'Bathroom bill' repeal: North Carolina seeks to move on after very long year

State lawmakers voted to repeal the controversial HB2 law Thursday, after a year of boycotts and bad press. The question is whether the compromise bill goes far enough to lure back companies concerned about discrimination.

Chris Seward/The News & Observer/AP
Republican leaders Rep. Tim Moore (l.) and Sen. Phil Berger, hold a news conference in Raleigh, N.C., on March 28, 2017. North Carolina Republican lawmakers said Wednesday night that they have an agreement with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on legislation to resolve a standoff over the state's 'bathroom bill.'

Shortly after Gov. Roy Cooper signed a law Thursday repealing North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Democrat who identifies as LGBT, sounded worn out.

It wasn’t just a long day that ended, for him, with a no vote, since the compromise bill still withholds civil rights protections from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

But Mr. Brockman’s resigned tone also suggested a resolution to a painful chapter in the history of his beloved state. Last year, North Carolina became the first state in the nation to pass a bill that, among other measures, required transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponded with the sex on their birth certificate. Yesterday, even as states such as Texas weighed passing their own measures, it became the first state to repeal such a law.

The House Bill 2 saga underscores how a Southern state whose progressive cities are filled with high-tech towers and farm-to-table restaurants had been forced to revisit its history of discrimination, raising questions about whether the centrist identity North Carolina projected to the world was, in fact, a façade.

“Like every other person in North Carolina, I’m exhausted from HB2,” says Brockman. “I think it’s been completely damaging for North Carolina, and today was all about trying to repair that damage.”

The state lost hundreds of millions of dollars in wages as conferences and concerts took passes on coming to the state. The NBA and NCAA boycotted. Companies such as PayPal scrapped investment plans. And the yearlong attempt to forge a repeal compromise only underscored a fundamental struggle between rural legislators and cities like Charlotte, which passed the initial antidiscrimination ordinance nullified by HB2. Whether those companies will come calling again is an open question – as Brockman’s no vote indicates, many liberals felt the compromise was in name only.

“North Carolina has had this kind of great progressive but centrist reputation as a place to do business,” says North Carolina State University political scientist Steve Greene. “We’re progressive for the South, and there’s a real sense among a lot of people that, ‘Hey, we are not like those Deep South states, we’re more forward-thinking.’ And now we are totally polarized.”

In reaction to a Charlotte antidiscrimination ordinance, the law pulled away protections from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents beyond bathroom rights – to the point where they couldn’t even make discrimination claims in state court.

Conservatives upheld it as a public safety measure that valued privacy and protected children. Advocates repeated the claim, without evidence, that transgender people posed a threat to girls and women. If there was economic damage, it was worth it, in their eyes.

Just last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest told Texas lawmakers considering a similar bill that the controversy was largely media-generated and that the economic impact was less than 1 percent of GDP. And he had a point: North Carolina remained the country’s 10th fastest growing state economy despite the controversy. One lawmaker tweeted, “This comes from God, not us.” However, some Republicans were also keen to change the subject, as long as a compromise gave them a way to save face, says Professor Greene. Former Gov. Pat McCrory, whose loss in November has been pinned by both sides on his HB2 signature, supported the repeal.

But even as some Republican lawmakers on Thursday condemned boycotts as extortion by liberal cabals, many North Carolinians are ready to repair their scarred reputation and move on from canceled basketball games and raised eyebrows from friends and relatives in other states. Governor Cooper called HB2 “a dark cloud hanging over our great state,” adding that it has “stained our reputation ... discriminated against our people and ... caused great economic harm.”

“There’s been a real weariness that has really weighed people down, and that stems from the difficulty of Republicans and Democrats to really forge a compromise,” says John Dinan, author of “Keeping the People’s Liberties” and a political scientist at Wake Forest University. “It was anguishing for a lot of people.”

In Brockman’s hometown of High Point, the anguish felt real.

Adidas moved its plans to build its first US sneaker factory from the Greensboro-High Point area – where 20,000 people are unemployed – to the outskirts of Atlanta.

An Associated Press investigation found that total economic losses to the state would top $3.7 billion over 12 years. Shelly Green, CEO of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, summed it up in an AP interview: “[T]his whole thing is just such a Dumpster fire, and nobody wants to go near it.”

In the end, one of the most powerful ways that North Carolinians define themselves came into play: basketball.

The reason the compromise happened Thursday is because the NCAA threatened that, unless the law was completely repealed by March 30, North Carolina – home to North Carolina, Duke, NC State, and Michael Jordan – wouldn’t see a playoff college basketball game until 2022, if then.

To be sure, the NCAA will also be an early arbiter of whether the compromise bill goes far enough. A decision is expected next week. But at the very least, the repeal of HB2 gave a chance for many shell-shocked North Carolinians to recalibrate – and get some rest.

“I hope the lesson the General Assembly takes away from this is, stay out of social issues – that’s what I’ve been fighting for, at least,” says Brockman, the legislator.  He sighed, and added, “I gotta go. It’s been kind of a difficult day.”

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