Ian Palmquist was running errands last Tuesday when the North Carolina gubernatorial debate came on the air. As the 39-year-old gay activist drove around Raleigh, listening to his car radio, he couldn’t help but feel like something in this most purple of Southern states had shifted.
Democrat Roy Cooper, the state’s four-term attorney general, was bludgeoning Republican Governor Pat McCrory for supporting House Bill 2, the law that forces many transgender women into men’s restrooms, and vice versa, in public buildings. The law, passed in a one-day special session last March and signed that night by McCrory, also handcuffs local governments from safeguarding LGBT civil rights and from setting employment standards for their contractors.
“House Bill 2 has to be repealed,” Cooper was saying. “It writes discrimination into our law and it has been a disaster for our economy.” The Democrat ticked off a few of the repercussions, including PayPal’s cancellation of a 400-job expansion in Charlotte and decisions by the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference to pull their championship games out of North Carolina. “Governor McCrory continues to go across the state telling people that this is not hurting our economy. He attacks businesses who are opposed to it and says that everything is going fine. Governor, what planet are you on?”
Palmquist, director of leadership programs for the Equality Federation, kept driving and listening. He felt hope. LGBT rights have historically been a tough sell in North Carolina; four years ago, by a 61-39 margin, voters wrote a same-sex marriage ban into the state constitution. Now Cooper was making equality a talking point of his campaign. “For House Bill 2 to be the winning issue for the Democrats,” Palmquist says, “shows how far people have moved.”
It also shows how North Carolina might be correcting itself after a rightward lurch in state government that began in 2010. The most prominent emblem of that self-correction is the governor’s race, which pits two politicians who began their careers as moderates and have since diverged ideologically. The contest between Cooper and McCrory remains close; last week’s Marist poll gives the Democrat a one-point edge among likely voters. But Cooper has led almost every poll since mid-September, and remains the frontrunner in the race.
Roy Cooper is no crusading liberal. Fifty-nine, lanky and soft-spoken, he’s cut from a familiar North Carolina template: a pro-business, pro-education, pro-civil rights pragmatist from the eastern region that produced such one-time Democratic leaders as Governor Jim Hunt—a nationally acclaimed Southern modernizer beginning in the ‘70s. “He’s the last of a generation of politicians who can be as comfortable in the tobacco fields talking to farmers as he would be in the Research Triangle Park talking to business leaders,” says David McLennan, a political scientist at Meredith College in Raleigh. Elected to the state legislature at 28, Cooper pressed for higher day-care standards and tougher drunk-driving laws. He worked hard and didn’t grandstand. “He was someone who wasn’t going to take the limelight,” McLennan says.
Cooper took office as attorney general in 2001. He built a reputation as a consumer watchdog. He took on high-interest storefront and online lenders that ensnared borrowers in crushing debt spirals. Equally strong was Cooper’s reputation as a tough prosecutor and supporter of capital punishment. In a case for which he received considerable criticism, Cooper insisted on retrying Alan Gell, a small-time drug dealer whose 1998 murder conviction and death sentence had been overturned because prosecutors withheld evidence of his innocence. Gell, who did not face the death penalty during his second trial, was acquitted.
Cooper might have maintained his carefully measured demeanor if not for the 2010 elections. That year, the Republican State Leadership Committee launched its Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), a concerted push to win control of key statehouses in time for congressional redistricting. North Carolina, then controlled by Democrats, was one of its targets—and on Election Day both legislative chambers fell to the GOP.
The Republican takeover was completed in 2012 with the election of McCrory, a former seven-term mayor of Charlotte. With an ally in the governor’s mansion, GOP lawmakers set out to remake state government. They rejected a federally funded Medicaid expansion and cut school funding and unemployment benefits. They repealed a law that guarded against racial bias in death sentences. They increased access to concealed weapons and decreased access to abortion. They passed a sweeping set of voter restrictions that a federal court later blocked, saying they targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.” They restricted LGBT and workers rights with House Bill 2. And they gerrymandered themselves into immortality.
McCrory, with a few exceptions, has backed the legislature’s agenda. He’s been a staunch defender of both the voting restrictions and House Bill 2, and in August ran a commercial linking transgender bathroom access with child molestation.
By 2013, the state government’s sudden, sharp turn away from North Carolina’s historically moderate tradition produced a backlash in the form of Moral Mondays, a multi-issue protest movement led by the Reverend William Barber II, the charismatic president of the North Carolina NAACP. Activists have repeatedly taken over the legislative building—945 people were arrested the first year alone—while also staging marches, registering voters, and filing lawsuits.
