CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The LGBTQ rights movement has been a key issue in recent elections, and the 2017 race for mayor of Charlotte is no different. Three familiar Democrats face each other for September primaries, and their actions on House Bill 2 (HB2) and its descendent, House Bill 142 (HB142), may hold heavy influence on voters who identify as LGBTQ or allies.
Two long-shot candidates, Lucille Puckett and Constance Partee Johnson, are also running, but have not held public office and therefore have no record on HB2 or HB142.
Incumbent Mayor Jennifer Roberts has been the object of criticism as the most visible figurehead of a city government that repealed its LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance in a vain effort to bargain for the state legislature to repeal HB2. Roberts’ competitors, Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and Sen. Joel Ford, each have contrasting histories on the issue.
Ford, though recently releasing an ad campaign claiming to be an LGBTQ ally, has met backlash from the community for a number of questionable comments and votes. In a 2010 appearance on NBC Charlotte “FlashPoint,” Ford spoke of “trying to figure out what was wrong with” the military policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
In 2015, Ford voted in favor of magistrates’ right to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages. Just this year, he caused a local press firestorm when responding to former qnotes editor Matt Comer’s criticism with a tweeted GIF of a dog defecating.
Throughout the HB2 saga, Sen. Ford has not demonstrated his willingness to fight for LGBTQ progress. He has openly criticized Roberts for passing the non-discrimination ordinance that protected LGBTQ Charlotteans prior to HB2’s conception. Ford opposed the section of the ordinance that allowed transgender people access to public facilities consistent with their identities.
Sen. Ford also voted to pass HB142, the “false repeal” that advocates have called “HB 2.0.” His history was enough for the Mecklenburg LGBTQ Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) to issue a warning against supporting his campaign.
“We have issued our strongest warning ever on the campaign of Joel Ford for Charlotte mayor,” a MeckPAC release states. “Our warning against your votes or support is based on a variety of factors, including his long record of anti-LGBTQ statements and votes.”
Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles is perhaps the incumbent’s biggest challenger on LGBTQ issues. Lyles, a veteran of city government, voted in favor of the non-discrimination ordinance — but in the years leading up to its passage, she opposed the provision for transgender public facilities access. During months of unsuccessful negotiations with the North Carolina General Assembly on an HB2 repeal, Lyles belonged to the bipartisan team of council members who met with GOP leaders.
“You have to look at what’s realistic,” Lyles said of her stance.
“Some people will look for ways to compromise,” Human Rights Campaign Board Member and Charlotte resident Scott Bishop said of Lyles. “But in the fight for equality, there can be no compromise.”
Submitting to compromise is one misstep that brought criticism down on Mayor Roberts, who ultimately signed off on repealing Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance in an attempt to pacify state legislators. Roberts told qnotes shortly after the repeal that she had no part in planning for it.
“I think the reason they worked so hard to get an unanimous vote on Council and to get everything in place before they even talked to me, is because they knew I would have said ‘no’ if everything wasn’t sealed up tight as a drum,” the mayor said. “It’s been incredibly, incredibly hard, because I know the symbolism hurts…It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done politically.”
The contrast between these three candidates’ histories on HB2 may indicate more than their stance on bathrooms, just as LGBTQ people know that the bill itself was about much more. Democratic primary voters have a compelling choice before them; this issue could decide the race.