Even in this batshit insane election year, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin sees North Carolina as ground zero for LGBTQ rights.
"When the governor signed HB 2, we made a commitment as an organization and in partnership with Equality North Carolina, that we weren't going to stop until this governor and the legislature worked with us to repeal HB 2," Griffin says, "Or until they were voted out of office and we could work with other leaders to repeal HB 2. We made that commitment on day one."
As the president of the nation's largest LGBTQ advocacy group, an organization Pat McCrory called "more powerful than the NRA
," Griffin has shepherded the organization through some of the largest victories of the Obama years, including Obergefell
. Since HB 2 passed in March, Griffin has been a frequent presence here and has rallied business leaders throughout the country against the law.
On Friday, before heading to Greensboro for an event for Hillary Clinton with Senator Cory Booker, Griffin sat down with the INDY
in Raleigh for breakfast and a conversation about what the hell is going on in North Carolina right now.
"Thousands upon thousands of LGBTQ people are getting their voice heard, and they are voting at higher rates than we've ever seen before and it's because of this governor," Griffin says. "And it's particularly because of his assault on transgender North Carolinians."
INDY Week: What are your efforts looking like here? What races are you targeting, and what are you expecting to gain from the election?
When the governor signed HB 2, we made a commitment as an organization and in partnership with Equality North Carolina, that we weren't going to stop until this governor and the legislature worked with us to repeal HB 2, or until they were voted out of office and we could work with other leaders to repeal HB 2. We made that commitment on day one...we looked across this state and we looked at those who were leading the charge on HB 2, so obviously the governor was a top target...and [eleven] state legislative races.
So, it is a comprehensive effort that is deep and wide in this state.
North Carolina has this reputation of being this anti-equality state, with Amendment One. Do you ever have fears that, despite how good numbers might look, it might be a repeat of 2012?
Well, look, I think what the governor did is out of line with the vast majority of voters in this state. All of the public polling shows that voters are frustrated by this governor's lack of leadership and priorities. HB 2 tops the list of examples of both of those things. The vast majority of folks in this state are not only opposed to HB 2, but are embarrassed by what it has done to this state. They're horrified by the economic damage that's been done to this state. It's going to be a close election. Elections here are always close. And if our community and pro-equality voters turn out in this state, we'll win.
A couple of weeks ago, Governor McCrory spoke at an event and he characterized the meeting you had with you as you pointing your finger at him and insulting him.
This was, I believe, three days after the Governor signed that hateful bill, and he had actually not agreed to a meeting with us. We were here with Equality NC delivering a letter that had been signed by over 100 CEOs...after the press conference, we tried to deliver it and eventually his chief of staff agreed to a meeting.
The governor has mischaracterized and lied to the public about what happened in that meeting. The main thrust of what I said...I encouraged him to do two things. I encouraged him to look at the history of the issue and understand he'd been misinformed, and I urged him, "Talk to the Republican governor of Georgia, talk to the Republican governor of South Dakota, talk to the Republican governor of Arizona. These are all governors who have been through similar battles. At the end of the day, they did the right thing and vetoed these hateful bills."
"You have done something that no other governor in the country has done...this state today is the worst out of fifty in terms of treatment of your citizens."
The second ask we made was to collectively urge him to meet with his constituents and the LGBTQ people in this state. Many are his neighbors and fellow congregants in church every Sunday. And I said, "I think when you do, you'll have a change of heart."
Since that day, he's refused to listen or learn. To our knowledge, he's met with no one. And that's the power of an election. Thousands upon thousands of LGBTQ people are getting their voice heard, and they are voting at higher rates than we've ever seen before and it's because of this governor, and it's particularly because of his assault on transgender North Carolinians.
Some of the companies who did sign the HRC letter have donated, this cycle, to the Republican Governors Association and the Republican Attorney Generals Association, where the two biggest races for both organizations are in North Carolina. Are there any conversations you had with these business leaders who are putting money against these efforts you're working towards?
We have worked hard to get business leaders in this state and around the country to stand up with us and fight this legislation. If any of them are supporting candidates on the other side, governor or otherwise, they'll have to answer to that themselves.
If McCrory loses, it's still likely that the Republicans will control both houses of the legislature. Do you see HB 2 being repealed in the next session in spite of that, or do you see this playing out in the courts?
Well, I am optimistic that the election results of this state are going to be a resounding and bold rejection of HB 2. And it's going to be incumbent upon the leaders of this state...to come together and restore the good reputation that this state once had prior to HB 2, by repealing HB 2, which would only be step one. Step two is providing the common sense non-discrimination protections that a host of other states already provide. If you look at the NCAA's announcement, they not only left because of HB 2, but announced a policy that they'll never again go to a city without non-discrimination protections.
There was a fear that because of Chris Sgro leaving the legislature, the LGBTQ community would lose a voice, but yesterday, Rep. Cecil Brockman came out as bisexual. Do you have any comment on that?
I just want to say I commend the courage and his willingness to be open. It's important not only for the leadership, but for the LGBTQ community having someone in the legislature advocating for them...we're excited to have him as a partner there, as someone we'll be able to work with. It's important for the LGBTQ community to have a voice and a seat at the table.
One race you mentioned was the attorney general's race, and the Republican nominee, Buck Newton, was the face of HB 2 in the Senate. How important do you see that race in your efforts?
Buck Newton is, I think, the face and the symbol of what is embarrassing to North Carolina. North Carolinians are embarrassed by Buck Newton and the things that he's said. This race is significant because of Buck Newton being on the other side, but quite frankly, attorney generals all across the country are important to our issues and for minorities as a whole...we need a chief law enforcement officer who's going to stand up for all residents of the state, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race or ethnicity.
We know that [Democratic nominee] Josh Stein will do that. And we know that based on his actions and his words, Buck Newton has no ability to represent citizens of this state equally...and as you know, looking at the ads on both sides of that race, HB 2 has become a driver. And should any supporters of HB 2 win re-election, they should have their eyes open to what the meaning of this election is...it is going to take a broad coalition to undo the harm that was perpetrated against this state.
Jody Winterhoff, HRC's senior vice president of policy and political affairs:
If you would have said to us in the spring that this would be the core of the election up and down the ticket, I'm not even sure we would believe you. The way that this has played out is going to send a signal around the country that these issues are no longer wedge issues you can use.
These races, even at the state legislative level, you're seeing some of those folks [who voted for HB 2] try to sneak in at the eleventh hour and say they're for repeal...the level of desperation is just stunning.
The message that this sends to the rest of this country, even prior to the election...the response of business, sports, and entertainment, sends a message that you cannot get away with doing this. To Jody's point about this being a first of its kind election, this sends a message that attacking our community can ensure your defeat.
What's amazing is that it's a key swing state. This is not one of our issues being litigated in California or New York. This is a critical swing state—perhaps the critical swing state if you look at the schedules of both campaigns and their surrogates...the fact that this is being litigated in this state is quite profound, and a very important moment in the history of our movement.
If we're look at this in terms of presidential elections, it seems like there's been so much progress made since 2004 when George W. Bush came out in support of the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. What's next for your movement?
First of all, one's fundamental civil rights shouldn't be determined by which side of the state line one lives on. We need the Equality Act in Congress
, which will provide protections for sexual orientation and gender identity...what we need is a Congress which will stand up, do the right thing, and pass the Equality Act. And as you know, Hillary Clinton has not only committed to signing it, but she's campaigned on working with Congress to get it done.
There are a lot of things we all need to be doing, and while we are building to that moment to get that bill passed, we will continue to fight these battles at the local levels, whether it's on defense fighting things like HB 2—we're likely to have something similar come up in Texas
in this next legislative session—but also working to pass fundamental non-discrimination protections. Contrasting something that happened here, last year, while the governor and the legislature were working to pass HB 2, the city council of Jackson, Mississippi voted to pass comprehensive non-discrimination protections
for sexual orientation and gender identity.
So we're working all over the country to get proactive protections, but at the end of the day, we need the Equality Act in Congress.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.