The immoderate lawmaking also gave rise to a newly emboldened attorney general. Citing his pledge to uphold the U.S. Constitution, Cooper announced in August that his office would not appeal the federal ruling overturning the voting restrictions. That mirrored his March decision not to defend House Bill 2, which he called a “national embarrassment,” and his 2014 decision to stop defending the state’s marriage amendment after a federal appeals court overturned Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.
Cooper’s refusal to defend laws he believes would fail court scrutiny has put him in direct conflict with the governor. “I question whether he should even accept a paycheck from the state of North Carolina anymore, because he continues to not do his job,” McCrory told reporters this summer after the attorney general announced he wouldn’t appeal the election-law ruling.
Cooper was ready with a response: “When are they going to learn that you just can’t run roughshod over the Constitution?”
Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, an economic- and social-justice watchdog project, says Cooper has risen to a challenge not of his own making. “The extreme direction that the [legislature] has taken us has made a lot of people who used to be cautious be far more outspoken,” he says. “Most people don’t think of the attorney general in those terms, but I think he was forced to decide by these absurdly extreme positions on civil rights, voting rights, human rights that the far-right Republicans championed for the last five years.”
House Bill 2, with its anti-LGBT and anti-labor provisions, has become the natural flashpoint in the governor’s race. The backlash against it highlights the ways in which North Carolina’s political evolution resembles that of its neighbor to the north, Virginia. The population is shifting to its urban centers. The electorate is becoming more racially diverse and less likely to identify with a political party. Fear-based politicking doesn’t gain the traction it used to.
The political dilemma of being identified with HB2 isn’t just that it offends many North Carolinians, but also that it’s damaged the state’s economy through canceled conventions, abandoned corporate expansions, and travel restrictions that other states and municipalities have enacted. A September poll by the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling showed that 59 percent of North Carolinians believed House Bill 2 had hurt the state’s economy; 10 percent believed it helped. More than half felt it diminished the state’s reputation. Thirty percent said the law made them more likely to vote for McCrory, while 41 percent said it made them less likely.
“People expect the governor to keep the state out of messes,” says Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a long-time Democratic consultant who now teaches public policy at Duke University. “That’s implicitly what he promised: ‘I’m a conservative, but I’m pro-business, and I’m not going to get the state distracted chasing down a lot of rabbit holes.’” As mayor of Charlotte, McCrory worked in bipartisan coalition and championed light rail and other tax-funded infrastructure. His 2013 inaugural address invoked the state’s civil-rights legacy and promised a “focus on education” inspired former governor Hunt. “HB 2 and the mess that it’s caused is almost a point-by-point denial of the political identity that he’s tried to present to North Carolina,” McCorkle says.
McCrory knows the issue has hurt him. This month, he told the Family Research Council that he and his wife have been “shunned” for supporting House Bill 2, according to a recording obtained by BuzzFeed. “She’s been disinvited to charity events. Basically, they call her up and say, ‘You better not come,’” the governor said. “I don’t have thick skin… It gets to me. I just hide it until I go home and sit in a room or walk a dog and I go, ‘Wow, this is depressing.’” (McCrory insists the skirmish began with “the liberals,” particularly Charlotte city officials, who in February voted to protect transgender people from discrimination—legislating, he says, “a brand new concept of gender identity.”)
Cooper, on the other hand, has seized the opportunity to reposition himself in accord with the state’s changing demographics. On “newfangled issues like HB2 and same-sex marriage,” says McCorkle, “instead of addressing them with hesitation and caution—maybe wanting to find a ‘third way,’ as you might have expected from the moderate North Carolina tradition—Roy understood it needed to be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ He moved to show that he’s more of a metro candidate than just small-town Eastern North Carolina.”
What remains to be seen, if Cooper wins, is whether he can govern with a Republican legislature. The GOP currently holds veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers.
Because of gerrymandering, there’s virtually no chance Democrats will capture either chamber. But they are poised, potentially, to pick up enough House seats to break the supermajority there, giving a governor from either party more sway with lawmakers.
Cooper, who has navigated state government for three decades, is in a position to use that sway, say his supporters. “[He] understands how the levers of power are used,” says Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue. In addition to vetoing bills, “he can develop a cadre of people who he helps more than he helps others”—for example, by steering economic-development funds to the districts of cooperative lawmakers. McCrory, who was new to state government, never mastered these skills, which is why he found some of his own vetoes overridden.
If Cooper does win, he’ll get another boost halfway through his term: A panel of three federal judges ruled in August that the legislature must redraw 28 of its 170 districts, which it called “racial gerrymanders,” in time for the 2018 elections. “It increases quite substantially the likelihood that the Senate will flip back Democratic,” Blue predicts.
Of course, voters might reelect McCrory; North Carolina is still tightly balanced between the two parties. But the conversation around House Bill 2 should send a signal to statewide Republican candidates: Run a campaign based on counterfactual fears, and you’re likely to come up against some strong demographic headwinds.