HAMLET — Gov. Pat McCrory made an unannounced visit to nearby Hamlet on Friday, touring the Hamlet Depot and Museums and discussing the House Bill 2 controversy over lunch with diners at Jones Café.
Appearing Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” for a 10-minute segment on the state law that restricts transgender restroom access and rewrites nondiscrimination policies, McCrory said patrons at the Main Street buffet applauded him for signing the legislation.
“I’ll tell you what I have learned through this, and it’s we’ve got to have more dialogue and not threats,” McCrory told host Chuck Todd. ” I was in Hamlet, North Carolina, a small town that could be any town in the United States of America. I walked into a buffet restaurant — African-American buffet restaurant — and the people just welcomed me with open arms and said, ‘Thanks for protecting us.’
“I got back in my car and I got a call from someone in corporate America going, ‘Man, you’ve got to change this, we’re getting killed.’ And it showed me the disconnect we have between the corporate suites and Main Street on a very complex subject and a very personal subject.”
The law has touched off a business backlash, with more than 160 companies signing a letter opposing HB 2, PayPal scrapping a 400-job expansion planned for the state and musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr and Pearl Jam refusing to perform in the Tar Heel State.
Todd said the bill has cost North Carolina $39.7 million in lost investment and estimated the state will lose more than $186 million in revenue as a result of HB 2 boycotts and corporate reprisals.
McCrory, however, said the bill was designed to give businesses more autonomy from government regulation.
“It’s not government’s business to tell the private sector what their bathroom, locker room or shower practices should be,” he said on “Meet The Press.” The governor later added that his administration shouldn’t be seen as the “HR director” for private businesses in the state.
Jones on Main owner Yvette Jones said she was thrilled McCrory chose to eat lunch at her restaurant and beamed with pride when he complimented the food. She posted several snapshots to the eatery’s Facebook page.
“He was very, very friendly,” she said. “I was surprised at how friendly he was and how open he was. He just sat right down. He was right on our level.”
Jones said McCrory came in “with a couple of his entourage.” Customers greeted the governor enthusiastically and the comments she overheard expressed support for HB 2.
“Some of the customers were talking to him about HB 2 and how they appreciate his help with that,” she said.
As for the restaurateur herself, Jones said she’s still learning about the bill and its effects, but she believes people should use the restroom that corresponds with their birth gender, a key component of the new law.
“I believe if you’re born as a man, that’s what you are,” she said. “If you’re a man, you’re a man. That’s the way you were born.”
While Jones didn’t want to discuss her political affiliation, she said the visit made a strong impression on her and she came away with respect for McCrory. The Republican governor is in a close contest with Roy Cooper, the four-term Democratic attorney general.
“I would vote for him — I would look into it,” she said. “I would pay more attention to the governor’s race. I was just surprised at how friendly he was.”
Jones watched McCrory’s segment on “Meet the Press” Monday and said she was glad he plugged Hamlet even though he didn’t mention her restaurant by name.
“It seems like business has picked up since then,” she said, adding that customers had been discussing the show.
McCrory also signed the Hamlet Visitors Center guest log during his trip. The Hamlet Depot and Museums shared a picture of his signature in the register Friday afternoon.
The two-stop tour appears to have been an impromptu affair. McCrory’s public schedule, which is emailed to North Carolina media outlets including the Daily Journal, listed the N.C. Association of School Administrators Conference in Wilmington as his only planned event Friday.
McCrory spokesman Graham Wilson said he wasn’t sure how the governor decided on the Hamlet eatery as his lunch stop.
Hamlet Mayor Bill Bayless and City Manager Marcus Abernethy said McCrory’s staff hadn’t tipped them off to the visit in advance.
“Gov. Pat McCrory mentioned Hamlet, North Carolina of all places on the air,” Abernethy said. “It’s exciting news to have a figurehead such as the governor visit our city.”
The Hamlet City Council has not taken a position on HB 2. While some may politicize the visit, Hamlet officials say North Carolina’s chief executive is always welcome in the historic railroad town.
“It’s interesting attention we’re getting,” Abernethy said. “We invite the governor to our city any time — whoever the governor is.”
Reach Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670.