With a national controversy swirling around the North Carolina “bathroom bill” that became law on March 23, a number of officials in Dare County say there are currently no plans to bring up the measure for discussion by their local legislative bodies. But some local reaction is beginning to publicly percolate.
The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce issued a brief statement affirming its support of a “business environment of inclusiveness and non-discrimination.” On April 4, Duck Mayor Pro Tem and realtor Monica Thibodeau told the Dare Commissioners she had received “a prompt and vocal response” from potential visitors opposing the new bill. And the Nags Head Commissioners will address the law on April 6 amid Mayor Bob Edwards’ concern that it represents “another of the power grabs” by state government.
The swiftly passed bathroom bill, or HB2, overturned a Charlotte ordinance that would have allowed transgendered individuals to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity. In addition, the law created one state non-discrimination law that precludes local governments from passing their own non-discrimination measures for LGBT individuals.
The law has turned North Carolina into ground zero in the polarizing culture wars and managed the difficult feat of diverting national media attention away from the raucous 2016 presidential campaign. A quickly forming backlash took the form of, among other things, litigation; protests; a letter condemning the law signed by scores of business leaders; some bans on non-essential government employee travel to North Carolina; and concerns voiced by organizations such as the NBA and NCAA.
The governor and his allies have fought back against this response, blaming the media for producing misleading information and issuing an 18-point rebuttal to what they described as an unfair coverage of the “common-sense privacy law” that was a necessary corrective to the overreach in the city of Charlotte ordinance.
In Dare County, at least in official circles, reaction has been relatively muted — particularly when compared to the firestorm elsewhere. But it is clear that the law has deeply divided the county’s State House delegation.
State Senator Bill Cook, a Republican who supported the bill, said, “We don’t believe grown men should be allowed to go to the bathroom or take off their clothes in the presence of little girls…The law only affects those who would abuse the opportunity to access the private designated areas for the opposite sex.” He added that, “for the first time in North Carolina we now have a statewide non-discrimination policy that defends the federally recognized protected classes: race, religion, color, national origin and biological sex.”
Unaffiliated State Representative Paul Tine, who voted against the bill, said he opposed the section that meant “the ability to seek damages for discrimination by employers based on race, religion, color, national origin, age, biological sex or handicap will no longer be allowed under state law. Furthermore, the bill states who should be protected under state law…When you do not include individuals that are often discriminated against, no matter who they may be, you set a path of choosing those that will be treated fairly, and those that will not…”
In order to gauge the likelihood that the HB2 issue would gain traction at the local legislative level, the Sentinel interviewed the mayors of the Dare County municipalities, as well as Dare Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard.
Woodard was non-equivocal in his response, saying: “That’s a state issue. We’re not addressing this on our board. I have no intention of bringing this up at our board meeting.” And a number of responses were a variation on that theme.
Duck Mayor Don Kingston said no discussion was planned for the Duck Town Council and “being non-partisan, we don’t like to get involved in these partisan issues.” Manteo Mayor Jamie Daniels added that, “I don’t think it would hit our radar. We tend to deal with issues involving Manteo.”
Southern Shores Mayor, Tom Bennett, who calls himself an “independent,” said he didn’t see his town council taking up HB2, adding that, “I think this is something that’s being looked at by two different lenses” depending on one’s political philosophy. Gary Perry, the mayor of Kitty Hawk, asserted that, “I don’t see anyone in this group [the town council] getting involved in this unless we’re forced to.”
HB2 is, however, on the agenda for this week’s Nags Head Commissioners meeting and Mayor Edwards raised two concerns. One is that a statewide anti-discrimination measure that supersedes local regulation is “another of the power grabs we have from the people in Raleigh. It’s a lot more than a bathroom issue.”
In addition, he said, “With all the negative publicity that has gone on nationwide on this, there could be some significant impact on the local economy.” Duck Mayor Kingston also said that “there is certainly a concern on the impact on tourism.”
At the Dare Board of Commissioners meeting on April 4, Duck Mayor Pro Tem Thibodeau — who is running for a seat on that board in November — warned of the potential effect on tourism. ”I’ve worked in [the real estate] industry for almost thirty years and I’ve never really seen quite such a prompt and vocal response,” she said, adding that the feedback she got is that “people are really having trouble, thinking that they may not want to come to North Carolina. It’s going to hit us all.”
Several local mayors said it was too early to know whether any backlash to the bill would have an effect on the county’s tourism-driven economy. And while Kill Devil Hills Mayor Sheila Davies thought there could be “an economic development impact…from the perspective of North Carolina as a state,” she hoped the scenic and attractive Outer Banks would emerge unscathed.
“People clearly have strong feelings regarding HB2,” said Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles. “Tourism is one area where those feelings can be expressed, either with the threat to change upcoming travel plans, or by actually following through on the threat. The extent of the impact on state and local tourism is hard to predict at this point.”
One other perspective on that issue came from Eric Hause — a former Lost Colony official and the president of Wedding with Pride — when asked if the new law could dampen the burgeoning interest in the Outer Banks as a gay wedding destination.“What I have heard from some of our [wedding] vendors is…’let’s just ride it out,’” given the broader national trend toward more legal protections and rights for the LGBT community, he said. “I don’t think this is a huge panic component for a lot of the businesses.”