Transgender Bathroom Brawl Punishes North Carolina Mayors Twice

LGBT Rights

Supporters rally outside the North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh on April 11, 2016, in support of a law that blocks rules allowing transgender people to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity.

AP Photo/Gerry Broome
  • Rural Republican lawmakers regulate Democratic urban centers
  • As companies pull out, they punish the cosmopolitan places

In the battle over which bathrooms transgender people may use, North Carolina’s mayors are being pummeled by both sides.

A legislature dominated by rural Republicans punishes them for setting their own anti-discrimination policies. Then, corporations and entertainers respond with boycotts that affect North Carolina’s job-producing regions -- its cities.

“The weird thing is that they’re actually hurting us at the same time,” said Jennifer Roberts, mayor of Charlotte, where Bank of America Corp. is based and Wells Fargo & Co. operates a large trading floor. “It’s really a paradox.”

Her city’s expansion of discrimination protections prompted lawmakers last month to require that transgender people use bathrooms corresponding to their birth-certificate genders. After Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed the measure, PayPal Holdings Inc. said it would cancel plans to open a 400-worker operations center in the city.

The dispute mirrors battles between rural Republican lawmakers and urban Democrats in a growing number of states. While many have centered on cultural issues, taxes and economic development also have touched off clashes. In Missouri, Republicans who control the legislature have tried to revoke income taxes in Democratic Kansas City and St. Louis. Texas legislators have moved to curtail city efforts to ban oil and gas drilling, as well as restrictions on carrying guns.

Boss’s Boycott

Since the North Carolina legislature approved its law, which also prevents cities from raising the minimum wage higher than the state’s, Deutsche Bank AG announced it will pull back on a 250 job expansion in the Raleigh suburb of Cary. Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr canceled concerts, and governors of New York, Connecticut and other states have ordered that nonessential government travel to North Carolina stop.

“Cities and towns are the catalysts for economic growth right now,” said Scott Mooneyham, director of public affairs for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. “We would hope that businesses and trade associations and artists would recognize that they are hurting the very entities that are leading the effort to battle discrimination.”

North Carolina’s major metropolitan regions define the “New South,” with booming populations, diverse economies and prestigious universities, all of which set them apart from the rural and culturally conservative counties where agriculture, tobacco and textile production once drove the state’s fortunes.

Mecklenburg County, the home of the banking center of Charlotte, has doubled its population to 1 million in the past 25 years. Growth in Wake County, part of the region that includes the University of North Carolina and Duke University, has shot up 140 percent over the same time.

The Raleigh, Charlotte, and Durham-Chapel Hill areas are among the nation’s 30 strongest economic performers, according to a January report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Meanwhile, 49 of the state’s 100 counties in rural areas lost population in the 2010 Census.

“Without the metropolitan areas, employment in North Carolina would really be hurting,” said Harold Weinbrecht, mayor of Cary.

The February jobless rate in Wake County, which includes Raleigh, was 4.7 percent, compared with 5.5 percent at the state level. Rural unemployment was as high as 15.3 percent in coastal Hyde County, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Weinbrecht, whose city of 155,000 has such major employers as MetLife, John Deere and SAS Institute Inc., said mayors have had to battle legislative efforts to redistribute more state sales-tax revenue to rural areas.

“We’re the ones bringing in the corporations, and they’re killing the golden goose,” Weinbrecht said, referring to rural Republicans.

Fractured State

McCrory, who for 14 years was Charlotte’s mayor, called the city’s expanded civil-rights protections “government overreach.” Republican legislative leaders blamed Mayor Roberts and the city council for a “radical bathroom policy.” Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger said Roberts and her supporters are working to “trash the reputation of her own city and wage war on her own state,” they said in a joint statement.

The Charlotte metropolitan area’s largest employers include Wells Fargo, American Airlines and Bank of America, whose executives have added their names to a list of more than 100 corporations opposed to the state ban. Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg News, added its name to that list, calling for the repeal of North Carolina’s law, as well as a similar one in Mississippi. A Tennessee bathroom bill died Monday when its sponsor abandoned it after heavy criticism.

“This is in the court of national opinion right now, with corporations and entertainers deciding how to respond,” Roberts said. “It’s become much larger than the cities of North Carolina versus the state of North Carolina.”

The national debate stems from local upheaval. In 2010, for the first time in 140 years, Republicans won control of the legislature. That cleared the way for stricter abortion restrictions, a tough voter identification law and private-school payment vouchers. The uproar over the bathroom ban prompted Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is McCrory’s opponent in November, to decline to defend the law against court challenges.

“North Carolina has come to mirror the nation politically in many ways,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury. “Right now, we’re two different states in one.”

Kevin Foy, the former mayor of Chapel Hill, said the changing economy in North Carolina, with textile jobs leaving rural counties, has helped fracture the state.

“The same people who said they were sick and tired of Washington telling them what to do are now in power, and then they start micromanaging cities,” said Foy, now an assistant professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law. “It’s really hard to extract a principle from all this.”

Cities await more job and event cancellations.

“You would hope that, at a certain point, folks would realize the state is getting a bad name,” Roberts said.

On Monday, the rock bands Boston and Pearl Jam called off performances in Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro.

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