When the conversation about repealing HB2 began, the deal was clear. Charlotte would repeal its nondiscrimination ordinance and then the General Assembly would come back in a special session to repeal HB2 in full. President Pro-Tem Phil Berger felt sure he could deliver his caucus but House Speaker Tim Moore would need some Democrats. Governor-elect Roy Cooper believed he, with the help of legislative leaders, could deliver that.
However, between the time Charlotte met to rescind their ordinance on Monday morning and the time the legislature convened on Wednesday, the deal was already falling apart. Everyone, including members of the legislature, was caught by surprise. Berger, Moore, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, and Cooper had successfully prevented any leaks during weeks of negotiations, but the 48 hours between Charlotte’s move and the General Assembly convening was too much in the age of the internet.
Within hours of Charlotte’s meeting, social media lit up partisans of both sides. A Durham City Council member tweeted that with repeal of HB2 the city could put in place ordinances and “will stand with our trans brothers and sisters.” A state Representative went on national television to discuss the upcoming session and suggested that repeal of HB2 would open the door for “comprehensive non-discrimination” ordinances in cities across the state.
When Republicans discovered that Charlotte had only removed the part of their ordinance addressing transgender bathrooms, conservatives thought they were being duped. Lt. Governor Dan Forest immediately issued a statement on Facebook and twitter calling on the GOP to reject the deal, saying, “If HB 2 is repealed, there will be nothing on the books to prevent another city or county to take us down this path again.”
By the time the legislators were in Raleigh, the deal was already in trouble. Berger tried to salvage the deal by adding a moratorium on non-discrimination ordinances to calm his caucus down. For Democrats, that provision was a non-starter. They had seen too many moratoriums prolonged indefinitely. The agreement was to put the state back where it was before the Charlotte ordinance was passed. Since HB2 had voided non-discrimination ordinances that were in place in other cities before the Charlotte action, the moratorium prevented those ordinances from going back into effect.
Berger called the moratorium a “cooling off period” that would give the legislature time to find a long-term solution. He even suggested that it last until 30 days after the long session of the legislature adjourned in 2017, meaning that the moratorium could only be extended with another special session. It wasn’t enough for either side and the measure failed, leaving Berger shaken and his caucus divided.
In the days before social media and 24/7 cable news shows, the deal might have survived. Back then, quotes from local officials and legislators might have shown up in local newspapers in a matter of days, but twitter and Facebook instantly turn them into rumors that spread rapidly through the political community. It’s hard to put context around a few hundred words on social media so in the polarized political environment, both sides draw their own conclusions. In this case, those conclusions upended a deal that had been worked out in private. Forty-eight hours was too much time between Charlotte’s action and the special session.
Otto von Bismarck famously said “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” Today, we’re all in the sausage factory. Social media provides platforms for blow-by-blow updates of the legislature and for rumors that were once confined to the legislative complex to spread across the state. We live in a new age of communication. Successful leaders will learn to navigate it.