ROCKINGHAM — State Rep. Ken Goodman found himself in a Twitter debate with talk show host Montel Williams after questioning whether vendors would boycott the High Point furniture market over North Carolina’s nondiscrimination law.
Goodman, D-Richmond, was one of 11 House Democrats to support the bill, which overrides a Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender people to use the restroom matching their gender identity and sets a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance that excludes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from employment and business access protections.
Dozens of corporate powerhouses including American Airlines, Bank of America and Wells Fargo have criticized the law, and detractors predict it will cost the state millions in lost economic opportunities.
Goodman, who chairs the pro-business Main Street Democrats Legislative Caucus, said statements opposing public policy should not be mistaken for boycotts and believes North Carolina will remain competitive in economic development efforts.
“I understand their position,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re going to go where it’s profitable. At the end of the day, they do what’s in their best economic interests.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal and Equality North Carolina have sued legislative leaders in federal court, claiming the law is unconstitutional. Attorney General Roy Cooper said Tuesday his office would not defend the law in court.
Cooper, a Democrat, is running against Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in November. McCrory signed the bill March 23 and says its critics are intentionally twisting the facts.
Responding to a Monday tweet from Wake County Commissioner John Burns reporting many customers would not attend the High Point Market next month, Goodman wrote, “They manufacture in the most oppressive countries in the world.”
Goodman also tweeted, “Corps who threaten to boycott NC can’t wait to locate in Cuba,” and “April Market is not a vacation. It is critical to buyers. They’ll come.”
Burns fired back: “Rep. Goodman – are you sure you want to begin your defense by saying ‘at least we’re not China?’”
“Not what I said,” Goodman replied Monday. “I was just pointing out their hypocrisy.”
Williams weighed in from his verified Twitter account, which has 163,000 followers: “Ken, if that’s the best defense you have you are playing a pair of 2’s against a flush.”
“Not defending the bill,” Goodman wrote in a Tuesday morning response.
“So u were for it when you voted for it and now you oppose it, but find yourself bitter ur vote is about to hurt NC?” Williams wrote.
Goodman said Tuesday he stands by his comments — and his vote for House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. But he acknowledged the new law could be tweaked and said he’s committed to finding common ground.
“I couldn’t help but think these are some of the same people who pulled out of North Carolina, left our workers high and dry and went to China,” Goodman said of the furniture makers. “It just seemed a little sanctimonious or hypocritical to me.”
The High Point Market Authority, which organizes the biannual furniture trade shows, slammed the law in a Monday statement.
“As leaders and organizers of the High Point Market, we feel an obligation to inform the public and our government leaders in Raleigh of the significant economic damage that HB2 is having on the High Point Market and on the North Carolina economy,” reads the statement attributed to the authority’s executive committee. “Based on the reaction in just the last few days, hundreds and perhaps thousands of our customers will not attend Market this April.”
The furniture market has a $5.38 billion annual economic impact on the state and brings in more than 600,000 visitors each year, the authority said.
Best-known as the host of “The Montel Williams Show,” which ended filming in 2008 but remains in syndication, Williams is a paid spokesman for MoneyMutual, which provides referrals for payday lenders and has come under fire for allegations of promoting predatory lending practices.
Goodman said residents of House District 66, which includes portions of Scotland, Richmond,Montgomery, Hoke and Robeson counties, have overwhelmingly supported legislative leaders’ decision to override the Charlotte ordinance. He shares their concern that restrooms and changing rooms open to all would make most patrons feel uncomfortable.
“It’s an issue of relative rights,” Goodman said. “Your rights end where my right to privacy begins.”
While he believes restrooms should remain sex-segregated, Goodman acknowledges the law is not enforceable from a practical standpoint and seeks only voluntary compliance. Restroom ID checks could prove legally problematic, as North Carolina does not require non-motorists to identify themselves to law enforcement unless they are being detained on suspicion of committing a crime.
“I don’t see how you could enforce the law anyway,” he said. “The enforcement issue does not exist, but it would exist under the Charlotte ordinance — they would enforce business compliance.”
The General Assembly had to rein in Charlotte’s city council when it overstepped its bounds, Goodman said.
“I believe if the city of Charlotte had passed a nondiscrimination ordinance and left out the transgender bathrooms, it would still be standing,” he explained. “The city of Charlotte does not have the authority to write local laws in conflict with our state laws.”
While he understands the issue is an emotional one for some, he said the debate has been hijacked by absolutists on the far left and far right, squeezing out moderate voices.
“Things got blown out of proportion,” he said. “I don’t think it’s helpful to really ratchet up the rhetoric. I’ve been called a bigot, which I really resent. I’m disappointed in all the vitriol.”
Room for compromise
Goodman said he’s willing to sit down with legislators from both sides of the aisle and take a second look at the law.
“I don’t think the bill is perfect,” he said. “I think it could have been more narrowly written. As a person who voted for the bill, I have a lot more standing to go to the majority to maybe find a way to work this out to everybody’s benefit.”
The state nondiscrimination law does not list sexual orientation and gender identity as protected statuses, but Goodman pointed out that businesses can still set their own policies and existing federal case law bars companies from firing someone for being gay.
Goodman said offering family restrooms beside men’s and women’s restrooms or replacing multiple-occupancy washrooms with single-person units could eventually bring the contentious access issue to a close.
“The way that Charlotte ordinance was written, anybody could go in any restroom, transgender or not,” he said. “I just wouldn’t want my granddaughter to have a male adult walk into the restroom with her. There is an issue of common decency. That’s why I think family bathrooms is a good solution.”
Since he would have preferred a narrowly tailored bill that merely struck down Charlotte’s ordinance, Goodman said there’s room for compromise on other controversial aspects of the law, such as those that prevent cities from enacting minimum wages higher than the state’s minimum and the statewide nondiscrimination ordinance, which supersedes local rules.
“We need to talk to the business community, talk to all parties, and see if there’s some way we can come to some accommodation for everybody,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s possible or not, but I’m willing to try.”
All three members of Richmond County’s legislative delegation — Goodman, Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, and Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland — voted in favor of the law.
Reach Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @corey_friedman.