Lieutenant Gov. Dan Forest may be North Carolina’s most popular politician, having won more statewide votes than anyone else in November. He didn’t get there by being conciliatory.
In an interview focused on two hot-button issues — House Bill 2 and education vouchers — the adamant conservative expressed little or no desire to reach common ground with those who take different views.
“I was one of the biggest proponents of HB2 and I got the most votes of any one,” he says.
For Forest, the critical point is that the city of Charlotte bent far beyond societal norms — and broke the law — in passing an ordinance that allows transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice. He castigated the concept of “gender fluidity” that enables some “bad actors” in public facilities to express different identities at the drop of a hat without any protections for women and children.
“The U.S. Supreme Court, including Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg, have said that women and children have the right to privacy in a bathroom,” he says. “But under the Charlotte ordinance, if a dude who claims to be a women drops his pants in a women’s locker room, there is nothing that law enforcement can do about it. It is no longer considered indecent exposure.”
To business people pressing for an HB2 resolution that will help North Carolina attract more corporate relocations and basketball tournaments, Forest has little sympathy.
“The lost of one quarter of one percent of our annual GDP isn’t killing business,” he says. “People are still coming here. Look at the housing market in the Triangle or all of the cranes in downtown Charlotte.”
He concedes that commercial real estate friends have made clear that “there are C-suite conversations in which companies may say now is not the time to move. But that doesn’t mean HB2 is killing North Carolina. What is hurting us are the lies and misinformation.”
As for the broader issue, Forest, 49, says he won’t support making LGBTQ people a protected class under antidiscrimination laws because it would exceed the laws of 28 other states and the federal government.
“In passing HB2, which blocks cities from approving such ordinances, “the members of the General Assembly wanted to protect the laws of North Carolina and that’s what they did.”
HB2 opponents are pressing lawmakers to repeal HB2, noting anything else will damage the state’s reputation. Equality North Carolina denounced a new bipartisan proposal introduced Wednesday that would repeal HB2 but also block counties and cities from regulating access to public bathrooms. It also would not provide anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community.
[The bill doubled] “down on the harm our state and LGBTQ people have already suffered,” Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said in a press release. “I’m certain this will not bring back business or sporting events, and only serves to reinforce the damage. We can still fix this — by allowing for the immediate vote on a clean repeal of HB2. Everything else is a distraction from the real issue.”
Forest was elected in 2012, defeating former State Rep. Linda Coleman by about 7,000 votes. It was his first run for office after working as a senior partner at Charlotte’s Little Diversified Architectural Consulting. The son of former U.S. Rep Sue Myrick, he beat Coleman by 300,000 votes in November, a testament to enormous time connecting with Republican and evangelical Christian groups in the state.
Pat McCrory received about 90,000 fewer votes than Forest and lost his re-election bid. Forest is widely expected to run for governor in 2020.
Moving to education, Forest says he’s supporting Republican-led efforts on teacher pay and vouchers that are creating great progress in North Carolina. “What we have done over the last four years is remarkable with our teacher compensation growing the fastest in the country.”
While the National Education Association rates North Carolina 41st in teacher pay, Forest says the accurate ranking is 24th when cost of living and other benefits are considered. “We need to talk more about compensation and not just salary,” he says. “And we know that the amount of money for public schools is never going to be enough. The question is if you are moving in the right direction.”
Providing taxpayer-funded scholarships for students to attend religious-affiliated schools is also a wise choice by state lawmakers because it gives low-income students a better shot of success, Forest believes. He contends thousands of North Carolina children in “failing schools” deserve the option of attending private institutions.
While the state’s $4,500 Opportunity Scholarships barely make a dent in annual tuition at elite private schools such as Charlotte Country Day or Raleigh’s Ravenscroft, the average tuition for N.C. private schools is $6,000, Forest says.
“I don’t care if the scholarships are for Islamic or Jewish or [Christian] schools if it is a better choice for the students who are being failed by our public schools. Money should be going to make sure students get the best education they can get.”
As for the lack of accountability at some private schools despite their public funding, Forest isn’t moved. “What about the accountability of public schools that have been failing for 30 years or more. Nobody has cared about that.”