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Dazed city leaders regroup and respond after state legislature reneges on HB2 deal

Bamboozled

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'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the city, Charlotte's leadership stood slack-jawed in disbelief.

In a rush of pre-holiday emergency meetings and special sessions, the Charlotte City Council had just been railroaded by the state's Republican legislature on one of North Carolina's biggest political issues in recent history.

The House Bill 2 debate, which took up much of 2016 in North Carolina, came to a head just days before the year ended, as Governor-elect Roy Cooper and state GOP leaders convinced Charlotte City Council members to rescind changes made to the city's nondiscrimination ordinance in February in return for the repeal of HB 2.

Following two votes by the city council to rescind parts of the nondiscrimination ordinance that offered protections against discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors, the state legislature went into special session — its fifth of the year — on Dec. 21 as promised, but spent the day bickering over moratoriums and reciting condescending rants aimed at the people of Charlotte.

In the end, the lawmakers adjourned without accomplishing anything, and the Charlotte City Council was left looking naïve, at best, and at worst, like they were willing to use LGBT rights as a bargaining chip.

In the days following Dec. 21, fingers were pointed and blame was spread.

On Thursday, Dec. 22, students with the Charlotte-based organization Campus Pride staged a silent sit-in in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. They taped their mouths shut to symbolize their disappointment that young voices in the LGBT community — especially transgender voices — were not taken into consideration before council members decided to trade away their protections against discrimination for what turned out to be an empty promise to repeal HB2.

Some of the students who participated reside in Charlotte, while some were visiting from as far away as Central Michigan University.

"They wanted to send a signal; to send a message and be timely about it to remind people of the real loss, besides your economic pain," said Shane Windmeyer, founder of Campus Pride. "Because that's ultimately what's motivating this — why a lot of this is going on — is because a lot of people are losing money now. And it's not just a minority group that's being impacted personally, it's big business, it's big banks losing money, and when they start losing money, that's when they get upset. But we can't forget that there's actual lives at stake here. There's a human cost here."

Students with Campus Pride protest the recent action of city leaders and inaction of state leaders on Dec. 22 in Charlotte. - RYAN PITKIN
  • Ryan Pitkin
  • Students with Campus Pride protest the recent action of city leaders and inaction of state leaders on Dec. 22 in Charlotte.

On Friday, Mayor Jennifer Roberts met with leaders of the trans and non-gender-conforming communities. Unbeknownst to Roberts, the meeting was being live-streamed over Facebook Live by Ashley Williams of the Trans and Queer People of Color Collective in Charlotte.

During the meeting, Williams called for Roberts' resignation. The mayor admitted she had considered not running for reelection in 2017, but eventually decided doing so would lead people to believe that fighting for LGBT rights — which has been a large part of Roberts' platform throughout her campaign and first year of her tenure — could be toxic for Charlotte's politicians, as it would be viewed as the reason for her downfall.

Roberts later realized the meeting was being recorded and made some statements about how the action would only add to a lack of trust between her and those in the room before leaving the room suddenly. It doesn't appear she has changed her mind about a relection campaign due to any of last week's happenings.

Although Roberts did strongly endorse Cooper's plan to rescind the city's nondiscrimination ordinance, the responsibility for making that decision actually fell just on city council members.

On Monday, Dec. 19, following a long night of phone calls between Cooper, Roberts and council members, the council voted unanimously (Patsy Kinsey was not present for the vote) and approved rescinding the new additions to the nondiscrimination ordinance 10-0.

Two days later, when the state legislature was expected to go into special session to repeal HB2, things began to fall apart rather quickly. Reports that state lawmakers did not believe the repeal of the city's nondiscrimination ordinance went far enough — it left in place a provision protecting city vendors from discrimination that was never affected by HB2 — led council members to call another emergency meeting on Wednesday meeting to fully repeal the ordinance.

However, there was one glaring difference between the ordinance to be voted on at Wednesday's meeting and the one that had been approved on Monday: the abscence of a "clawback provision."

The clawback provision, which was included in Monday's ordinance but not in Wednesday's, set a deadline for the state to repeal HB2 by Dec. 31. If not, the city's nondiscrimination ordinance would go back on the books. It was to act as a safety net, and without it, the state legislature wasn't held to the promises of repeal made by Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.

To be clear, the nondiscrimination ordinance as it stood was more a symbolic pact between city leaders and the LGBT community than anything else. HB2 effectively made the ordinance moot, but it had stood throughout the year as a strong symbol of the council's steadfast refusal to waver on LGBT rights. Advocates had spent nearly three years fighting for the approval of such an ordinance, and hoped it would remain in place, especially in the case that HB2 is repealed by the courts in 2017.

