There was a time, back in the range of 2008, when Pat McCrory looked as though he probably would do a pretty good job if elected as North Carolina’s governor.
At least, there weren’t any solid reasons to think that this moderate, business-oriented Republican who was the veteran mayor of the state’s largest city would wind up hitching his political fortunes to homophobia and to the fate of a presidential candidate who “trump-ets” his unfitness for office virtually every time he opens his mouth.
But as McCrory tries to convince the state’s voters to give him a second four-year term, that’s the awkward situation in which he finds himself.
He’s saddled with leading the defense of the General Assembly’s epic blunder known as House Bill 2, which he signed even though it puts North Carolina in the forefront of discrimination against gays, lesbians and the transgendered.
Donald Trump, having won the Republican nomination to succeed President Obama, apparently hasn’t been able to say or do anything sufficiently outrageous for McCrory to decide it would be prudent to keep him at arm’s length – prudent for his own candidacy, prudent for the country’s well-being. Might Trump’s reckless appeal to Russia to hack his opponent Hillary Clinton’s email in hopes of embarrassing her (he now says he was being sarcastic) finally be more than McCrory and other top Republicans can take?
McCrory has touted H.B. 2 as a common-sense public safety measure so often that by now he may even believe it. The “safety” factor arises because the law that was enacted so rashly in April requires transgendered persons to use bathrooms and changing facilities in public buildings that match the sex listed on their birth certificate.
Strictly enforced, if that were even possible, the rule would keep individuals born male but identifying as female from using women’s bathrooms – a scenario the law’s advocates cynically conflate with intrusion by a pervert, who under current laws and ordinances already could be busted up one side and down the other.
The rule is a demeaning, needless affront to the basic human needs of the transgendered. But its effects are much broader. In overriding a City of Charlotte ordinance intended to protect transgender rights, the legislature barred all localities from extending anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians. And the law makes clear that such protections will not be granted by the state. Yes, those legislative chiefs really did McCrory a favor by putting him in the spotlight as the state’s chief spokesman for this exercise in bigotry.
When dozens of companies with national reach – companies that can choose to do business just about anywhere they want – condemn your state’s hostility toward the LGBT community, and you have to try to explain the inexplicable, you’re in the spotlight.
When the National Basketball Association rescinds plans to hold its next all-star game in Charlotte – yes, the city where McCrory served multiple terms as mayor – and thereby deprives the city’s economy of millions in visitor spending, all because the NBA seeks to maintain a standard of equal treatment regardless of someone’s sexual orientation or gender status, the spotlight’s glare becomes distinctly unpleasant.
The league gave McCrory and the legislature several weeks to address its concerns. But top lawmakers, secure in their gerrymandered districts, thumbed their noses and adjourned. (They did make one worthwhile tweak, restoring the right to bring anti-discrimination suits in state court, but stuck by their refusal to outlaw discrimination because of sexual orientation.)
Pressure then focused on the governor. Perhaps he could be mollified the NBA by conceding that H.B. 2 had been a mistake and pledging to try to fix it, even if that meant getting crosswise with powerful legislators from his own party.
Instead, he doubled down with the far-fetched allegation that the whole controversy was initiated by “the left” to score political points and energize campaign donors.
His evidence, such as it was, emerged from a trove of Democratic National Committee emails somehow made available (those Russians again?) to the website WikiLeaks, which regards inside information, no matter how obtained, as fair game.
Yes, there was some gloating among Democrats over the depth of the hole that McCrory and his allies have dug for themselves because of the H.B. 2 fiasco, and there was talk of a fund-raising event to be headlined by Vice President Biden.
That event never materialized. And what’s so unusual or even objectionable about politicians smacking their lips in private over their foes’ woes? Not much.
Law as leverage
What’s odd is that McCrory found a way to accuse his rivals of doing precisely what his side had transparently done by pushing ahead so aggressively with H.B. 2 in the first place.
Republican chiefs clearly had figured they could throw a charge into their socially conservative voter base by coming out strongly against Charlotte’s move to make the city more hospitable to transgendered folks. That base is a not-insignificant force in North Carolina, as signaled by the passage of a constitutional amendment (since invalidated by the federal courts) barring same-sex marriage.
But H.B. 2’s backers must have failed to anticipate the ferocious backlash against their discriminatory plunge. How ironic that McCrory – whose reelection prospects are tied most closely to his debatable claims of a “Carolina comeback” in jobs and investment – now has to stand against a business community whose distaste for H.B. 2 is nothing short of profound.
Sure, some business leaders have gone along with the law because it also, perhaps not coincidentally, bars localities from raising their minimum wage. In other words, it looks for all the world as if the minimum wage provision was the price of those leaders’ support for the larger measure.
But if there’s a mainstream business consensus on H.B. 2, it has to be judged as negative – a sign of how tolerance for our LGBT family members, friends and co-workers thankfully is becoming the norm rather than the exception. When legal challenges to the law are heard in federal court – a trial is set to start on Nov. 14 – that principle of tolerance could receive a boost from the Constitution.
During McCrory’s first run for the governorship, back in 2008, he positioned himself as a counterweight to the state’s entrenched and scandal-plagued Democratic establishment. But that was the year Barack Obama managed to carry North Carolina in his historic first campaign for the White House, drawing thousands of new Democratic voters to the polls. Amid that tide, McCrory lost to Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue.
One could say that he dodged a bullet. It fell to Perdue to have to lead the state through the disastrous recession that was striking the country as she took office.
Meanwhile, Obama’s opponents worked to obstruct and frustrate his every move. Their pushback in North Carolina saw them take control of the legislature in 2010, making Perdue’s job even more difficult. When she decided not to seek a second term in 2012, that opened the door for McCrory – who since his defeat had swung notably to the right.
The election was a shellacking for North Carolina Democrats, who not only surrendered the governor’s mansion but also saw their legislative ranks dwindle even further. For McCrory, the Republican surge was a mixed blessing. GOP majorities in both the state Senate and House could override any veto he chose to issue. On those few occasions when he tested them, they made it clear who was driving the bus.
In the end, McCrory has opted to be a team player in support of the legislature’s smaller-government, tax-cutting agenda. Even though he balked at a bill allowing magistrates to refuse to perform same-sex marriages (his veto was overridden), when someone hatched the bright idea of putting LGBT folks in their place via H.B. 2, he readily fell into line.
Many Republican leaders have had to undertake various gut checks as the 2016 campaigns gathered steam. Nowhere has that been more obvious than in decisions about whether to support Donald Trump, whose campaign reeks of divisiveness, ignorance, bad judgment and a doomsday pessimism calculated to convince voters that he alone can save them.
For McCrory, and as well for such North Carolina GOP luminaries as U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who also is running for re-election, party loyalty and their own urge for political self-preservation have put them aboard the Trump bandwagon. It could be a rough ride.
A party that can nominate a candidate such as Trump needs true loyalists – leaders who comprehend the damage he could do and who are willing to try to reclaim their party for decency, fairness, international cooperation and conservatism tempered with compassion. It’s late, but not too late for McCrory to help meet that challenge.
And by the way, even Donald Trump – while saying that such matters should be left to the states – doesn’t look to be a big fan of H.B. 2.