in Analysis and Commentary

Coffee and conversation with Sen. Joel Ford

Last week, I unexpectedly found myself in the middle of a headline-grabbing Twitter exchange with North Carolina state Sen. Joel Ford, a Democrat representing portions of Charlotte where I recently lived and who is running for mayor of Charlotte this year.

I won’t rehash that story from last week. You can read about it from the Observer here (their editorial here), in an editorial from Charlotte Magazine or via WFAE. I also shared some of my views in a Q&A with NC Policy Watch’s Joe Killian last week.

As a result of the Twitter exchange, Sen. Ford and I arranged a sit-down conversation over coffee. We met on Monday at Amelie’s in NoDa, with representatives from local and state advocacy organizations joining in, along with a constituent who still lives in the senator’s district. There with us were two other Charlotte residents needing to meet and discuss separate topics and who also joined in on this particular conversation.

As I told Sen. Ford and the others there with me, I had attempted to also involve the voices of the trans community in this conversation, because so much of this recent debate over HB2 and other matters has focused so heavily on anti-transgender discrimination. Work and other conflicts kept different folks I spoke with from attending. I told the senator how important it would be to meet with members of the local transgender community and he said he would be willing.

Our meeting lasted about an hour or so. We talked about a lot, and this is in no way an exhaustive summary of every bit of conversation contained within that hour. Just some highlights.

We shared our perspectives on his style of communication, with me stressing just how condescending and patronizing it all felt. We discussed his past vote on the magistrates bill and some of his other positions.

More importantly, we discussed his positions on HB2 and attempts to compromise toward a repeal of the discriminatory law.

Sen. Ford and I agree that HB2 needs to go. That’s just about where the similarities end.

Our differences lie primarily in our positions on transgender inclusion and the tactics or methodology that can get us toward HB2 repeal and full LGBTQ protections.

The senator does not support a fully comprehensive and inclusive non-discrimination ordinance or statewide public accommodations law which would also include protections for transgender people in restrooms, in particular. I find it non-negotiable. He thinks there’s not enough education around the topic in order to move forward with it. I think leaving trans people behind also means that there will never be a “circling back” to draw them into legal protections.

Sen. Ford says he wants to operate within the confines of reality — a reality that Republicans hold a supermajority in the legislature with all the limitations that brings. In that light, he does not see a clean repeal of HB2 as possible. The best chance, he said, was the December proposal — repeal, with a six-month moratorium.

The senator and I also have significant differences in tactic, methodology and, more importantly, the level of trust we place in the state legislature’s Republican leadership. The senator trusts leaders like Phil Berger and Tim Moore, or so he told me Monday, and believes there is a compromise that can work in the “best interest” of all residents. I do not believe that, primarily because I do not believe North Carolina’s Republican Party and its legislative leadership care an ounce about the “best interest” of LGBTQ people. And, as I told Sen. Ford directly, I don’t think he understand just how hostile Republican leadership is toward LGBTQ people. The nexus of this disagreement is a difference in ideological and worldview, even perhaps religious, perspective. There can be no compromise with a position that, from its start, does not recognize the humanity of LGBTQ people. Tar Heel Republicans will not support LGBTQ protections in any measure or variety. If they did — and if bathrooms really were the issue (they’re not, it’s a scare tactic) — then HB2 never would have been written the way it was.

I am grateful for the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with Sen. Ford, but we still don’t see eye to eye. I need leadership that will stand up for what’s right. The senator has been in the perfect position to do that. Republicans will not offer LGBTQ-inclusive protections. We know this. It won’t happen. It is not possible. It is not a reality. And given this reality, I expect a Democratic senator in the political minority to use whatever bully pulpit they have to speak with clear and unambiguous moral and political clarity. Sen. Ford has not done that, and he doesn’t seem willing, at least not yet.

We ended the conversation on Monday with eyes and ears open toward meeting more, discussing more and listening more. The senator seems genuinely interested in more conversation and in learning more about and meeting more people in the local LGBTQ community. For that I’m grateful, even if we walked away with the same disagreements that first brought us to the table.

Cotham won’t seek re-election to N.C. House, Maddalon files to run for open seat

North Carolina Democratic state Rep. Tricia Cotham has announced she won’t be seeking re-election to her House seat in 2016. Cotham, who’s served five terms in the legislature, made the announcement on Thursday. Her move opens up the potential for an openly LGBT lawmaker, something the state’s been missing since 2014, with openly gay Plaza Midwood businessman Billy Maddalon saying Thursday he’s considering a run.