Roy Cooper was mending fences. Just not the ones you might have imagined.
The governor spent most of Thursday’s press conference, after he signed the measure repealing House Bill 2, going after the Republican General Assembly, the lawmakers with whom he had spent the last day trying to hold together the tenuous deal.
He said the Republican legislators were the bad guys and tried to reassure progressive activists that the law he just signed, at best, was necessary but unfortunate.
“In a perfect world, with a good General Assembly, we would have repealed House Bill 2 fully today, and added full statewide protections for LGBT North Carolinians,” the governor said after signing House Bill 142 into law, eradicating H.B. 2.
“Unfortunately, our supermajority Republican legislature will not pass these protections,” Cooper said, not long after he reached an agreement with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders that had eluded them since his January inauguration.
Cooper said he hoped the fight over rights for transgendered people would result in legislative gains for Democrats in 2018. He said local governments should push legal limits and implement broader nondiscrimination ordinances, and repeatedly vowed to fight for a statewide bill.
“I’ll sign it [statewide expansions of LGBT nondiscrimination laws] today if they’ll pass it. But we know they won’t,” Cooper chided.
And he assailed Republicans’ character.
Culturally conservative GOP lawmakers revolted when a previous compromise bill failed to pass in special session in December, Cooper said, and several spoke out Thursday on the House floor. He said earlier compromise proposals “allowed people to use religious beliefs to discriminate.”
The environment between the branches of government has been toxic for months. Cooper missed a rare chance to embrace a bipartisan compromise and mollify his opponents, who also gave ground on H.B. 142, several political experts said. A brief pause might have given both the governor the legislature an opportunity to agree on several key policy areas they’ll confront in the next few weeks. Instead, Cooper turned up the volume, prodding both supporters and opponents of the compromise to keep fighting.
“Yes, he missed an opportunity,” David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, said of Cooper’s handling of the H.B. 2 reset.
“Even though this is a political issue for Gov. Cooper, it probably wasn’t an appropriate time to look forward to the next election cycle,” McLennan said. He likened it to the sort of misstep President Trump commits in escalating political rhetoric when a temperate approach would be more astute politically.
Like McLennan, N.C. State University political science professor Andy Taylor thinks the tone of Cooper’s speech was in response to the heat he was taking from the more passionate segments of his Democratic base, who protested the bill.
“This is sort of visceral,” Taylor said of the personal values embedded in H.B. 2. “For certain people, this orientates their universe on both sides. They are a minority, but they are vocaI. I think Cooper probably felt a little bit vulnerable to them in the aftermath, and possibly felt that having signed the bill he needed to do something to placate them.”
Finally reaching a compromise could have led to pivot in sour relations, Taylor said.
That might have helped Cooper and the General Assembly agree on some policy areas as budget and other high priority items move forward, Taylor said. “Obviously, the governor wanted to disabuse anybody who thought that was possibly the case.”
Given the fractures on many fronts, “it’s hard to see in the short term if there are any winners” now that H.B. 2 is scrapped, McLennan said.
Cooper has been hit from the left, he said. But Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, faced an onslaught from factions in the conservative movement, and the GOP must cope with infighting. The state’s national reputation will be slow to improve because it took so long to kill H.B. 2, he said.
“I think if Speaker Moore or President Pro Tem Berger can take anything away from this it is the value of the legislative process,” McLennan said. They could have spent more time treating H.B. 2 more like normal legislation last year when it was introduced, he said.
Thursday’s legislative process also was ill-advised, he said.
“It was rushed, not fully vetted, not fully debated, witnesses not brought in to committee hearings,” McLennan said. “If they don’t learn this lesson now we may be forced to repeat it on other policy issues.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a staunch supporter of H.B. 2, told the News & Observer that “there’s a good opportunity” some Republicans could draw primary opponents in the next legislative session over their votes to repeal.
“He stands by what he said,” Forest spokesman Jamey Falkenbury told Carolina Journal. “I can let you know that he is not planning in any way to recruit people for primaries.”
Forest also told the newspaper “there’s going to be some hard feelings.” They were on display Thursday, especially during the two-hour House debate.
Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, bristled from the floor about the “dirty politics” that were employed to reach repeal.
“We’ve had members of our caucus threatened in various ways,” Collins said. Sometimes the Senate was the source of the threats, and other time fellow House members stabbed H.B. 2 supporters in the back, he added.
“I think any bill that has to be passed by dirty tactics is a dirty bill,” said Collins, who is in his fourth term. “This is the saddest day of my service.”
Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston, said he has been called names and vilified by colleagues for opposing repeal, and chafed at the integrity of the process used to pass H.B. 142. The Senate stripped language out of a totally unrelated bill that already passed the House, inserted the repeal bill, and sent that back to the House for concurrence, meaning it only could be voted up or down.
“This is not going to go away,” Bumgardner said of the issues in play. “It is a new beginning.”
McLennan agrees. He said the language in H.B. 142 is vague and uncertain about what municipalities may or may not do with nondiscrimination ordinances, and what the moratoriums actually mean.
Eventually the General Assembly will challenge a local government’s nondiscrimination ordinance, McLennan said. Lawmakers then will pass another law or file a lawsuit.
“I think it has a lot of ramifications for the future of the relationship of municipalities and the state government,” McLennan said, “and it’s not particularly good.”