by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, submitted the following 1,200-word column to newspaper editors across North Carolina:
Something unbelievable just happened.
After months of heated rhetoric and demands to repeal House Bill 2, Roy Cooper just ordered his liberal Democrat allies in the N.C. Senate to vote AGAINST its repeal.
Yes, you read that right: on a straight up-or-down vote, every single Senate Democrat voted no on repealing HB2.
How did we get to the point where the only people willing to vote to repeal HB2 were 16 Republican senators?
It started in February 2016, when, despite repeated warnings from Gov. Pat McCrory, the Charlotte City Council passed a radical new ordinance requiring all private businesses, public buildings, churches and schools to allow men and women to use whichever locker room, changing facility and bathroom they wished. In fact, Charlotte banned sex-specific locker rooms, changing rooms and bathrooms as discriminatory.
Right away, then-Attorney General Cooper could have told Charlotte that banning sex-specific bathrooms violated state law. Several of my colleagues and I signed a letter urging him to do just that, but he refused to do his job.
So in March, the legislature passed HB2 to restore the right of private businesses, churches and non-profits like the YMCA to make their own decisions about how to set up bathrooms in their own buildings.
It also required public schools and government buildings to maintain separate women’s and men’s bathrooms – while still allowing single-occupancy facilities.
Following HB2’s passage, national far-left activist groups invaded North Carolina and instigated boycotts by musicians and sporting events. While media outlets have reported the total impact was just “a tiny ripple on the state economy,” our state’s image has undoubtedly suffered.
Beginning in May, with the help of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, Gov. McCrory, Speaker Tim Moore and I began discussing a “reset” on bathroom issues with the Charlotte City Council. Charlotte would completely repeal its ordinance and stand down on the bathroom issue moving forward, in exchange for a full repeal of HB2.
On more than a half-dozen occasions since, various members of the council indicated they could repeal the ordinance. Each and every time, they failed to act – usually citing Mayor Jennifer Roberts and then-gubernatorial candidate Cooper as the reasons why.
In September, Gov. McCrory made a tremendous push to accomplish the repeal-for-repeal deal. Speaker Moore and I publicly promised to do everything we could to repeal HB2 if Charlotte kept its end of the bargain. Unfortunately, Roberts and Cooper again lobbied the council against acting. Another opportunity was missed.
Then in late December, after his election victory was secure, Gov.-elect Cooper asked if a full repeal for full repeal deal was still possible. When we said yes, Cooper released Roberts and other Democrats on the council to act. They held a hasty meeting on a Monday and claimed the Charlotte ordinance had been rescinded in its entirety. Gov. McCrory called a special session to repeal HB2 the following Wednesday.
This is where the wheels started to fall off.
Late the night before session, a reporter broke the news that Charlotte had, in fact, NOT repealed its bathroom ordinance in its entirety. It repealed only a small section and tried to hide it until after the legislative vote.
Then Democrat activists and legislators announced plans to restore the Charlotte bathroom-sharing ordinance and pass others just like it all across North Carolina as soon as HB2 was out of the way. Mayor Roberts publicly assured supporters there was a “long game,” implying the deal wasn’t what it appeared. This clearly violated the spirit of the compromise.
By Wednesday, Republicans in both chambers were frustrated and suspicious that the city reneged on its original agreement and misled the press and public about its secret vote.
Understandably, the only way our members would vote, much less agree to a repeal that upheld the original agreement and truly reset this issue, was to provide for a cooling-off period after the repeal. That meant a short period of time – 180 days – when local officials could not adopt ordinances like the one that prompted HB2.
That’s why I proposed a bill with two sections:
Section 1: Repeal House Bill 2.
Section 2: No Charlotte-style ordinances until after a 180-day cooling-off period.
At first, the Senate Democratic leadership found this bill reasonable – and it looked like we were on our way to a resolution.
Then, abruptly, we weren’t. The Democrats poised to support it became poised to defeat it.
What changed? According to at least one Senate Democrat, Roy Cooper told them to kill it.
Why? Remember, back in September, pressure from Cooper convinced Charlotte to keep its ordinance – and as a result HB2 – on the books through the election.
Killing that deal kept a flood of national media attention on North Carolina and poured campaign cash into Cooper’s political machine. He wound up outraising McCrory by $8 million – and by nearly twice as much from out-of-state donors.
Cooper called the same play that Wednesday, ordering Senate Democrats to oppose the compromise. They unanimously opposed the deal their leaders found reasonable just a few hours earlier, and called anything short of a straight up-or-down vote on repealing HB2 – with no cooling-off period – unacceptable.
So late Wednesday night, we found a way to give Democrats what they wanted. We split the bill into two parts: one to repeal HB2, and another for the cooling-off period. We secured 16 Republican senators – half our present members – to vote yes to repeal HB2. With the Democrats’ support, that would be enough to pass the repeal and chart a new path forward.
But when it came time to vote on a clean repeal, every single Senate Democrat voted to keep HB2 state law.
Remember, these are the same Democrats who’ve called HB2 a “stain,” a “scar” and an “embarrassment” to our state. But their horror and embarrassment wasn’t enough to get their vote to repeal it.
Hopefully you see now why repealing HB2 is not what legislative Democrats – and certainly not what Roy Cooper – really want.
If Cooper had done his job as attorney general, Charlotte’s ordinance would have been swatted down before HB2. If Cooper hadn’t been a candidate for governor, HB2 might have been fixed in September. And if Cooper weren’t the governor, it almost certainly would have been repealed in the Senate.
But he and his far-left political allies are counting on HB2 to generate millions in outside money for their next political campaign. And unfortunately, they’re willing to let North Carolina’s image suffer to advance their own interests. It’s one of the most shameful acts of conniving, political gamesmanship I’ve ever seen.
I agree with Roy Cooper that the constant barrage of negativity surrounding HB2 has hurt our state’s reputation. And I’ve now voted to repeal HB2. I stand by that vote.
But in the ten months since Charlotte passed its bathroom ordinance, Cooper has never said – and the media has not asked him – whether men should be allowed in locker rooms, changing rooms and bathrooms with women and girls. Where does he stand?
Both sides need to make concessions to allow our state to move forward. Roy Cooper needs to stand with the overwhelming majority of North Carolinians and renounce his far-left financial backers. Contrary to the extreme rhetoric, most citizens do not want Charlotte-style shared-bathroom policies implemented in every county, school and YMCA across North Carolina.
If Roy Cooper could take that stand for common sense, we might see another seemingly unbelievable thing happen: Republicans and Democrats working together and finding common ground to move our state past the mess created by the Charlotte bathroom ordinance and HB2.
Phil Berger is the President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate.