Gay rights have emerged as a contentious issue in the Raleigh mayoral race, creating some of the most heated rhetoric of the contest to date.
Incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Democratic challenger Charles Francis both refer to themselves as strong supporters of LGBTQ rights and people. However, both have encountered sometimes oblique recent criticism of their records on the subject.
On Monday, Equality NC's political action committee rescinded its endorsement of Francis, whom the group had co-endorsed along with McFarlane. The PAC cited Francis's lack of public advocacy on the issue, along with his campaign contributions from conservative politicians and public figures who had backed the anti-same-sex-marriage ballot initiative Amendment One, and the so-called "bathroom bill" HB2, which restricted the accommodation of trans people in public restrooms.
And on Thursday, the national Human Rights Campaign released a study of U.S. cities based on "the inclusive municipal laws, policies, and services are of LGBTQ people who live and work there." The nonprofit's analysis gave Raleigh under McFarlane’s leadership a grade of 60 on a scale of 100, placing it below cities such Greensboro (82) and Durham (69).
On Friday, both strongly disputed criticisms of their records on the subject as poorly founded.
Francis said criticisms of the politics of some of his supporters were off base and unjustified, citing the diversity of his supporters and stating that McFarlane had also received donations from people who supported candidates in favor of HB2. As one example, he cited North Hills developer John M. Kane, who gave McFarlane's campaign $1,000 this year and has donated copiously to national and congressional Republican candidates as well as the state GOP, which firmly supported HB2.
For her part, McFarlane spoke up for Raleigh's inclusion of LGBTQ people, pointing out that the HRC survey did not measure work done by such nonprofits as the LGBT Center of Raleigh.
"Instead of addressing all of EqualityNC's concerns, Mr. Francis is criticizing the press in addition to my leadership on this issue," McFarlane said. "I am always striving to make our city fairer, more inclusive, and more equal.
"The steps our council took in 2014 to extend the city's nondiscrimination ordinance to include gender identity and expression is one example of our city's commitment to that goal."
Before the current controversy heated up, McFarlane was designated LGBT Center of Raleigh's 2017 Ally of the Year award on Oct. 6, just a few days before the Oct. 10 municipal election. Francis asked for the Nov. 7 runoff in the race made possible because McFarlane, with 48 percent of the total, did not attract the majority of votes.
Francis cited the HRC survey's conclusions in attacking McFarlane's record, using an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual people.
"The current mayor is not a leader," Francis said. "Her administration has neglected these areas and failed to use the mayor’s office as a bully pulpit for pro-equality legislation or policy in the face of a North Carolina legislature that is hostile to LGBTQIA+ people."
On Thursday, a Facebook site called the Raising Raleigh Project, started by former city council candidate and Francis supporter Zainab Baloch and others, popped up, with the Human Rights Campaign's rankings as its only post. It also displays the phrase, "Raleigh Can Do Better," the core slogan of Francis' campaign since its beginning. Baloch says she's used the language too.
"I'm not working on the campaign; all of this is my own thing," Baloch said Friday of the Raising Raleigh site. "My biggest passion right now is to keep people engaged."
In Francis's case, criticism for his LGBT stance arose from Equality NC. On Oct. 23 the organization rescinded its endorsement of Francis, citing donations to his campaign from conservative politicians and public figures who had backed the anti-same-sex-marriage ballot initiative Amendment One, and the so-called "bathroom bill" HB2, which restricted the accommodation of trans people in public restrooms.
"I am a supporter of LGBT rights and I am the candidate," Francis said in an interview this week.
"The focus needs to be on the candidate and not on someone who is not running. The so-called progressive elitists who too often dominate the Democratic Party in its agenda are surprised that we have been able to run the funds to run a competitive campaign."
Francis said Raleigh should offer "inclusive healthcare benefits to all trans people who are City workers," give its Human Relations Commission the ability to mediate citizen complaints on discrimination, and offer more services for trans people.
"Raleigh can do much more for its LGBTQIA+ community," Francis said in a statement Friday.
"Raleigh also needs more city services targeted to the needs of trans people, LGBTQ youth, and the homeless," he said. "In addition, we need to add training to make sure our police are well-trained to keep LGBTQIA+ people safe in all interactions."
Representatives of Raleigh's LGBT Center took to the Raising Raleigh Project to criticize the Human Rights Campaign survey as poorly done and failing to reflect the role that non-governmental organizations play in day-to-day life for Raleigh residents. McFarlane referenced those groups in her Friday statement.
"I would be remiss if I did not thank organizations like EqualityNC and the LGBT Center of Raleigh who work with the city and provide many of the services the HRC index overlooks," McFarlane stated. "The tireless work of our local partners in improving the quality of life for our LGBTQ citizens is part of what makes Raleigh a great city.
She gave as examples the LGBT Center of Raleigh, the Center's Youth Programs, the LGBTQ homeless services offered by Haven House Services, Wrenn House & Safe Place, and the Oak City Outreach Center.
With the election less than two weeks away, the controversy over gay rights ventured outside the discussion of growth, traffic, income inequity, and affordable housing on which the campaigns' dialog had centered. The intensity of the discussion likely reflects not only the weight of the issue, but also the dwindling number of days in which candidates can attract voters for the Nov. 7 showdown.