Gay-Rights Advocates Look to Cities as Firewall Against Rollback

  • Mayor says N.C. lawmakers aired threats over bathroom flap
  • Liberals increasingly look to local government for protections

Nikolas Lemos waves a rainbow flag as people enter San Francisco City Hall in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage on June 26, 2013.

Photographer: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

The mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, whose anti-discrimination ordinance was invalidated by Republican state legislators with a law that became a national lightning rod, still fears reprisals by those lawmakers.

If Charlotte defies the state legislature by passing the same ordinance again, “They can take sales tax revenue away, they’ll probably restructure our council -- I mean, we’ve heard people threaten that,” said  Jennifer Roberts, a former diplomat who’s been mayor city since 2015. “It truly is not an equal negotiation.”

Jennifer Roberts

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Across the country, liberals who fear a rollback of recent civil rights advances at the federal and state level are looking to city hall to provide a firewall. But, as in Charlotte, some mayors are facing retribution from state leaders threatening to invoke their authority over cities.

A coalition, “Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination,” has been formed to expand local protections amid Republican dominance of federal and state government. It was conceived in 2016 by mayors from Seattle, Philadelphia and other cities. Formally unveiled on Jan. 18 during the Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington, it now counts among its members some 175 mayors from 42 states.

Focus on Cities

“It’s going to have to be the cities [that] will be our focus to move the states, and eventually to move the federal government,” Ed Murray, the first openly gay mayor of Seattle, said at the group’s kick-off event.

Charlotte’s city council voted in February 2016 to expand its ban on discrimination in public accommodations to include protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In response, Republicans, who at the time held the governorship and majorities in the state legislature, called a special session to enact a law, HB2, which preempts the local statute. HB2 bars transgender people from using public bathrooms that don’t match the sex on their birth certificates.

Roberts said that during the wrangling over LGBT policy, multiple state legislators have made off-handed mention to her of the state’s authority to re-draw local government districts or dissolve city councils entirely. “They haven’t said, ‘We will,’ or ‘We’d think about it,’ -- they’ve just said, ‘We could,’ ” Roberts said.

North Carolina’s Republican lieutenant governor, House speaker, and Senate president pro tempore didn’t respond to inquiries.

Business Losses

The firestorm around HB2 prompted cancellations of some planned events and business expansions in North Carolina, from entities including Bruce Springsteen, the National Basketball Association, and PayPal Holdings Inc. Roberts says the controversy has cost Charlotte, which is home to seven Fortune 500 companies, over $300 million in business.

After Republican Governor Pat McCrory was defeated for re-election in November by Democrat Roy Cooper, who opposed HB2, legislators discussed a deal to repeal the law, and Charlotte repealed its defunct ordinance in hopes of spurring an agreement. Those discussions failed, but Cooper is again talking with lawmakers about undoing HB2.

“They certainly do want to move forward in some way,” Cooper told reporters on Jan. 16. Roberts said she doesn’t regret her city’s rescinding its ordinance without movement from the state, because it prevents Republicans from blaming Charlotte for the controversy.

Religious Carve-Outs

Roberts, 56, says legislators have discussed compromises including letting cities pass LGBT protections only if they include religious exemptions, or only if they’re approved via voter referendum. She criticized the call for religious carve-outs, and rejected arguments that having laws that vary from city to city is a burden on business.

But since North Carolina cities lack “home rule” autonomy, Roberts said she wants to reach a deal with the legislature rather than forging ahead with measures that could incur its wrath, even if HB2 is repealed. “We are constrained,” she said. “The state has ultimate authority over us.”

Roberts’ view was echoed by Mayor Ian Baltutis of Burlington, population about 52,000, in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. He said that while he wants to create a more welcoming environment for LGBT customers and employees in hopes of attracting more investment, he won’t do anything that would risk retaliation from the state legislature, even with a Democrat in the governor’s office. “It’s an anvil looming over the cities of North Carolina,” Baltutis said.

‘Inclusive City’

Akron, Ohio, is currently drafting a non-discrimination ordinance. “People are starting to worry, and I don’t want people to worry -- I want to be build an inclusive city,” mayor Daniel Horrigan said in an interview at the group’s meeting.

Federal law, and the majority of states, offer no explicit ban on anti-LGBT bias in public accommodations or employment. But dozens of local jurisdictions passed new protections in 2016, including Cleveland, whose council unanimously approved an anti-discrimination law a week before the city hosted the Republican National Convention in July.

The issue is among several where liberals, stymied by Republican control of Congress even before Donald Trump’s win, have turned to local government, sometimes spurring confrontations with state lawmakers.

Arizona governor Doug Ducey in 2016 signed legislation allowing the state to punish cities that tried to mandate paid sick leave, by withholding the state-shared revenue that funds services like police and firefighting.

Industry Advocacy?

Arizona is one of 25 states where Republicans now control the governorship and legislature. But liberals hope that advocacy from companies who fear losing business may sway some politicians to at least let individual cities and towns pass protections.

“We’re hoping that people will watch closely what happened in North Carolina,” San Francisco mayor Edwin Lee, a co-chair of the mayors’ coalition, said. “They have to at least consider the consequences.”

Laws restricting local LGBT protections are on the books in Tennessee and Arkansas as well as North Carolina, and new ones have been introduced for this session in South Carolina and Texas, where lawmakers on both sides are studying the HB2 fallout.

“It’s going to be a tough fight,” Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick told reporters at a Jan. 5 press conference to unveil the state’s so-called “bathroom bill.” “But we know we’re on the right side of the issue.”

Texas House Speaker Joseph Straus, also a Republican, voiced concerns about that approach, and urged the Texas Association of Business, which opposes it, to make its voice heard.

“Many people where I come from get concerned about anything that can slow down our overall job-creating machine,” Straus told the business group’s conference on Jan. 18. “They are also watching what happened in North Carolina, and they are not enthusiastic about getting that type of attention.”

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