that lawmakers should target the bathroom provisions, Berger and Newton suggested they could go after the entire ordinance. The likely vehicle would be a statewide law making explicit what sort of ordinances cities could and could not pass.
Berger is typically more measured in his pronouncements on legislation. When asked about his more strident rhetoric, he said that he has been fielding calls from concerned voters.
"I can tell you this is an issue that has, as far as the public is concerned, not just in the Charlotte area but all across the state, affected people," he said.
But advocates for the LGBT community say lawmakers are overreacting.
"It’s the same type of fear-mongering that, when I was growing up as a young gay teenager, it was gay people in the restrooms who were threats. Now, it’s just being redirected against trans folks," said Shawn Long, director of operations for Equality NC.