LGBT Battle Underscores the Powerlessness of Being Governor in North Carolina

The real power lies with the state’s increasingly conservative legislature, which may be hurting Gov. Pat McCrory’s chances of re-election in November.
by | May 25, 2016
Gov. McCrory has expressed reservations about House Bill 2 as passed, but he has taken the federal government to court to defend the state law. (AP)

Twenty-five years ago, Holly Springs was a little North Carolina country town, 15 miles from downtown Raleigh, but home to only about a thousand residents. As the capital city has grown, however, Holly Springs has grown with it. About 33,000 people live there now, in subdivisions with names like Arbor Creek and Trellis Pointe. Gov. Pat McCrory needs their votes to win re-election in November. Right now, those votes are at risk.

McCrory, a Republican who spent 14 years as mayor of Charlotte, appealed to suburban voters during his two previous gubernatorial campaigns as a pragmatic, pro-business moderate. That image has been shattered by his decision to sign and defend a law overturning a Charlotte ordinance offering anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender individuals. The state law, known as House Bill 2, has drawn national attention and condemnation from corporate leaders, rock stars, sports leagues and media outlets. What might matter more in this political year is that it’s hurt McCrory’s chances in places like Holly Springs. The city was likely to go for McCrory prior to House Bill 2, says Mayor Dick Sears. Now, from what the mayor hears, the town is a tossup.

On a warm April afternoon, Peter Musser, a Holly Springs resident who works in IT for a chemical company, stopped at a snow cone stand to buy cherry-flavored treats for his daughters before dance class. He supported McCrory last time around, but won’t vote for him again, even though Musser can’t summon up the name of his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Roy Cooper. He believes McCrory should have vetoed House Bill 2, which was rushed through the legislature during a single-day special session in March, and that the governor has failed to recognize the economic damage House Bill 2 has done to the state. “I like what he did in Charlotte,” Musser says. “He’s definitely been for business, but the response to the backlash has rubbed me the wrong way.”

McCrory can’t afford to lose too many voters like Musser. North Carolina is a purple state, neatly and contentiously divided between Democrats and Republicans. Even before the question of LGBT rights made North Carolina the current ground zero in the nation’s culture wars, the election for governor was likely to be one of the closest in the country, and almost certainly the most expensive. With a presidential contest expanding Democratic turnout, McCrory will have no easy ride. “Looking at demographic trends, a two- to three-point win in North Carolina is a solid win,” says Paul Shumaker, a Republican consultant in Raleigh.

That’s what makes Holly Springs and its neighbors a flashpoint. Losing a couple hundred thousand votes in such areas could cost McCrory the election. The total number of votes cast in rural Republican areas roughly matches those cast by Democrats in growing and increasingly liberal cities such as Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh. It’s the suburbs that largely make the difference.

For years, North Carolina politicians joked that every time a McDonald’s popped up at an intersection, it meant a new subdivision full of Republicans had popped up nearby. But many suburban voters are wary of the stark conservative turn that North Carolina -- arguably the most progressive state in the South not that many years ago -- has taken under Republican leadership, as exemplified by House Bill 2. Such voters may not want their taxes to go up, but they want the amenities that government can provide, especially good schools. They aren’t Great Society liberals, but they might be described as quality-of-life liberals.

Holly Springs resident Joyce Wilford says she voted for McCrory last time, but now she’s troubled by his insufficient support for public education. “There are a lot of Republicans in Holly Springs,” says Ferrel Guillory, a longtime observer of state politics at the University of North Carolina. “If it’s turning against McCrory, he’s in trouble.”

House Bill 2 may not have doomed McCrory’s chances, but he’s trailed Cooper in recent polls and in fundraising. In some quarters, the law has made North Carolina a pariah state. Every week, the overall cost to the state economy in terms of canceled conventions, relocations and expansions seems to rise. Last month, the Justice Department filed suit, accusing North Carolina of unlawful discrimination and potentially putting billions in federal funds at risk. The complaints and the lost millions in potential investment have stepped all over McCrory’s message about the “Carolina Comeback” and the number of jobs created on his watch. Lately, the governor has been playing peekaboo with reporters, with his office giving as little as an hour’s notice prior to his public appearances. McCrory himself has been visibly frustrated about the packs of reporters who want to ask him about House Bill 2 and nothing else.

The new law will shore up McCrory’s support among ideological conservatives, who have sometimes been wary about him. It also will limit Cooper’s totals in some areas of traditional Democratic strength. In recent weeks, there have been far more people attending rallies at the Capitol in support of the anti-LGBT law than those protesting against it. “The press has given him a lot of undue bashing,” says Tom Lindley Jr., a real estate manager from Burlington who was part of a crowd of hundreds applauding the law at an April rally.

