By Mary Emily O'Hara
In a special election on September 10, North Carolina voters elected to Congress a legislator famous for an anti-LGBTQ+ “bathroom bill” that cost the state billions of dollars due to boycotts. Now, activists in the southern state are gearing up for a fight — and they’re already being joined by nationwide LGBTQ+ advocacy groups.
Newly-elected Congressman Dan Bishop, who previously served as a state representative, ran in the ninth district race against veteran and entrepreneur Dan McCready, whose platform focused on lowering healthcare costs, cutting taxes, protecting the environment, and other stalwart Democratic issue points. In contrast, Bishop, who had the support of President Trump, described himself in campaign ads as “pro-life, pro-gun, [and] pro-wall.” The 9th district seat was vacated after the 2018 election was overturned due to a voter fraud scheme that involved absentee ballots.
October’s special-election race was widely viewed as a test of whether white suburban voters would continue to support Trump and his allied candidates. Despite Trump carrying the district by a 12-point margin in 2016, NBC News called Bishop’s two-point win a “narrow escape” that indicates Trump could lose North Carolina in 2020.
While Bishop won by a small margin, he did still win — and that poses no small threat to civil rights in the state of North Carolina. The politician has repeatedly attempted to undermine anti-discrimination laws, and is most widely known as the architect and lead sponsor of the transphobic House Bill 2 (HB2), also known as the “bathroom bill.” Moreover, in emails unearthed in July after the North Carolina news site Real Facts NC filed a public records request, he bizarrely compared his efforts to undermine LGBTQ+ rights to the work of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman and Nazi Party member who bribed SS officers in order to keep his Jewish workers alive. Bishop has also came under fire for investing money in the far-right social network Gab, which launched in 2017 as a platform for alt-right and white supremacist figures who have been banned on more common platforms like Twitter.
“Given the damage that Dan Bishop has done, it’s inconceivable that he was rewarded with being elected to Congress,” Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality North Carolina, told MTV News. Johnson said she “knew it would be a close race,” but hoped that Democrat Dan McCready would prevail.
As a state legislator, Bishop’s damage to both his state, and the LBGTQ+ people in it, cannot be overstated. HB2 passed in early 2016, and was later signed by then-governor Pat McCrory, a Republican; it made it so that anyone in the state was banned from using bathrooms and other facilities that weren’t designated for the sex assigned to their birth certificate, a clear effort to keep transgender people out of shared public spaces. In perhaps its most controversial aspect, HB2 forbid cities and towns from passing their own non-discrimination ordinances to protect LGBTQ+ residents.
The statewide law was a reaction to a single non-discrimination policy enacted by the city of Charlotte, a policy Bishop said at the time was driven by the “subjective and secret intentions” of that city’s lawmakers. The Charlotte City Council voted in early 2016 to add “marital and familial status, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression” to an existing list of protected classes in the city’s nondiscrimination policy that already protected residents from bias based on things like race and religion; at the time, the council’s move to add LGBTQ+ people to the nondiscrimination law was based on recommendations issued by the federal government.
Reaction to the law was swift: Politicians, celebrities, and LGBTQ+ advocates across the nation decried HB2 as bigoted and called for boycotts against the state. The law was projected to cost the state of North Carolina an estimated $3.76 billion, according to a March 2017 analysis by the Associated Press. Corporations like PayPal and Deutsche Bank pulled out of plans to expand North Carolina offices, Hollywood heavyweights and professional sports leagues announced boycotts or moved events, dozens of cities and states forbid employees from traveling to North Carolina to do business, and civil rights groups filed lawsuits against the state. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice gave the state’s governor a deadline by which to overturn the law, saying HB2 violated federal civil rights and education laws and that federal funding would be pulled from the state if the law wasn’t scrapped. It was eventually repealed by the state legislature; at the time, newly-elected Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, called it “a dark cloud hanging over our great state.”
If you find it surprising that voters would willingly elect someone who both espoused such bigotry and did so much damage to the state’s economy, you aren’t alone. The national LGBTQ+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign also expressed surprise after Bishop’s win, but pledged in a tweet to hold the newly-elected congressman’s feet to the fire.
The saving grace of the surprise upset election, says Johnson, is that Bishop barely has time to settle into his new office before facing competitors — the newly-won congressional seat is up for reelection again next year. And that means Bishop could still be unseated by a rival: McCready lost to Bishop so narrowly, his supporters could still conceivably vote him into office in 2020.
“We have so many young folks who do not support the bigotry that Bishop espouses, and folks need to be re-enfranchised around their voter rights,” Johnson told MTV News. “The name of the game for everyone in the state looking at 2020 is voter registration and voter engagement and mobilization.”
“Dan McCready nearly pulled off an upset in a congressional district controlled by Republicans for almost five decades and that went for Trump by double digits in 2016,” HRC press secretary Charlotte Clymer pointed out to MTV News.
“Americans are exhausted by the corruption and cruelty of this administration, and the GOP is rightly worried about what this augurs for next year,” Clymer added. “This is a nation of equality voters, and that's going to be on full display in November 2020."
The Bishop for Congress team did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.