Behind North Carolina's 'bathroom bill' breakdown, shattered trust

North Carolina's failed attempt to repeal its bathroom bill spoke to fault lines that have been deepened by hyperpartisanship.

Jonathan Drake/Reuters
North Carolina State Highway troopers keep watch in the rotunda of the Legislative Building as lawmakers negotiate over repealing the law limiting bathroom access for transgender people in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday.

The crash-and-burn effort to repeal North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” showed how the state has become an experiment in the frontiers of hyperpartisanship.

The law, which bars localities from offering their own protections to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, is opposed by 62 percent of North Carolinians, has led to numerous boycotts of the state, and has been called a “stain” by Gov.-elect Roy Cooper (D). State legislators called a special session this week to repeal it.

But the effort failed amid a lack of trust. In this case, Republican state legislators didn’t trust officials in Charlotte, N.C., who said they would repeal an LGBT-rights ordinance passed in February. The officials said they did, legislators disagreed.

But the incident was just a glimpse of the deeper fault lines increasingly driving politics in the state. Riven by political betrayals, racially gerrymandered districts, bitterness between rich and poor counties, and a deep sense of rebellion against what conservatives see as attempts by national corporations and local politicians to impose a social engineering program in the state's bathrooms, North Carolina is in the middle of an identity crisis.

What happens now is a test of how a state can move forward when its government is split and both sides appear irreconcilable.

“Here was a new governor and a chance to at least diminish the angst and to … turn the page,” says John Llewellyn, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “And now we didn’t turn the page. In fact, we couldn’t even find the page.”

What do voters want?

The core issue is, in some ways, nothing new. It is a question of who has the last word in setting social policy. The state’s bathroom bill, known as House Bill 2 (HB2), sought to enshrine that power at the state level.

“This is what derailed the HB2 repeal effort: a fundamental disagreement among legislators as to whether there should be a uniform statewide antidiscrimination policy or whether local governments should be able to go further than this,” says John Dinan, a political scientist at Wake Forest and author of “The American State Constitutional Tradition,” in an email.

But the import of the issue is much broader.

“One lesson [of the failed repeal] is, in a modern, polarized, gerrymandered state, how non-reflective government can be of its actual constituents,” says Steven Greene, a political scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

In a state where Democrats hold a 39 to 30 percent advantage in voter registration, legislative districts have been racially gerrymandered “with almost surgical precision,” according to a federal judge, contributing to a legislature that is strongly Republican.

Last week, that legislature pushed through several measures to weaken the governorship before Mr. Cooper comes to office. In March, it passed HB2 in a one-day special session that included no public comment.

For their part, voters were seen as sending a clear rebuke in November’s election: while choosing Donald Trump and Republican Sen. Richard Burr, they voted out Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who signed HB2.

Outrage on both sides

Governor McCrory called the special session on Wednesday after Charlotte officials agreed to repeal the nondiscrimination ordinance that caused the legislature to enact HB2. But Republicans were concerned that other municipalities could enact similar nondiscrimination ordinances, and they argued that Charlotte failed to repeal all of its ordinance. In the end, Republicans suggested repealing the law only after a six-month “cooling off” period. That, too, failed, leaving the law untouched.

The session revealed the depth of the disagreement.

“This state has always been emblematic of the battle for America’s soul,” says Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “We had it with race, and I think this [LGBT rights] is the new frontier.”

Each side can claim a matching sense of outrage – over the legislature’s actions or over federal courts and an Obama administration that some feel are meddling to enforce a liberal agenda.

“There’s a sense among Republicans that ‘We are the ones being bullied by all these … national liberals, by this national liberal social engineering agenda, and why should we give in?’ ” says Professor Greene of North Carolina State.

A missed opportunity?

To some, the failure of the repeal effort left the state with little wiggle room to deal with a law that has resulted in boycotts, as well as loss of entertainment events and at least four years of college basketball tournaments.

That culture war fallout might be important for other state legislatures watching North Carolina. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Washington, Alabama, Missouri, and South Dakota are pondering some version of bathroom laws.

The incoming Trump administration, too, has added uncertainty, especially given that the new administration has signaled it may leave transgender rights for the states to hash out.

“It seems like this is something we will see across the country: states and localities grappling with what they should do” with little federal guidance, says Joellen Kralik, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Staff writer Henry Gass contributed to this report.

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