North Carolina Restroom Law
HIGH POINT, N.C. — Parrish Clodfelter, a 79-year-old retiree who lives on a central North Carolina farm, professes opinions about transgender people that might get him fired if he worked for a multinational corporation, though for many here, they constitute simple country wisdom.
“A man wants to change to a woman, he’s got a mental problem,” Mr. Clodfelter said on Wednesday over lunch at Spiro’s Family Restaurant, where posters by the door advertised classes on carrying concealed weapons and a “Hillbilly Sunday” Pentecostal church service.
But Mr. Clodfelter has a different kind of problem. As a longtime Republican, he wants to support Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s Republican governor, in his re-election bid. At the same time, Mr. Clodfelter is worried about the boycotts and lost jobs resulting from the law the governor signed in March that limits transgender bathroom access and eliminates antidiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people.
If the backlash continues, Mr. Clodfelter said, he will consider voting for Mr. McCrory’s Democratic opponent, Roy Cooper, who supports the law’s repeal.
“I’m afraid if they don’t change it,” he said, “it’ll hurt the state.”
Even before the law tapped into a national debate about transgender rights, privacy and political correctness, North Carolina, the rare Southern state that is evenly split between liberals and conservatives, was considered to be up for grabs in the November presidential race, particularly if Donald J. Trump tops the Republican ticket.
Now the law, and the backlash against it, have introduced a different kind of volatile energy to state politics here, roiling a governor’s race that could be the nation’s most competitive. It is also affecting other crucial contests, including that of Senator Richard Burr, who hopes to fend off a vigorous Democratic challenge from Deborah K. Ross, a former State House member and former state director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Last week, Mr. Burr, who has defended the law, came under attack from Democrats who have leapt at the chance to transform a cultural issue into an economic one, as the state has suffered the retreat of protesting companies, including PayPal, which canceled a plan to bring more than 400 jobs to Charlotte. On Thursday, the N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, said the league would move its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte if the law were not changed.
Thus far, the uproar may be doing the most harm to Mr. McCrory, an affable former mayor of Charlotte who has struggled, since taking office in 2013, to maintain his reputation as a moderate in the face of a Republican-dominated legislature that is considerably more conservative than he is. An Elon University poll conducted from April 10 to 15 showed Mr. Cooper, the state’s longtime attorney general, leading Mr. McCrory 48 percent to 42 percent among registered voters, the largest lead Mr. Cooper has seen in the five polls Elon has conducted in the last year.
But November is a long way off, and social issues reverberate in complex ways in a state that has a reputation for moderation but also produced Jesse Helms, the arch-conservative United States senator. Carter Wrenn, a longtime political strategist who worked with Mr. Helms, said Democrats had been winning arguments over the law of late. But he said Republicans would have time to make the case to voters that the law helps ensure privacy and security in public restrooms.
“We’re not sure how this is all going to turn out,” Mr. Wrenn said, adding, “It’s going to have an impact on the election one way or another.”
The issue is particularly troublesome for Mr. McCrory, who earned a reputation for pragmatism in his 14 years as mayor, and who was elected governor with significant support from voters who may be wary of a more conservative candidate. Exit polls from 2012 show that Mr. McCrory received the support of 49 percent of voters who described themselves as moderate and 19 percent of those who considered themselves liberal.
On Thursday afternoon, in a wood-paneled drawing room of the executive mansion in Raleigh, Mr. McCrory, 59, could barely contain his irritation that the law had taken center stage in the election, siphoning attention from his central message: that he has been a wise steward of the economy who had engineered what he and his team have branded the “Carolina Comeback.”
This hornet’s nest, he argued, was first kicked not by him, but by the Democratic City Council in Charlotte, which passed a nondiscrimination ordinance in February allowing transgender people to use men’s or women’s bathrooms. Before it passed, he said, he emailed the council to warn them that if it changed “basic restroom and locker room norms,” he would be forced to support a state law overriding it.
On Thursday, he said he suspected that the entire matter, including the blowup after the state law was passed, had been orchestrated by Democrats and the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, to give Democrats an advantage in a tight governor’s race.
The backlash, he said, has allowed for no dialogue on “a very complex issue.” Dissenters to the left-wing position, he said, were being intimidated. Mr. McCrory used the word “Orwellian” twice.
“You’ve got to be politically naïve if you think this is not coordinated by a very effective, a very effective group,” he said.
Mr. McCrory preferred to talk about the improved state of the economy since he took over from Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat. She had declined to seek re-election after a single term in which North Carolina struggled through the recession and in which she clashed over tax policy with a legislature that Republicans won full control of in 2010. The state’s comeback, Mr. McCrory argues, was bolstered by his ability to deliver $4.4 billion in tax relief, including what his campaign literature describes as “one of the largest income tax cuts in state history.”
“I inherited a broken government and a broken economy,” he said. “So, we were the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country when I came into office: 9.4 percent unemployment. And we’ve had one of the biggest rebounds in the United States of America.” Unemployment in the state is now 5.5 percent.
At a cafe in Raleigh last week, Mr. Cooper, who has served as attorney general since 2001, argued that the Carolina Comeback was a myth, saying that there had been an “overall improvement in the economy across the country.”
“It’s not a Carolina Comeback for everyday working people,” he said. “Most people are working longer, and harder, and for less money than they did before the recession.”
The argument is similar to one made by Republicans about the national economy under President Obama. Still, Mr. McCrory and Mr. Cooper represent two very different traditions of governing here. Mr. Cooper, 58, said his favorite North Carolina governor was Jim Hunt, the Democrat who served two stints in office beginning in 1977 and represents, to many liberals here, a homegrown progressivism that struck a balance between corporate interests and investments in the public good, especially public education.
Mr. Cooper, who was born and raised in rural Nash County, has criticized Mr. McCrory for not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. On Thursday, he criticized the flat-rate income tax Mr. McCrory instituted in 2013 as disproportionately favoring the rich. The law on gender and restrooms, he said, “is a discrimination issue and an economic issue, and, particularly, you have Governor McCrory trying a political ploy that blew up, and is now hurting people and our economy.”