CHARLOTTE — The speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives addressed both supporters and critics at a town hall meeting in his home district in Cornelius, N.C., on Tuesday evening, answering questions about jobs, energy, the state’s education budget, his staff’s salary raises, a proposed anti-LGBT marriage amendment and other topics passionately debated in the legislature this year.
Rep. Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) presided over an often controversial and rocky legislative session that considered several contentious topics. The state budget, vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue, was later overridden by lawmakers in July. Other controversial topics debated this year included a voter identification bill, restrictions to abortion access and redistricting. Voter ID is set to come back up for a potential Perdue veto override this fall.
Several times during the legislature’s regular session this year, protesters interrupted the House’s proceedings. Tillis set the mood for his town hall forum early, saying respect was his benchmark for the evening as welcomed both positive comments and constructive criticism.
“When we have town hall meetings like this, you have them not to have a pep rally. You have them so you can get honest feedback,” he told the crowd of about 200. “No applause and no boos. We’re here to accept feedback. Again, we’re not here for a pep rally. I think it’s important to set that decorum because that’s something I feel is being lost in the political debate today and hopefully we can set a role model here.”
Tillis’ plea for decorum was held by most attendees throughout the town hall event, including during an audience members’ question about the potential anti-LGBT constitutional amendment.
“Can you explain to us why you are squandering taxpayer resources on this hateful legislation,” asked Davidson, N.C.-resident Lauren Brannon.
“It’s a fair question,” Tillis told Brannon and the crowd. “It’s an emotional issue.”
In responding, Tillis said he has his own unique reservations on the amendment.
“The distinction that I try to make and I try to be very respectful because I get into an area of discomfort about the role of government in people’s lives,” the speaker said. “Now this is an agenda that conservatives and quite honestly a significant number of people in the state seem to want heard. But it is an area where I do develop a level of discomfort. I’m a limited government person first and I prefer government to get out of our lives. A lot of our measures this year was to get the government to do less to you, not doing more for you but less to you or to let the government have less control over you. So, it’s a very difficult issue.”
Brannon also asked Tillis about comments he made in June to Asheville’s Citizen-Times newspaper, in which he said that “traditional marriages between men and women are more stable and nurturing.”
Tillis clarified his remarks at the town hall: “What I said, though, in response to the question asked about the Defense of Marriage — and that’s a potential constitutional amendment that could be on the ballot next year subject to voter approval would be to basically define marriage as the union between a man and woman. Some of the complexity comes in that there are some who want to take it so far as to disallow civil unions and other things within the constitution — I do believe there is a benefit, I firmly believe that a well-adjusted household with a functional marriage versus just a marriage produces great family outcomes and is the bedrock of our society. And I think as a leader, I want to emphasize that that is a good place to raise a child. That doesn’t mean there aren’t single parents and alternative lifestyle parents raising functional, successful children, but I do firmly believe that.”
Tillis, who also said he was open to data and discussion, also said he’d feel “compelled” to hear the legislation if a majority wanted it.
“I’ve talked with Equality NC and other groups and said I’m open to data to talk about the business impacts and talk about the other things to refute that argument, but at the end of the day as the speaker, when I know that over 80 members, both Republicans and Democrats, have signed up to have this bill heard, a part of my oblgiation is to allow these bills to be heard and have both sides build the arguments,” Tillis explained. “I do believe that your side has arguments that need to be heard to get them out there and then let the legislative and democratic process take its course. If my caucus and if the majority of the members in the House and Democrats choose to have that heard then I feel compelled as the leader to have it heard. I’m not a king; I’m one of 120 members. If the majority or the overwhelming majority of them want to have it heard, I feel compelled to have it heard.”
Lawmakers briefly considered bringing up the amendment during a special July session on redistricting, though that plan was later scrapped in favor of an original proposal to hear it during a special September session devoted solely to constitutional amendments. When the news of a potential vote hit LGBT advocates, the community swung into action. Alex Miller, interim executive director of Equality North Carolina, credited his organization’s statewide, grassroots advocacy and mobilization efforts for helping convince legislators to abort their last-minute attempt to hear the amendment.
“Our organization, in concert with our partner organizations across the state, went into overdrive and we activated our network of supporters,” Miller said in an interview for an article due out with qnotes‘ Aug. 20 print issue this weekend. “Legislators in the building that day told us that they were hearing from our supporters all day and, apparently, when votes were counted that day the votes were not there.”
The amendment’s passage is “not a foregone conclusion,” Miller said, adding that it can be stopped, though it remains a struggle with an uncertain outcome.
“There is a tremendously well-funded and well-organized effort by groups pushing this amendment to see it passed at all costs,” Miller said, “so it is important for constituents to contact their legislators, to have business owners contact representatives and to share individual, personal stories on what kind of real-life impact this amendment would have on people.”
In addition to canvassing, phone banking, petition gathering and other advocacy initiatives, Equality North Carolina is also planning a series of candlelight vigils across the state on Sept. 12, the day legislators are scheduled to return to Raleigh. The group will also hold a Sept. 13 rally at the state legislature.
“We still believe it is more strategic and impactful to have a personal conversation with a legislator about this issue, but we also understand and respect that people are outraged about this amendment and want to express their feelings and opposition to it,” Miller told qnotes.
[Ed. Note — Stay tuned to qnotes and goqnotes.com tomorrow for more news on the Equality North Carolina rally and a competing rally organized by that group’s critics.]
In order to make it onto the ballot, the proposed amendment must gain approval from three-fifths of both the North Carolina Senate and House of Representatives. If passed, it would appear on the November 2012 ballot; the governor has no veto authority on amendments.
Miller said a ballot initiative is a prospect no one wants to see and that they are taking the possibility seriously.
“It is crucially important that everyone understand that this fight is far from over,” he said. “When the bill is brought up for a vote it will either pass or fail by one or two votes. I can tell you that ballot campaigns are incredibly expensive and time consuming and almost always fail. We have better things to do for the next 14 months than fight what will be an enormously costly battle that would ultimately be bad for this state.”
He added, “This is a harmful piece of legislation. We all need to get together to fight it. Folks can get involved on the local level and reach out to the legislators and help to mobilize other constituents. That’s how these battles will be won.”
more: For the most up-to-date news on the amendment and other news from legislature, be sure to follow qnotes‘ Legislative Watch at goqnotes.com/in/ncga/. Get more information about Equality North Carolina’s planned vigils and rallies at equalitync.org.