“We begin to end discrimination in North Carolina. We begin to bring back jobs and sporting events. We begin to repair our reputation,” he said. “It’s an important step, but it cannot be the only step.”
Cooper argued that the fact that transgender people were no longer barred from using the bathroom of their choice was central. He also said he had successfully blocked a Republican attempt to include a “conscience” provision, allowing people to assert religious belief to sidestep state nondiscrimination requirements. He said cities could pass ordinances that prevented discrimination in their own policies, and for contractors working for cities. Cooper acknowledged that he didn’t like the moratorium on private-employment policies.
“I wish it were sooner than 2020. I really do,” he said. “But while these additional protections may be temporary delayed, they will not be forever denied.”
I spoke with Darren Jackson, the Democratic leader in the house, as Cooper was wrapping up. Jackson said the problem was not lack of political will from Cooper or other Democrats, but simply the limits of possibility: Too many Republicans were from rural areas unaffected by the economic backlash, and were “happy just letting the state burn,” to pass a more complete repeal.
“The choice today was to leave H.B. 2 as state law at least until after the next General Assembly election in 2018,” he said. “Being in the room with these folks and negotiating the last year, I don’t believe [repeal without a moratorium] was possible.”
A compromise floated in December would have repealed H.B. 2 with just a six-month “cooling-off” period before cities could enact new ordinances. Jackson said that although that deal sounded better, he did not believe it ever had enough support from Republicans to pass, and that today’s deal was the best one available.
It was clear that many Democrats were lukewarm on the bill but saw it as politically necessary. Representative Mickey Michaux, a colorful veteran of the civil-rights movement, explained his reasoning bluntly during House debate: “I'm going to support my governor so he’ll have an opportunity to have a second term.”
Whether, and to what extent, repeal will be an electoral boon to Cooper is an open question. H.B. 2 has become deeply unpopular, even among Republicans in the state, and for months the problem has not been whether to repeal the law, but how to do it. North Carolina is the home of a robust grassroots political movement, and that movement was galvanized by H.B. 2.
Dislike of the law was a major factor in the defeat of Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican who had become the public face of the law, in November. But Cooper’s margin of victory was tiny—barely more than 10,000 votes, out of 4.6 million cast—and he headed to Raleigh with Republican supermajorities in the legislature, which promptly moved to strip the governor of some of his powers in a nakedly partisan maneuver.