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Featured Photo Above: Mark Harris, one-time Republican Senate candidate and pastor of First Baptist Church, speaks at a rally opposing Charlotte’s proposed LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance before its hearing at City Council on March 2, 2015. Photo by Matt Comer.

The Charlotte Observer ran in-depth previews on the mayoral and City Council races in their Sunday, Aug. 30 edition. The feature included data released from their survey of likely voters — ranking the leading mayoral contenders in both the Democratic and Republican primaries as well as voter thoughts on a variety of campaign issues.

This year’s failed LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination effort was among the questions asked of voters — and the responses highlight and confirm the contention and division we saw over the effort earlier this year. From the Observer:


What I first noticed was the huge difference between Republican and Democratic support. Nearly as many Republicans oppose the ordinance as Democrats support it. I was immediately reminded of a poll on LGBT issues conducted among local residents conducted in 2011. Comparing the two, it becomes clear that Republicans, at least on the issue of anti-LGBT discrimination, have become more anti-LGBT in their stances even as society is moving closer toward ending legal anti-LGBT discrimination.

More on the meat of that in a minute, but, first, a few other quick takeaways —

The Observer reports that 51 percent of all respondents support the ordinance. That’s a pretty dismal figure in a city with such a large LGBT community. There’s about 90,000 LGBT people in the metro area and about a third of residents are either LGBT or have a family member or friend who is, according to that 2011 poll. But I think it points to what I’ve said about Charlotte all along — we like to think we’re a progressive, can-do city, but, as a whole, we’re not. Socially, on LGBT issues and many others, we’re still the sleepy, southern, church-and-banking town we’ve always been and progress here comes slowly and quietly. (On that note: It’s time we change our “Charlotte Way” attitude and shake up the city, but that’s a topic for a different commentary.)

Support from Democrats is far stronger than Republicans, but Democratic support is weaker than one should expect. A full third of surveyed Democrats either do not support the ordinance or are unsure of their position. That’s a whole lot of people opposed, fence-sitting or unsure in a party whose platform specifically and plainly calls for the end of all legal and social discrimination against LGBT people.

The poll data is a perfect reflection of the divisive and contentious debate surrounding the spring push for the non-discrimination ordinance updates. There’s a clear divide between Democrats and Republicans in the poll. That same divide played out in March, with the local Democratic party coming out in favor of the ordinance and the Republican party coming out opposed. Republican elected leaders, social leaders, candidates and religious leaders feverishly opposed the ordinance, as well. The Democrats are divided in the poll, too. We also saw that play out, with Democrats like Councilmembers Michael Barnes and David Howard opposing the full, comprehensive version that included protections on the basis of gender identity.

Republicans more opposed to LGBT equality

Back to the Republicans… The poll data this weekend reveals what I think is an increasing polarization on LGBT issues among Republicans.

Four years ago, in advance of the city’s hosting of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, a coalition of local groups and the newspaper where I formerly worked commissioned a poll of local residents, also, like the Observer’s, conducted by Public Policy Polling.

At the time, 45 percent of self-identified Republicans agreed with one portion of the proposed ordinance changes this year — prohibiting businesses that contract with the city from discriminating against vendors, contractors and subcontractors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, matching the city’s own equal employment opportunity policy. Forty-two percent were opposed to this kind of requirement.

That 2011 poll also showed that 73 percent of Republican respondents believed it to be unacceptable to fire an employee because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The level of LGBT support among Republicans surprised me four years ago. I thought it pointed to a more friendly, more moderate Republican base in the city. But today, nearly two-thirds of local Republicans are opposed to measures that would prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination.

Several things are probably happening here —

The Republican party base has become more conservative. We’ve seen an increasing hard-right strain of politics in the Republican party, both nationally and locally. In Charlotte, one of the leading Republican voices is Mark Harris, anti-LGBT pastor of First Baptist Church and a leading opponent of LGBT equality. There’s dwindling room for moderates in the Republican party. Even Republican mayoral candidate Edwin Peacock has softened slightly on his record of LGBT support — coming out against the full, comprehensive version of the non-discrimination ordinance; he also thinks it should have gone through a full committee process given its contentious nature (read more about Peacock’s thoughts in this article from last week). His opponent, Scott Stone, has been entirely opposed.

