In 2016, Sam, a transgender teen from Apex, decided to come out to her peers. Although she'd already started transitioning at home, she hadn't told people in her social circle—and she was worried.
"There was some fear there," her mom says.
Soon after, the legislature passed HB 2, the so-called bathroom bill. That made things worse. Whenever Sam left the house, for example, she had to strategically plan to make sure she didn't need to use a public bathroom. To this day, Sam is afraid to use bathrooms in public places.
"The whole HB 2 debacle has really impacted our family in a very negative way, to the point where it has decreased her self-worth," says her mother, who asked to remain anonymous. "And a lot of that is because she is transgender and she doesn't feel accepted in the state."
Given that adverse impact, Sam's parents are now looking nervously toward the upcoming Apex Town Council race, where the rags of HB 2 are still quietly playing out.
The HB 2 thread can be traced back to one candidate in particular: the snowy-haired Graham Wilson, formerly the press secretary for HB 2 cheerleader and defeated governor Pat McCrory. Wilson, who's currently a PR consultant, according to the website Apex Voter Guide, served as McCrory's press secretary from July 2015 through the end of his term.
In that role, Wilson defended the law during the height of its fallout. He blamed Charlotte for passing an antidiscrimination ordinance and thus provoking the HB 2 fight, and at one point argued that "this entire issue originated by the political left was all about politics and winning the governor's race." When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced that it would allow transgender students to use bathrooms that comported to their gender identity, Wilson blasted it as a "radical change." When HB 2 opponents challenged the law in court, Wilson criticized the "continued distortion of the facts by the groups challenging this law."
The HB 2 connection doesn't end with Wilson. There's also Paul Stam, a former state representative from Apex. Stam, a primary author of HB 2 , contributed $200 to Wilson's campaign and to that of fellow candidate David Hooks. Stam famously passed out a handout on the House floor in 2014 describing pedophilia, necrophilia, and bestiality as "sexual orientations."
Stam declined the INDY's request for an interview but said in an email that he has "known Mr. Hooks and Mr. Wilson for decades and highly respect each of them."
So far, Wilson's background as McCrory's press secretary hasn't come up much in his election bid—and in his own campaign materials, he doesn't seem eager to highlight it. His campaign website doesn't mention his time working for McCrory.
It's not clear how much of an effect an HB 2 connection could have for a council candidate. In 2016, the town leaned toward Hillary Clinton, according to vote tallies from the Wake County Board of Elections.
Still, the N.C. Republican Party, which recently sent out mailers endorsing Wilson and Hooks, sees it as fertile ground. In an email, Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the N.C. GOP, says the party weighed in because "Apex is a key area of growth."
Wilson didn't return phone calls or emails, and he refused to speak with a reporter at a "meet the candidates" event at an Apex IHOP last week.
Three of the five candidates vying for three spots on the council—Mayor Pro Tem Nicole Dozier, Brett Gantt, and Audra Killingsworth—have been endorsed by the Wake County Democratic Party. Only one of them has been willing to address head-on Wilson's previous gig. In a phone call, Killingsworth says she was appalled to learn about Wilson's involvement with McCrory and HB 2.
"Disgusted," she says. "And horrified that we have someone with those views running for town council in Apex. We need someone who is more like the face of our community. We want someone who is thoughtful and looking toward the future instead of regresses in policies and could potentially harm our community."
Gantt declined to comment on Wilson's history, citing his employment with the EPA, which requires him to remain nonpartisan. Dozier, a health policy expert with the N.C. Justice Center, told the INDY, "As a mom, a daughter, and as an elected official, I represent everyone in Apex. I represent everybody, and I don't want anyone to feel as though they may not be welcome."
The candidates' aversion to discussing the HB 2 matter might have something to do with a petition published recently on Change.org by Mike Rusher, calling on Apex candidates to take part in a positive campaign. To date, the petition has received thirty-eight signatures, including from Hooks, Gantt, and Wilson.
Rusher used to be chief of staff for the N.C. Republican Party. (He didn't respond to a request for comment.)
The three top vote-getters on Tuesday will serve four-year terms—which means they'll sit on the council in 2020, when the state's moratorium on local nondiscrimination ordinances expires. After that, municipalities will be able to pass their ordinances protecting LGBTQ residents—or not, depending on who's in charge.
"If you have someone who has a history of stating these stances on people who are transgender or LGBT, then I would expect that their future decisions are going to be very similar," says Killingsworth. "When they're talking about, Is it possible to have a nondiscrimination ordinance? Well, it probably won't pass if these two people get on the board."