Orange County's local governments were quick to denounce House Bill 2, the anti-LGBTQ proposal rushed through a special session and signed by Governor McCrory on March 23.
Three days later, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen convened a special session of its own to pass a resolution condemning the new law. The Chapel Hill Town Council quickly followed suit.
The towns' progressives were united in purpose, if not on tactics. The one sticking point: boycotts. Some argued that boycotts could pressure the state's leaders to repeal HB 2. Others said they would just end up hurting the wrong people.
For boycotts: new Chapel Hill Town Council member Nancy Oates. "I'm under the belief that money talks, and, in an election year, I believe money talks even louder."
Against boycotts: Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich. "Boycotts don't work. It's going to hurt us. What we need from these businesses is them to support us in lawsuits. We need their money."
Rich serves on the board of the Orange County Visitors Bureau. Early last year, the bureau reported that tourism in the county was on the rise and that LGBT travelers deserved some of the credit.
"We have about three million people who come to Orange County on a yearly basis," Rich says. "Those three million people every year drop about a hundred and eighty million dollars. That's clean economic development. So, if everyone stops coming here, where are we going to make up that revenue?"
Opponents of HB 2, she argues, need the likes of Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz and film director Rob Reiner to come here and fight it—just like he fought Proposition 8 in California—instead of pulling out of North Carolina.
It's a debate we all heard in 2012, when North Carolina voters enshrined Amendment One into the state constitution. Many of the calls for boycotts came from out of state. A change.org petition urged the Democratic Party to move its national convention out of Charlotte. (It didn't happen.)
Former Chapel Hill mayor Mark Kleinschmidt—who was one of the attorneys who successfully challenged Amendment One—wrote an essay back then for the Huffington Post titled "Why You Shouldn't Boycott North Carolina." But Kleinschmidt, Chapel Hill's first openly gay mayor, views boycotts against HB 2 differently.
"My concern in 2012 was that a boycott would hurt a lot of folks that were actually trying to do good," he says. The counties that form "the best of the state," he adds, voted overwhelmingly against it. "This is different. It begins and ends in the legislature. These are just these legislators—largely Republicans, with those eleven Democrats in the House—who, just once again, have proven themselves to be really bad at their job. ... We need to send this message to those people in the legislature and the Governor's Mansion. And I think that actually can be effective, in ways that are different than a response to a large-scale referendum."
Without an actual boycott, the veiled corporate threats likely won't amount to much. For example, while a Human Rights Campaign petition signed by more than 120 CEOs of major companies has received a lot of media attention, none of them has actually threatened to leave the state.
Tourist boycotts could also exert pressure, says Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State. But it's hard to say how much. "Those are very hard to organize," he says, "and probably, over the stretch of time, those concerns will dissipate. Still, we want to keep in mind that our tourist industry in the state is about a twenty-billion-dollar industry."
The loss of major events could also make lawmakers reconsider. "I would think something like the NBA saying, 'We're not going to have our All-Star Game in 2017 [in Charlotte] if this bill is still there'—I think people would pay attention," Oates says. "I think elected officials would pay attention to things like that."
The NBA released a statement last week that hinted at a possible change of plans. And Atlanta has been making some serious moves to poach the event. After all, these games pump, on average, more than $100 million into local economies. (It's worth noting that the Republican governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, recently vetoed anti-LGBTQ legislation.)
The Piedmont's furniture industry may also suffer. In a March 28 statement, High Point Furniture Market warned that "dozens of customers"—industry buyers—have said they will not attend this month's Spring Market in protest of HB 2.
The message from some of those buyers? Move it somewhere else. That's a scary thought for the state's economy. A 2013 Duke University study showed that the huge trade show generates $5.4 billion, including nearly 21,500 jobs and $604 million in visitor spending.
Gerrymandering likely insulates most lawmakers from any political fallout from HB 2. But that's not the case for the governor. Pope McCorkle III, director of graduate studies at Duke's Master of Public Policy Program, says the governor's "Carolina Comeback" brag will haunt his re-election campaign if businesses bail.
"The types of entities that have been threatening to boycott are kind of Pat McCrory's calling cards," McCorkle says. "Ribbon-cutting Pat, Mayor Pat—he loves all these major corporations, and announcing them. And so, it's kind of an identity crisis."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Will Boycotts Work?"