Glenda Ball supports the new law but notes that "it's as divisive an issue as any we've had in our state." (Alan Greenblatt)

Nevertheless, the issue has been such a thoroughgoing distraction for McCrory that many North Carolina Republicans talk about it in conspiratorial terms, suggesting that Cooper, his donors and gay rights groups put Charlotte up to passing its ordinance as a trap in order to have something to embarrass the governor with. “The Charlotte folks understood exactly what they were doing,” says GOP state Rep. Jimmy Dixon, wearing a button labeled “North Carolina values.” “It was a very narrow segment of the homosexual community that used sensationalism to affect the elections in November.”

For much of his long political career, the 59-year-old McCrory hasn’t been the master of his own fate. Although he was popular as mayor of Charlotte, McCrory didn’t really run the city -- it has a council-manager form of government. He maintained a moderate image that was based in part on his having to deal with Democratic majorities on the city council. McCrory was also a ready ally of banks and other big companies that fueled Charlotte’s growth spurt -- some of the same companies that are now dismayed about House Bill 2.

When McCrory lost his first campaign for governor in 2008, he blamed the voter outreach and turnout efforts of Barack Obama, who became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina since 1976. After that defeat, McCrory never stopped running, and he found success in 2012, when unpopular Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue decided not to run and Obama didn’t make a serious statewide effort.

By that time, Republicans had already taken over the state legislature, winning control of both chambers in 2010. They were able to override about a dozen Perdue vetoes. When he was House speaker, Republican Thom Tillis used to keep copies of the override votes under glass on his conference table, as trophies. “This legislature had a Republican majority before McCrory got here,” says Larry Hall, the state House Democratic leader. “In their minds, they created him.”

Maybe his fellow Republicans didn’t create McCrory, but they didn’t need his blessing to pursue their own agenda. They had a running start and they had the votes. While McCrory was winning election in 2012, legislative Republicans were making their majorities veto-proof in both the House and Senate. Over the past few years, the North Carolina General Assembly has pursued as conservative a course as any state legislative body in America. Name the issue -- welfare, education, tax cuts, abortion, environmental regulation, voting restrictions -- and North Carolina has taken a sharp turn to the right. Legislators have rarely stopped to wonder whether such bills would play well politically for the governor in a close election. Thanks to an aggressively partisan GOP redistricting plan -- now under court challenge -- nearly all of them represent reliably conservative districts and don’t face the pressures the governor faces.

The job of North Carolina governor comes with a big brick mansion, but not a lot of power. The state was the last to grant its governor veto power, back in the 1990s. McCrory has vetoed legislation only a handful of times, and they were all a waste of effort. “If he’d found five or six Republicans, we could have sustained his vetoes,” says Democrat Hall. “He couldn’t.”

McCrory was publicly opposed to Charlotte’s LGBT rights ordinance, but he didn’t ask the legislature to overturn it. Instead, for only the second time in the state’s history, the legislature called itself into special session. In order to win support among legislators for such a move, House Bill 2 took on other controversial provisions reducing local authority, including language blocking increases in the minimum wage. The governor wasn’t clued in about what the final bill would contain. It was introduced at 10 a.m. and passed the same day. McCrory had a month to review the bill, but he sent out a tweet that night announcing he had signed it.

Critics of this whole process like to point out that conservative Republican governors in several states have taken stands diametrically opposed to McCrory’s. Days after McCrory signed House Bill 2, Georgia’s Nathan Deal vetoed a religious freedom bill out of concern it could lead to discrimination against gay people. Earlier in the year, South Dakota’s Dennis Daugaard refused to sign one blocking transgender students from using bathrooms and other facilities. As the controversy grew in North Carolina, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said a transgender bathroom bill was something her state didn’t need.

McCrory has made a few efforts to stake out a centrist position distinct from that of the legislature. In his budget proposal this year, he asked for a substantial increase in teacher pay. The legislature will give him something, but nothing like what McCrory has asked for. That’s true for a lot of the other requests in his budget. Legislators know they don’t need his support, either to pass legislation or to help with fundraising for their own campaigns. “It’s frustrating, because you hear ‘governor’ and you think of all these rights and privileges and you get here and that’s not how things are set up,” says Charles Jeter, the House GOP conference chair. “He has fought hard to defend his ideology, but that doesn’t mean he wins every time.”

McCrory has asked the legislature to revise House Bill 2, but beyond the barest of tweaks there’s little chance of that. “When the Republican leaders of the General Assembly force through horrible bills like House Bill 2 and frame the governor so he has to be their mouthpiece,” says Democratic state Rep. Graig Meyer, “there’s no way to see him other than as a puppet.”

