In May, N.C. Governor Pat McCrory read a six-minute statement to state and national news media at the Executive Mansion defending House Bill 2. He also called on Congress to also clarify what he said were uncertainties about who is protected under the federal Civil Rights Act. McCrory filed a lawsuit in federal court in North Carolina on Monday morning asking a judge to declare that the controversial House Bill 2 is not illegally discriminatory. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com
In May, N.C. Governor Pat McCrory read a six-minute statement to state and national news media at the Executive Mansion defending House Bill 2. He also called on Congress to also clarify what he said were uncertainties about who is protected under the federal Civil Rights Act. McCrory filed a lawsuit in federal court in North Carolina on Monday morning asking a judge to declare that the controversial House Bill 2 is not illegally discriminatory. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Politics & Government

McCrory’s HB2 emails: Pressure before signing, and a firestorm afterward

October 18, 2016 09:56 AM

UPDATED October 19, 2016 10:54 AM

Soon after the Charlotte City Council passed a non-discrimination ordinance in February, Gov. Pat McCrory’s staff began receiving complaints that he had not called for a special session to overturn the measure, emails released by his office show.

Among its provisions, the Charlotte measure allowed transgender individuals to use public bathrooms that matched their gender identity.

If the governor didn’t react, it could cost him votes in November, the emails suggested. Republicans “better get off their butts and do something” if they didn’t want to be swept out of office, one emailer wrote.

The thousands of pages of messages were provided to the Observer Monday a little more than a week after the paper filed a lawsuit against McCrory for failing to meet a request made under North Carolina’s public records law six months earlier. The emails show the strong emotions for and against the Charlotte measure that McCrory later overturned when he signed House Bill 2 on March 23.

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Some emailers to the governor’s office, for example, called McCrory an “idiot” for signing the law, while others used the same word to describe backers of the Charlotte measure.

In another email, Bob Stephens, the governor’s general counsel, told a former legal colleague that the governor “fought against this bill,” but the legislature passed it anyway. That contrasts with the governor’s defense of the measure in recent months.

Since HB2’s passage, corporations, sports organizations, entertainers and others have pulled events from the state to protest a law they see as discriminatory. McCrory has defended the legislation, which has emerged as a major issue in the gubernatorial campaign.

“Is it true the Governor does not want a special session?” Frank Turek, a Christian author and speaker wrote in a March 1 email to Fred Steen, who was then McCrory’s chief lobbyist at the N.C. General Assembly. He copied other activists and House Speaker Tim Moore on the message.

“This kind of inaction is exactly what is feeding the anti-establishment rage. If the Republicans don’t want to be engulfed by the (Donald) Trump wave, they better get off their butts and do something before this dangerous ordinance goes into effect in April.

“Taking action now is not only the right thing to do, it will be politically popular,” he wrote.

Having heard McCrory wanted to avoid a special session to save tax dollars, former Cabarrus County Commissioner Jason Oesterreich wrote on March 11 that the governor was “willing to expose dressing women and children to predators and allow our little girls to potentially see a naked man standing in front of them as they simply walk into a locker room,” adding he would be “voting for someone other than McCrory in the general election.”

After Stephens received a forwarded email containing the exchange, he sent a message to Steen, the lobbyist, on March 21: “Fred, don’t you think you should respond to this?”

In the end, the governor didn’t call for a special session, but lawmakers used a rarely employed provision to do it themselves. The state House and Senate passed House Bill 2 on March 23, and later that evening, McCrory signed the bill, which also overrode local ordinances around the state that would have expanded protections for the LGBT community.

‘Very busy with calls’

Within hours, major corporations around the country started denouncing the measure. A partner at the Parker Poe law firm, which represents tech giant Apple, sent an email to a McCrory staffer saying that company lobbyist Lisa Jackson, who reports to CEO Tim Cook, wanted to speak with the governor.

The next day, a Bank of America lobbyist sent the bank’s statement on HB2 to deputy chief of staff Jimmy Broughton. “We support public policies that support non-discrimination,” the statement said in part.

The day after the bill’s signing, Judykay Jefferson, director of the governor’s office of community and constituent affairs, sent an email to staffers saying her office had “been very busy with calls and need our official talking points,” adding: “It is difficult to properly serve our constituents without the Governor’s official statement on HB2.”

Lindsey Wakely, deputy general counsel, asked how she could help, saying the front desk at the governor’s office had received a “mix of in-state and out-of-state calls in opposition.”

If the Republicans don’t want to be engulfed by the (Donald) Trump wave, they better get off their butts and do something before this dangerous ordinance goes into effect in April. Taking action now is not only the right thing to do, it will be politically popular.

Frank Turek, a Christian author and speaker, in a March 1 email to Fred Steen, McCrory’s former chief lobbyist at the N.C. General Assembly

The NBA quickly said it was “deeply concerned” about the law, raising questions about the 2017 All-Star game scheduled to be held in Charlotte. And soon after, some companies, including payments firm PayPal, began pulling expansion projects from the state.