Republicans and conservatives are lashing back at increased LGBT equality. With a federal marriage ruling, increased prohibitions against anti-LGBT discrimination and a variety of social advances happening around the country at a lightning-fast pace, conservatives are becoming increasingly vocal and increasingly opposed to further non-discrimination efforts. This larger “backlash effect” could be the trend influencing local Republicans’ views on our local efforts.

The “bathroom issue” and transgender inclusion are likely sticking points. Even if local Republicans find themselves opposing discrimination against gay and lesbian people, a large portion of them are still uncomfortable with or ignorant on transgender people and issues. Protections for transgender people became the single-most contentious issue during the ordinance debate. It’s the reason why some Democrats were opposed. It’s what anti-LGBT leaders like Mark Harris and the local Republican party used to mobilize their supporters. It’s likely what is sticking out in people’s minds when they’re asked about the ordinance.

Democratic support is weaker than it should be

I asked Cameron Joyce, president of the LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County what he thought about the poll numbers on Sunday. He was the first to point out to me the likely backlash effect among Republicans.

But Joyce’s thoughts on Democratic support were more interesting.

The lower numbers didn’t necessarily surprise him — again, they’re just a reflection of the contention we saw back in March. But that contention and divide among Democratic leaders — people like Barnes and Howard — don’t help move voters or the public, he said. Democratic leaders should have been on the forefront of support, in alignment with the party’s own platform. Joyce said it’s incumbent upon Democratic officials to lead on important issues like LGBT equality. If they do, he said, party members are more likely follow.

Lukewarm LGBT support from local Democratic leaders is nothing new. Before this spring’s ordinance push, a largely Democratic Charlotte City Council had only ever voted publicly on LGBT issues one time — in 1992 when they considered a similar ordinance. It failed then and wasn’t brought back up for more than two decades. When it came time to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s HR policies (something the city did far later than other cities), leaders did so quietly. No vote. No public notice. (Compare that to the county, where commissioners voted publicly on non-discrimination policies and domestic partner benefits.)

Public education and mobilization will be key

The continued contention and divisiveness of the non-discrimination ordinance effort is proof of the need for more extensive public education efforts, especially on transgender issues. Additionally, our community needs better mobilization strategies — getting people out to vote, yes, but also getting them engaged earlier and more vocally in public discourse on city policies and proposals.

Education and mobilization is where local coalition members failed last fall and spring.

As I had reported in the past, the push for the ordinance was largely done the “Charlotte Way” — quietly and behind the scenes. I wrote back in March:

It became clear to me, as I know it did for others, that no matter the weeks or months of planning, our side wasn’t going to be able to match the reach or volume of our opponents. Not, at least, with the quiet, behind-the-scenes strategy that had been chosen from the outset. Like many times before, this effort to undertake LGBT-inclusive change had been worked reservedly, out of the community and media spotlight. It is a strategy that I’d venture to guess most believe now was unwise — for several reasons, whether it be the now clearly demonstrated need for broader community education, particularly on transgender people, or the showing-up opponents gave to our lackluster community mobilization strategy.

I and others, including Joyce, had suggested a more public, campaign-like approach to the ordinance effort last fall. It’s what we needed then and, though we’ll never really know for certain, I think the lack of it contributed greatly to our loss on March.

I’m glad to see organizations involved in the new TurnOUT Charlotte! initiative taking just this tack on their endorsements and electoral work in advance of September’s primary. What’s still missing is a public education campaign — for both the general public and our own community, where plenty of LGB people seem ready to take an incremental approach that leaves behind our transgender siblings. Leaders should be thinking about how to implement new, bold and strategic education and mobilization efforts in advance if the ordinance comes back up for debate: town hall meetings, mailers, panel discussions, campaign representatives speaking at Democratic and Republican party events and other civic and social meetings or activities.

We’ll have to build support from the ground-up, chipping into a large segment of Republicans opposed to the effort and a third of Democrats who agree with them.

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