“Puppet” is a pretty strong word, but not one that politicians on either side are shying away from in North Carolina this year. Some Republicans are already portraying Democratic nominee Cooper as a puppet who takes his marching orders from the far left. “If Roy Cooper would have run for governor 10 years ago, he would have been his own man, and not a puppet like he is now,” says Republican Jimmy Dixon. “Political expediency is his expertise and forte.”

Cooper, the attorney general, refused to defend House Bill 2 in court, saying it's bad for business. That stance may cost him votes in rural parts of the state. (AP)

The 58-year-old Cooper comes out of the same mold as recent Democratic governors Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford, and touts his support for business, job growth and education. Beyond that, he has not promoted much of a progressive agenda. Last fall, when McCrory joined with most of his fellow Republican governors in opposition to settlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, Cooper said he also favored a “pause” in the process. “It’s the kind of thing Southern Democrats have been doing for decades,” says Guillory, the UNC professor. “Find some ways to show you are a moderate.”

Given all that, the low-key Cooper might seem an unlikely champion of LGBT rights, but he’s gone all in on opposing House Bill 2. He refuses to defend the law from legal challenge, just as he had been one of the state attorneys general who refused to enforce bans on same-sex marriages when they were still in force. Republicans accuse him of placating the people who are giving him money and putting boots on the ground for his campaign. “A lot of what happened with House Bill 2 could have been avoided if the attorney general had enforced the laws that are on the books,” says House Speaker Tim Moore.

When Cooper talks about House Bill 2, he doesn’t emphasize equality or personal dignity. Instead, he talks up the idea that discrimination is hurting the economy. Cooper, who easily won each of his re-election campaigns as attorney general, still hopes for substantial support from his East Carolina base. Conservative Democrats still exist in the rural eastern counties, even if they have been voting Republican in the last several elections.

Some North Carolina Republicans think that Cooper has overplayed his hand on House Bill 2 and that a majority of voters are uncomfortable with the idea of biological males walking into a ladies’ bathroom. Transgender rights advocates reject this characterization, noting that it’s transgender people who tend to be at risk in public facilities. But polls show that a majority of North Carolinians believe people should go to the bathroom that conforms to their biological sex, rather than their gender identity. Republicans recall that voters in Democratic-dominated Houston, Texas, soundly rejected a broad anti-discrimination ordinance last fall after a campaign that turned largely on the question of bathroom use. “The bathroom issue plays well all over North Carolina,” says Jeter.

But Cooper knows that an increasing share of the Democratic vote is found along the Interstate 85 corridor that links Charlotte to Raleigh and the Research Triangle. Ten counties in North Carolina experienced double-digit population growth between 2010 and 2015, dominated by the major metropolitan regions, while 48 other counties lost population. The Democratic vote in North Carolina is both increasingly urban and increasingly liberal. Cooper is seeking to be the candidate of the emergent cities that feel themselves under attack by the leaders of their own state. He’s hoping not only to win, but to carry in at least a handful of additional Democratic legislators to sustain his vetoes and give him a fighting chance against the legislature. This is where suburban flight from the GOP could end up really hurting the party.

And this is why the Republican plan to motivate the conservative GOP with House Bill 2 could ultimately backfire. Voters such as Musser of Holly Springs understand that tolerance has become an economic asset. Urban liberals are all about getting rid of House Bill 2. Jillian Johnson, who was a social justice activist and part of the Occupy movement before getting elected to the Durham City Council last fall, concedes she wasn’t too fired up about supporting Cooper, having been put off by his stance on refugees. But she is all for him now and thinks her constituents will be too. “This bill will motivate a lot of people who weren’t excited,” Johnson says. “People are excited about getting McCrory out.”

There’s no question that the backlash against House Bill 2 has energized Democrats and put McCrory on the defensive. If the law continues to dominate political discussion into the fall, the governor is going to have a hard time, says Jeter, the House GOP conference chair. McCrory can win, in Jeter’s view, only if the conversation is focused on his economic record. The state’s economic output has grown by 13.4 percent on McCrory’s watch, which is the fastest in any state. “He has to educate voters on what North Carolina has done, and done well,” Jeter says.

But revising the law may be the last thing legislators want to do, given the Justice Department’s decision to sue. For McCrory, the political problem is that, on this issue as on so many others, there’s not much indication that the legislature is willing to give the governor the political support he may need to survive. “I don’t have the authority to change the law as governor of North Carolina,” McCrory said last month. That power, he said, rests with the legislature.