On April 5, John “Sandy” Acton, president of real estate firm Glenwood Properties, forwarded a news alert to Stephens about PayPal canceling 400 jobs with his own comment: “This is absolutely unbelievable!”

“That’s just one of many,” Stephens responded. “Raleigh and Durham are now reporting cancellations of events. I’m afraid that some of the tech companies in the (Research Triangle Park) are going to be next.”

Acton replied that Georgia now looked good in the eyes of companies such as Disney and professional sports leagues because its governor vetoed similar legislation.

“Standing firm will hurt the state!” he added. “But giving in to these threats will hurt long term.”

In another email exchange, Kevin Walker, a partner at the Greer Walker accounting firm in Charlotte, told Stephens that he knew it wasn’t his bill, but “I have to express my extreme disappointment that the state legislature felt it necessary to pass this reactionary bill, and that the Governor chose not to veto it.” The state’s reputation as “a business friendly and inclusionary state is taking a serious and self-inflicted hit as a result,” he added.

Stephens wrote back that he understood.

“I think there are a number of ‘misunderstandings’ about this bill but, there are some provisions in this bill that I don’t like either,” he wrote. “Also, very few people understand that, yes, the Governor could have vetoed this bill but that veto would have been overridden by the legislature in a matter of days.”

Observer files suit

On April 5, the Observer requested copies of emails sent or received by McCrory and his staff since Feb. 1 regarding the Charlotte nondiscrimination measure and HB2. More than six months later, on Oct. 7, the paper filed suit against McCrory for failing to meet the request.

On Monday the governor’s office provided more than 40 files containing thousands of pages of emails, and more are expected to be delivered, said Mike Tadych, an attorney with the Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych law firm that filed the suit on the Observer’s behalf.

The Observer has also requested and reported on HB2-related emails and other communications involving other officials. For example, after the General Assembly passed House Bill 2, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts texted McCrory asking him not to sign the bill, the Observer reported in May.

The emails from the governor’s office included little from McCrory himself other than a previously disclosed exchange with Charlotte City Council members Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith before the council approved the city’s ordinance. “I encourage you to convince your colleagues to focus on issues most important to our citizens and this proposed change is not one of them,” McCrory wrote. “In fact, the City of Charlotte is causing more problems by trying to solve a problem that does not exist.”

The emails suggest the governor’s staff members were figuring out potential ramifications of the legislation on the fly.

On March 23, as the bill was being debated, Drew Moretz, vice president of state government relations at the University of North Carolina General Administration, forwarded an email to Steen explaining potential implications for the university system. “By not accommodating an individual’s gender identity, the University could face a potential discrimination suit or (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) claim from an employee,” the memo stated.

And two days after the bill passed, a woman emailed the governor’s office to ask what the law meant to her disabled husband whom she sometimes took into the women’s bathroom so she could help him.

“Any thoughts on how to respond to this one?” Alicia Johnson, of the governor’s office, asked her colleagues.

Franklin Graham praises McCrory

The bulk of the emails are thousands of pages of messages from members of the public in North Carolina and across the country registering their support and disapproval of HB2 and the Charlotte ordinance that prompted the law. Many were form emails generated through groups that oppose HB2, such as the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates on LGBT issues.

In one email, Charlotte construction company owner Katie Tyler urged McCrory to veto HB2 and “stop this nonsense.”

In another email, Brion Blais, owner of SpeedPro Imaging-Charlotte Center, said he supported the bill.

“...As a member of the Charlotte Chamber, I believe it will encourage our economic development work,” he wrote. “I suspect there would be fewer attendees at public events otherwise.”

I have to express my extreme disappointment that the state legislature felt it necessary to pass this reactionary bill, and that the Governor chose not to veto it.

Kevin Walker, a partner at the Greer Walker accounting firm in Charlotte in an email to Gov. Pat McCrory’s general counsel Bob Stephens

After McCrory signed the bill, some of the same activists who had questioned whether the governor would call a special session said he now deserved their support.

“Now that we have passed the immediate challenge, thanks to everyone who took action to heart,” wrote Ken Barun, chief of staff for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, on March 27. Franklin Graham, the organization’s CEO and son of founder Billy Graham, “told me he had called his good friend Governor Pat McCrory to thank him and the Governor shared with Franklin that his office was receiving a lot of heat from corporations.”

Later that day, Tami Fitzgerald of the N.C. Values Coalition sent a group email that copied Barun, Turek, Charlotte minister Mark Harris, Steen from the governor’s office and others, urging them to rally behind McCrory and his re-election campaign. She also said they should push back against major corporations opposed to HB2 and raised doubts about whether the NBA would pull the All-Star Game.

“Only the NBA has made a threat, and it was not very overt,” she wrote. “I think if we push back loudly (on corporations), they won’t want to risk angering the majority of their consumers.”

The NBA pulled the All-Star Game on July 21 and other sports organizations, including the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference, followed suit months later.

McCrory responds to question about possible impacts of HB2 on NC budget

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory responds to a reporter's question about possible impacts and revenue losses associated with HB2.

Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker