CHARLOTTE, N.C. — More than a dozen candidates for at-large seats on City Council and four candidates for mayor attended a community-wide LGBT candidate forum on Tuesday evening, discussing a wide range of concerns including local non-discrimination ordinances, homelessness and transgender inclusion.
The forum was held just five weeks ahead of the Democratic and Republican primaries, scheduled for Sept. 15.
An audience of more than 200 members watched and listened as moderators Melissa Morris and Matt Comer, this publication’s editor, posed five questions to candidates.
Each candidate was called out at random and given 90 seconds to consider and respond to each question.
The forum was the first of its kind for Charlotte’s LGBT community, with a coalition of LGBT advocates coming together to sponsor a formal platform where candidates could voice their opinions. Coalition partners included the Charlotte Business Guild, LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County, Log Cabin Republicans of North Carolina, the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (Meck PAC) and qnotes.
The most hotly debated LGBT proposal in the city this year was a suite of non-discrimination ordinances proposed to City Council and then rejected 6-5 in a vote in March. Among other things, the ordinances would have protected LGBT from discrimination in public accommodations, including protecting transgender people. During the debate in March, the use of restrooms by transgender people became a lightning rod for controversy.
In an attempt to encourage vacillating City Council members to approve the draft ordinances, Vi Lyles and Al Austin proposed dropping restrooms, locker rooms, showers and changing rooms from the list of public accommodations in the drafts.
Bruce Clark and others at the candidate forum said they support the comprehensive draft ordinances as presented to City Council in their original form.
“I’m in favor of an uncompromised ordinance,” Clark said.
Mo Idlibby, who identified himself as the only attorney in the race, said he would take the lead on the issue if he’s elected.
“It’s a fundamental core issue about fairness and equality,” Idlibby said.
Shawn Greeson said altering the draft ordinances as Lyles and Austin proposed does a disservice to the LGBT community, particularly transgender individuals.
“You don’t leave half your community behind,” Greeson said.
Pablo Carvajal, one of only two Republicans in attendance at the Tuesday forum, made reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the changes that it brought to American society.
“We have to conform to those changes,” Carvajal said. “Our leadership failed our community. We need a new set of leaders.”
Billy Maddalon, the only openly gay candidate in the race, said rejection of the draft ordinances is what encouraged him to run for City Council.
He said it was a challenge to explain to his children what had happened and why.
“It was uniquely painful for me,” he said.
Other candidates expressed support for the draft ordinances in the spirit of Charlotte building a more diverse work force, making itself more competitive and setting a higher standard for the rest of the world to follow.
Mayoral candidates also expressed support for the draft ordinances as originally presented to City Council.
Jennifer Roberts, who described herself as an ally to those supporting approval of the draft ordinances in March, said she was surprised at the angry phone calls and emails she received about the matter and could only imagine what members of the LGBT community were hearing and reading.
“I am an ally and will continue to be an ally,” Roberts said.
Mayor Dan Clodfelter said he recalled a similar City Council blow to LGBT rights more than 20 years ago.
“I heard a lot of ugliness and hatred [in March], but I was proud of you,” Clodfelter told the audience. “You spoke about your experiences. That wasn’t the case in 1992.”
He then made the commitment to get the draft ordinances approved if elected.
Although he acknowledged public safety is an important issue, David Howard said he wondered if it wouldn’t be better to offer public restrooms that are not gender-specific. He voted in March to approve the compromised ordinance.
“Why are we gendering the restroom situation at all?” Howard said.
In response to a follow-up question, Howard said he would not attempt to block a vote in favor of approving the draft ordinances.
City Council candidates agreed the city should reach out to LGBT-owned businesses, just as it reaches out to businesses owned by women and minorities.
Julie Eiselt said it’s important to include any business that can contribute to the greater good, especially in the interest of making Charlotte more competitive to the outside world.
“Human capital is the greatest asset we have in this community,” Eiselt said.
Greeson agreed, adding that it’s the duty of city officials to regulate corporations in the interest of protecting citizens.
“Small businesses are the heart and soul of the community,” he said.
Bruce Clark and James Mitchell said they’d like to see the city engage in more proactive outreach and mentorship.
“It’s not just about checking boxes,” Clark said. “How are we engaging LGBT businesses to participate?”
“What it’s really about is relationships,” Mitchell said.
Lyles said she would encourage more work with the private sector.
Mayoral candidates also agreed on the need for more outreach to and contracting with LGBT-owned businesses.
“We have tremendously creative, productive, entrepreneurial business owners,” Roberts said. “We need to be intentional about inclusion.”
Howard said it’s important to prove that disparities actually exist should there be a need for city officials to back their contracting decisions in court.
Clodfelter agreed, adding that city departments must be monitored to ensure rules are being followed and businesses are not being discriminated against.
“We’ve got to get down in the weeds on this,” Clodfelter said.
City Council candidates said they would support an extension of health care benefits for city employees with transgender-specific health issues.
Clark said he educated himself on the matter, researching the fears of the resulting costs of the City of San Francisco extending health care benefits to its transgender employees.
“There was fear, and they were wrong,” Clark said. “There was no significant increase in San Francisco’s health benefits package.”
Lyles recalled her days as assistant city manager, when she learned that some city employees weren’t making a living wage. She said she asked for a list of all city employees not earning a living wage in an effort to level the playing field for all.
“This is all about fairness,” Lyles said. “When it applies to one, it applies to all. We need to live that value as an organization.”
In a follow-up question, Pablo Carvajal said he had changed his view on the issue since telling MeckPAC he would not be in favor of extending health benefits to the city’s transgender employees.
He said he had since done his own research and had talked with members of the LGBT community, as well.
“I don’t stand by that now,” Carvajal said.
Mitchell said he’s in favor of extending benefits as a means of keeping the wheels of city government turning.
“They need to be able to do their jobs without fear of discrimination,” Mitchell said. “There’s no room to discriminate if we want to make Charlotte a better city.”
Maddalon said while the City Council sets policy, the city manager is the one who’s ultimately accountable when it comes to discrimination within the ranks.
As such, Maddalon said, it’s City Council’s job to dismiss any city manager who’s seen as discriminatory.
“The body rots from the head down,” Maddalon said.
Mayoral candidates also largely agreed with extending health benefits.
Clodfelter said it’s important to survey city employees on any other barriers they might be experiencing, as well.
“If you don’t ask the questions and listen to the answers, you’re operating in the dark,” Clodfelter said.
Roberts said city officials should also encourage the county and schools to consider the matter.
“When one public entity extends rights, others must follow,” Roberts said. “We need to be a leader.”
City Council candidates commented on the general state of homelessness in Charlotte, with occasional reference to the LGBT homeless in particular.
Sean Gautam said the city should take the lead on improving coordination among agencies serving the homeless.
“It’s a disgrace if we have even one homeless person out there,” Gautam said.
Laurence Bibbs agreed, adding there’s a need for more outreach to even more nonprofits.
David Rice said he would seek out those who truly need help, ensure the homeless are educated on programs available through the city and promote job and real estate services for the homeless.
Greeson, Lyles and Carvajal echoed one another on the need to look at the root causes of homelessness as a first step to preventing it and to promote understanding, empathy and compassion in the community.
Darrell Bonapart, a father and local PTA member, said he learned when researching to start a nonprofit targeting the homeless that more than 4,700 children in Mecklenburg County don’t have homes.
“It’s a people issue,” Bonapart said. “It’s a very serious matter that we keep talking about, but not doing anything about.”
Eiselt said gender-specific shelters for the homeless can make LGBT youth more vulnerable and feel more threatened.
“We’ve got to have services and shelters specific to these young people,” Eiselt said.
“Children cannot protect themselves,” Maddalon said. “LGBT children are uniquely vulnerable.”
Mayoral candidates expressed their support for initiatives targeting the homeless, as well.
Howard said the city must work with the schools to help ensure LGBT youth, especially those who are homeless, aren’t discriminated against.
“If you don’t have education, you don’t have the skill sets to provide for yourself,” Howard said.
Roberts said mental health counseling, especially to treat depression, is key to the homeless issue.
Clodfelter said the first priority is getting a roof over one’s head and ensuring his or her protection, before introducing services.
In a follow-up question, all mayoral candidates said they would support efforts to crackdown on sex trafficking and to re-examine how criminal laws are enforced against the LGBT homeless and youth engaging in sex work for survival.
City Council and mayoral candidates all expressed support for the introduction of municipal identification cards.
Candidates said the IDs would offer undocumented immigrants and others the chance to obtain library cards, visit their children in school, report crimes and access city services. Few candidates mentioned the benefits of the cards specific to the LGBT community.
Notably absent from the event was incumbent City Councilmember Claire Fallon, who is running for re-election to her at-large seat. She did not RSVP to the event. Also absent was Councilmember Michael Barnes, who is running for mayor. Fallon voted in March for the compromise non-discrimination ordinance. Barnes voted against the proposal.