Awary Roy Cooper walks in front of the red-carpeted stairs of the Executive Mansion and readies himself to deliver the news. It's hard to tell who looks more thoroughly depleted—Cooper, eyes downcast, in a blue tie and crisp suit, or the gaggle of reporters covering the utter dysfunction that has come to define the General Assembly.
The governor's Thursday-afternoon speech will cap off a nail-biting few days in North Carolina politics. Ever since the legislature passed the bill heard 'round the world—HB 2, the "bathroom bill"—the state has been thrust into international infamy.
The bill most notoriously mandated that transgender residents use public bathrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates, rather than their gender identities. But it also blocked local governments from passing antidiscrimination ordinances. It was hastily ushered through the legislature in a one-day special session on March 23, 2016, and sent to then-governor Pat McCrory less than twelve hours later.
The instantaneous controversy surrounding the law left the state's reputation as a tolerant outpost in the Deep South in ruins. The boycotts and soured business deals that followed hurt its economy, too. According to an Associated Press analysis released last week, HB 2 would have cost the state at least $3.76 billion over the next dozen years—a drop in the bucket compared to North Carolina's $510 billion GDP, but substantial nonetheless. And last Tuesday, the other shoe dropped: the NCAA gave North Carolina a Thursday deadline to repeal HB 2 or lose championship games until at least 2022.
Collegiate athletics being what they are in the Tar Heel State, Republicans and Democrats alike had the motivation to finagle a deal that would somehow satisfy everyone, a Sword of Damocles hanging over their necks.
Enter Roy Cooper—four p.m., cameras rolling. He takes a deep breath.
"Today I just signed House Bill 142, which repeals HB 2," he begins. "For over a year now, House Bill 2 has been a dark cloud over our great state. This is not a perfect deal or my preferred solution. It stops short of many things we need to do as a state. In a perfect world, we would have repealed HB 2 today and added full statewide protections for LGBT North Carolinians. Unfortunately, our supermajority Republican legislature will not pass these protections. But this is an important goal that I will keep fighting for."
In January, during his inaugural address—after eking out a win over McCrory, following a campaign built around HB 2's unpopularity—Cooper struck a more defiant tone: "When a law attempts to make any North Carolinian less in the eyes of their fellow citizens, I will fight it. I will stand up for you if the legislature cannot or will not."
Some of those citizens now say Cooper has stabbed them in the back.
"Well basically, this repeal, which is not even really a repeal, is Roy Cooper selling us out," says Angela Bridgman, a transgender woman from Wake County who spent Thursday protesting HB 142 at the Statehouse. "This is not what I voted for Roy Cooper for. I voted for a clean repeal. This is not what we're getting. This is about getting our NCAA basketball games back."
To be fair, repealing HB 2 was never going to be easy. Cooper tried to work something out in December. At his behest, Charlotte repealed its LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance—which had prompted the legislature to pass HB 2 in the first place—but the legislature botched its end of the deal. Democrats refused to support the repeal because it included a six-month moratorium on local governments passing nondiscrimination ordinances; conservative Republicans couldn't shake their obsession with bathrooms as breeding grounds for deviancy.
This time, however, the NCAA's deadline was upon us. So whereas four months ago, a six-month moratorium was unacceptable, HB 142's moratorium—which lasts until December 2020—was met with a sighing acquiescence, at least among many Democratic politicians.
But for the state's rising activist base, the bill was an unacceptable compromise on civil rights—which, in their view, should never be open to negotiation.
Instead, in a twist of irony befitting this year-long debacle, Cooper himself became the target of Thursday's protest organized by the Air Horn Orchestra, a group that pestered McCrory for eight months after he signed HB 2. This time, protesters convened in front of the Executive Mansion to annoy the Democrat inside. Bridgman was there, carrying a white poster that read, "We trusted you!" in purple block letters.
So while Cooper argues that something is better than nothing, progressive groups insist this something is merely HB 2-lite.
"Under HB 2 we had zero LGBT protections," Cooper told reporters last week. "Zero. Today's law provides for LGBT protections. Today's law not only provides for LGBT protections now, but opens the door for more in the future."
It's "just a different kind of bad," counters Ames Simmons, director of transgender policy at Equality NC. He points out that no one from the LGBTQ community was involved in the bill's negotiations. "And particularly for Cooper to talk about what's better or not better for the LGBTQ community, that's an educated guess on his part, since he didn't have any of us there at the negotiating table. So if he really were taking the safety of the community seriously, he would have involved us."
Let's start with what HB 142 does. First, it actually repeals HB 2; that is to say, its first provision wipes HB 2 from state statute. And if it had stopped there, progressives would've been happy.
But it didn't. Instead, it tacked on a provision that prohibits any state agency, including school boards and public universities, from making their own rules about bathroom usage. Instead, the state legislature will have the final say on who can use what public facilities. In other words, while the law no longer mandates that you use restrooms that conform to your birth certificate—a laughably unenforceable provision—state agencies can't take affirmative steps to become more welcoming to transgender people.
Again, had it stopped there, there probably wouldn't have been much of an outcry. After all, this sort of pre-HB 2 status quo is the way most states operate. But again, it didn't.
HB 142 also banned cities from passing new nondiscrimination ordinances regulating public accommodations or private employment practices (read: living-wage ordinances) until December 1, 2020, although fifteen of the sixteen nondiscrimination ordinances that were enacted prior to HB 2—including Raleigh's—will go back into effect. These tend to prohibit discrimination against employees of governments and their contractors; Charlotte's ordinance, which was repealed in December, went further by banning discrimination in public accommodations.