The original idea was this: Wednesday morning, on the solstice, I’d drive into Raleigh, and watch the North Carolina Legislature repeal HB2, that awful bathroom Bill. It shouldn’t take long, I figured. A repeal bill could be as short as one sentence.
Then I’d hop back on the highway, and head out to the country to meet my friend, a trans woman I’ll call Penelope. Living under HB2 has been hard for her. So we’d have a quiet victory lunch somewhere — she’d mentioned a Greek place in the county seat that sounded good.
I knew the outcome wasn’t a sure thing. And it might take awhile. But everybody from the Raleigh paper to the New York Times said it was all arranged. A done deal. Piece of cake. Sounded good.
And about dam time.
HB2 became law suddenly last winter, after the Charlotte city council adopted a trans-friendly local ordinance. In a surprise one-day session, the Republican supermajority there overturned Charlotte’s action and banned any repeat anywhere else in the state. An international backlash against it built fast and has never let up.
Well, my Wednesday didn’t turn out the way I was expecting. Which wasn’t a total surprise. But just how awful it was took til the end of a long day to discover.
I’ll cut to the chase: sometime after 7 PM, when the sun had long since gone down on the shortest day of the year, the NC Senate took the crucial vote, on a simple proposition:
Repeal HB2, up or down.
The tally was 16 Yes, 30 No.
And then there it was, for all to see: the GOP-dominated state Senate had had no intention whatever of repealing its Bathroom Bill. None.
Score another big miss for all the big and even regional media who had swallowed the story of the imminent repeal, which had been building all week. Maybe this media screwup does not rank beside their assurance that Hillary was certain to beat Trump, but it was just as far off the mark.
How did this “fake news” repeal story get launched? (Were the Russians somehow involved here too??) Those questions are still hanging. (Some of the early recriminations are described here.)
Why did it take so long for the phoniness of the scheme to become clear? Mainly because the legislature’s Republican majority either didn’t want or was unable to disclose its intentions plainly or openly.
But why the whole charade? Another mystery. The Charlotte city council had just voted to rescind its original ordinance, as its part of the repeal bargain. Instead, they were double-crossed and publicly humiliated, left with nothing but egg on their faces.
That morning, a throng of spectators –including HB2 fans and detractors– had packed the galleries for the 10 AM opening.
But rather than a repeal debate, they were first treated to four-plus hours of delay, with the legislature going in and out of session, but mostly out. While the Republicans caucused in private, reporters interviewed a stream of advocates on both sides.
Finally, about 2:30, Senate leader Phil Berger stood and read the short bill aloud, and tipped the Republicans’ hand. It had two provisions:
1. HB2 would be repealed. But–
2. A mandatory “cooling off period” of six months would follow, during which no North Carolina town or city could enact any local ordinance which HB2 had prohibited.
The “cooling off period” was needed, Berger explained, so that legislators could work out out a “long-term solution” to the issues involved.
And one more thing: Berger added that he was also aware that LGBT activists in Charlotte and other cities were hovering to press for post-repeal passage of similar trans-friendly ordinances in various cities like the one in Charlotte. “And we can’t have that,” he declared, or they would end up back on the legislative docket, with something like HB2 revived.
As the actual import of Berger’s bill sank in, the optimistic aura generated by the blizzard of media buildup dissipated like the frost on my windshield in that morning’s sun.
The small band of Democratic senators, mostly black, blew the whistle: this was not “repeal” at all, they pointed out. It merely changed the form of the ban, then extended it for six months, and came with an additional warning that localities must still abide by the ban afterward or risk its revival.
Senator Jeff Jackson of Charlotte was pithy and angry: “This breaks the deal!” he shouted. “This breaks the deal!”
Cue another long recess and more caucusing.
Around dinnertime Berger was back with a further “compromise”: in it, the specific six month “cooling off”/ban extension following “repeal” would be replaced by one to begin when the legislature meets again after New Year, and to continue until 30 days after it ended. Known as the “long session,” this period has often gone on until mid or late summer.
Which is to say, this revised post-“repeal” ban could easily last longer than the original six months.
Somehow that didn’t sound any better to either the incensed Democrats, repeal fans in the gallery, or the large cluster of national reporters around the long row of video cameras in the Gallery and a corner of the chamber. Senator Angela Bryant was caustic: “Do you think we’re stupid in here?”
So back to caucus again. After another hour-plus, Berger returned once more, with his bill now redrafted in two subparts: the straight repeal, and the “cooling off”/ ban extension. Senate rules dictated that if either proposition failed, the entire bill failed.
The vote on the straight repeal came first; when it was soundly defeated 30-16, that was that. Forget the “extension”; cooling off, my patootie.
And that was when the cat was also finally out of the bag; the striptease over, the G-string dropped. From the jump, the legislative majority had not had any intention of repealing HB2.
The Senate then adjourned; the House, which never voted on it at all, followed a few moments later.
All of this is a lengthy way of saying that at the end of this ten-plus hour marathon, the much-anticipated “repeal” of HB2 came to exactly this: Nothing.
Several senators noted that it costs the North Carolina taxpayers $42,000 for a one-day special session; expensive nothing.
As the crowd left, many began chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
The only consolation for HB2 opponents was that this sorry spectacle took place under the eyes and lenses of a small battalion of national and even international media. It will likely provide a lot more than $42,000 worth of bad press for the state.
Senator Floyd McKissick said it best: “Every day we let HB2 remain on the books is a scar on the name and the reputation of North Carolina.”
Thus, what pro-HB2 Senator Buck Newton denounced as ongoing “slander” of North Carolina by “lunatic leftists” and “crowds of people from San Francisco and other places,” was, it appeared, likely to continue.
And I’ll still have lunch with my friend Penelope. Sometime soon. But not to celebrate anything about HB2.
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