"I wouldn't start to try to guess why all of these people ran with a deep commitment to us that they would support the ordinance; why they passed it, why they claimed to be so proud, why they kept saying we will not compromise and it's not even up for discussion, and why they then turn around and do this," said Jay Leach, senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, who fought for years to get the ordinance approved.

In the days following the vote by city council and inaction from state legislature, Creative Loafing reached out to members of the city council to discuss their thoughts on what had unfolded.

Mayor Roberts looks on during an emergency meeting called on the morning of Dec. 21 in Charlotte. - RYAN PITKIN
  • Ryan Pitkin
  • Mayor Roberts looks on during an emergency meeting called on the morning of Dec. 21 in Charlotte.

John Autry, who voted on Monday but not Wednesday, had an interesting perspective on events as a council member who will be joining the state legislature on Jan. 11. In the November elections, Autry was voted to replace Tricia Cotham as representative of N.C. House District 100. He was in Raleigh on Wednesday, and compared his experience watching state lawmakers work to watching sausage being made.

Autry said that, as an incoming state representative, he is optimistic that Cooper will continue to lead efforts not only to repeal HB2 but to put LGBT protections in place in more municipalities than just Charlotte.

"There's lots of work to do on the lack of trust between local government, state government and federal government with all components of our society," Autry said. "I absolutely understand and appreciate the misgivings that members of the LGBT community right now have front and center. They feel betrayed. But the long game was about repealing HB2 and not prohibiting municipalities from taking actions to protect LGBT people, to protect all minorities, to protect women in the workplace, to protect citizens across this state.

"This status quo of HB2 cannot sustain itself; the economic pressure, the stain on the reputation on the state of North Carolina cannot continue. The economic bleeding cannot continue. The most vulnerable sectors of our society cannot continue without protections against discrimination and violence. When will that happen? I don't know. But I'm going to keep leaning into it," he said.

City council member LaWana Mayfield said she was not surprised by the failure of the North Carolina General Assembly to come through on their promise to repeal HB2 on Wednesday.

Mayfield and council member Al Austin, both open members of the LGBT community, refused to vote in favor of repealing the city's nondiscrimination ordinance Wednesday morning when they realized the clawback provision had been taken away and the city would be at the mercy of the state legislature's word.

"Unfortunately, what happened Wednesday was exactly what I expected to happen. You can't have a discussion of honor with people who have shown no honor," Mayfield said, referring to the state legislature.

"I don't think there ever should have been a conversation [to repeal the nondiscrimination ordinance] but a number of people believed the idea that Raleigh said, 'If you do this then we will repeal,'" she said.

"I never had faith in that, but I need our community to understand that honestly, I respect and understand the anger, but that anger needs to be properly placed. Not with the city council, that anger needs to be placed with your general assembly. It was your general assembly that created HB2 without Charlotte, it is your general assembly who had the ability to repeal HB2 without Charlotte. It was your general assembly that chose not to do their job, but to spend time and energy and money blaming Charlotte. And it's your general assembly as well as Charlotte [city council] that's going to be on the ballot again next year."

Mayfield said she fears that losing Autry and potentially losing Roberts as mayor could put Charlotte into a place where passing a new nondiscrimination ordinance in the future will be more difficult than it was in February.

There was also a chance of losing other council members who supported Charlotte's fight for an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. Just as with Roberts, council member Julie Eiselt admitted to Creative Loafing that the fallout following Wednesday's special session had her contemplating her future in local government.

In the end, just as with Roberts, she decided that the idea of giving up the fight would only serve to weaken her side.

"I don't blame [the LGBT community] for feeling betrayed. We feel betrayed. If nothing else, we've got to stay in this together and fight," Eiselt said. "It was a chance we took. I can't sit here and ask for forgiveness when I get what they feel, but I promise them that we have not turned our backs on them. I thought a lot about it. I thought, 'Maybe I shouldn't run for office again because I pledged to protect people.' Then I thought, 'Well, but then that takes me out of the fight.' You can either stand on the sidewalk with a big sign saying this is what I support or you can get in the street and fight. I'll stay in the street."

Eiselt also hopes this most recent experience with the state legislature will inspire other Charlotte leaders to join her on that street. She's optimistic that now that the state legislature has shown its true colors, pressure will mount on them.

Eiselt is now calling for civic and business leaders in the city to join city council in calling for the state legislature to keep their word and repeal HB2.

"This is not a freeze frame. We'll look back on this historically and say, 'This was just one step back for two steps forward.' There's probably more people on the side of the LGBT fight than there were before. A lot of people in this community drank the Kool Aid of the general assembly who said, 'We need to get Charlotte's ordinance off the books first,'" she said. "What I hope going into the new year, is that the business community and the civic leaders in this community who pushed us so hard to do something understand now why we've been so hesitant — understand now that they've got to speak up and be part of this fight."

So why stand on the sidewalk? There's still plenty of room in the street.

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