Deal Or No Deal? Bizarre Political Theater In HB 2 Debate
Republican leaders of the General Assembly made a surprising announcement Tuesday night: They had accepted an HB 2 repeal deal proposed by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. There's just one problem. Cooper denies this particular deal was ever on the table. And the story gets even stranger.
What happened Tuesday night can be seen as a deal gone bad, political theater, or a hardcore negotiating technique.
At about 6:30 p.m., Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore addressed reporters at a hastily called news conference. They were to make a major announcement about HB 2. Berger did much of the talking.
"The speaker and I are here to let you know that the governor made a proposal late last week with reference to House Bill 2 that we are prepared to agree to in principal," Berger said.
But there's a catch.
"We called the governor on the way down here … to let him know that we agreed to his proposal in principle. He now denies that he ever made the proposal," Berger said.
Nonetheless, Berger described four main points of that plan.
– Repeal House Bill 2,
– Only the state could make rules on who can use which bathrooms.
– Local governments can pass their own non-discrimination ordinances so long as they are no broader than federal law.
– A so-called “conscience” clause. This would allow citizens to sue cities or the state if they feel a law or rule violates their free practice of religion.
All this, Berger stated, was a compromise that would need bi-partisan support to pass.
But again, the governor says he never signed off on this deal. His spokesman sent a press release stating, "It's frustrating that Republican leaders are more interested in political stunts than negotiating a compromise to repeal HB2."
In what can best be called a pre-emptive attack, the top two Republicans came to their press conference with a paper trail in hand.
“Here is a copy,” Berger said, “of the proposal that came from his attorney that indicates what his proposal was in four points. Also there is email traffic that shows that this came from the governor's people.>>
But this paper trail is a little thin.
“Where's the smoking gun?” asks political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College.
Bitzer notes that none of the emails are from Governor Cooper directly, and none say that Cooper's office agrees to or even makes an offer of a specific proposal.
"The emails are just kind of representative of yeah, we'll pass this along, we'll share it with our folks."
The emails are from Governor Cooper’s attorney. They appear to be evidence of negotiations. So was this a deal gone bad or a political stunt?
"With HB 2, I'm not sure you can ever get the whole truth," Bitzer says.
This is undeniably though a bit of political theater.
"I've never seen anything like it in my life," said House Minority Leader Darren Jackson in his own late-night rebuttal to Berger and Moore’s HB 2 press conference.
"They're not going to be able to get this fixed. They can’t get the votes in their caucus to fix it. They're unwilling to join with Democrats to fix it. And so they want to pass a bill and make the governor veto it and lay the blame at his feet."
Or it could be the governor got cold feet, no one put their feet in the negotiating pool, or some other strange twist.
And speaking of twists, both Berger and Moore were spotted by reporters going to the governor's mansion after their strange press conference. So perhaps negotiations continue.