Last year as he campaigned for re-election as governor, Pat McCrory labeled the Human Rights Campaign more powerful than the National Rifle Association. It was an exaggeration: The national group supporting civil rights for LGBTQ people has a fraction of the name recognition, membership (1.5 million vs. 5 million) or financial firepower ($50 million in estimated revenue vs. $300 million) of the gun-rights organization.
But Roy Cooper’s razor-thin victory in November added credence to McCrory’s claim. The Democrat won, in part, because HRC campaign contributions, ads and phone calls helped frame the election as a choice between a mean-spirited supporter of House Bill 2 and a progressive rival who pledged to repeal the controversial law. McCrory repeatedly castigated HRC as “outsiders” improperly influencing our state’s election, and a top aide compared the group to “Seal Team Six.”
After attending the HRC’s annual awards and fundraising gala in Charlotte with more than 800 others on Feb. 4, here are five lessons learned
1) Any nonprofit would envy the overt corporate support received by the HRC. Dozens of powerful U.S. corporations provide financial support to the Washington D.C.-based group, according to a slick video shown at the affair. Likewise, for the $200-a-ticket Charlotte event, many of the state’s more influential businesses were sponsors, including Ally Financial, American Airlines, Bank of America, BB&T, Food Lion, MetLife and Wells Fargo. Both of McCrory’s most recent private-sector employers, Duke Energy and Moore & Van Allen, were cited as sponsors. Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan, who has worked hard to achieve a compromise to the HB2 debacle, was in the house.
2) Defeating McCrory — the only incumbent U.S. governor to lose last year — was the HRC’s premier victory of 2016. Every time President Chad Griffin and others mentioned the ex-governor’s defeat (at least 10 times), the crowd cheered. Based in Washington, D.C., Griffin said he spent so much time in North Carolina that his fiancé says he probably earned residency rights.
3) HRC and the Republican lawmakers who passed House Bill 2 continue to talk past each other. Democrats including Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and N.C. State Sen. Jeff Jackson attended the event; no Republicans were introduced. (Cooper wasn’t there.) If there is any room for compromise other than a repeal, it wasn’t evident based on speakers’ comments. Many have concluded the most vocal people on both sides of HB2 prefer to keep the controversy rolling for fundraising purposes.
4) The most compelling “outsider” speaker was an actress with rock-solid North Carolina credentials. Raleigh native Evan Rachel Wood is the daughter of famed Theater in the Park founder Ira David Wood and star of HBO’s hit show Westworld. Describing her painful journey to understand her bisexuality, she implored the crowd to fight to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.
5) It’s easy to overstate the influence of North Carolina’s LGBTQ lobby. One suspects Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and other outspoken proponents of HB2 could assemble a much larger crowd from the evangelical Christian community. A lot of North Carolinians, for reasons of tradition and personal morality, don’t embrace some of the lifestyles represented at the gala. (The all-gender, multi-stall bathrooms employed at the gala were jarring to me, though I understand the message HRC was sending to transgender people.)
But the HRC was emboldened by Cooper’s victory, and the passion to ensure civil rights for all people is strengthening. Advocates aren’t going away. Surely North Carolina lawmakers will resolve the issue in the next few weeks, not just because of corporate relocations and sporting events. They will do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Note: I bought a gala ticket at the invitation of a family member, who is among the most generous people that I know. Several close friends also encouraged me to attend. While the HRC has a clear political agenda, advocating for civil rights for those who feel marginalized is nonpartisan, as the intense business-community participation suggests. I wish the HRC would be more transparent, just like most other interest groups: When writing a cover story last year about the HB2 debate, we received better cooperation from HRC critics, including former N.C. Commerce Secretary John Skvarla, than from the civil-rights organization.