'Bathroom bill' author gets a Republican primary challenger in North Carolina

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Beth Monaghan, left, is challenging Dan Bishop, the Republican incumbent, in the North Carolina state Senate GOP primary. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: bethmonaghanfornc.com, votedanbishop.com, Brian Gomsak/AP, Jayron32 via WikiCommons)

A North Carolina businesswoman is mounting a Republican primary challenge to the state senator who authored and co-sponsored the 2016 “bathroom bill,” which eliminated some protections for gay and transgender people and was briefly a cause célèbre in the presidential election.

The contest, for a state Senate seat that represents the country-club rich southern suburbs of Charlotte, may touch off a debate within the Republican Party over the issues of gay rights and religious liberty. It will test whether GOP primary voters might support a challenge to an incumbent lawmaker that comes from the left rather than the right.

Beth Monaghan, 58, announced her campaign on Tuesday, and said in an interview with Yahoo News that she is running on “the values that my senator has forgotten about.”

Dan Bishop, the Republican incumbent, is “not focused on individual dignity, on freedom, economic development [and] the virtues of limited government,” Monaghan said.

Bishop did not respond to a request for comment.

Monaghan, whose candidacy is being helped by Washington political consultants who usually only work on statewide or congressional races, said that she is “not sure everybody knows my opponent wrote” the transgender bathroom bill.

The 2016 legislation was rushed into law during a special assembly a month after the Charlotte City Council passed an antidiscrimination measure protecting gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Demonstrators call for the repeal of HB2 in Raleigh, N.C., on April 25, 2016. Organizations that filed suit against the so-called bathroom bill say the law that replaced it leaves transgender people unprotected from discrimination. (Photo: Jill Knight/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

Bishop, an attorney who was then a freshman member of the state House, led the charge to pass a statewide measure that overruled and superseded the Charlotte ordinance. While Bishop’s campaign website focuses mostly on economic growth, lower taxes and higher pay for teachers, he also states near the bottom of his issues section that “religious free exercise, which is the first listed right in the Bill of Rights, appears especially targeted by cultural warriors.”

“Too many flee from defending this and other fundamental rights. I will not shirk this responsibility, but will pursue balance and protection for all, without aiming to provoke or foment needless controversy,” Bishop’s website says.

House Bill 2 required all North Carolinians to use bathrooms in government buildings that corresponded to the gender on their birth certificates, and also eliminated antidiscrimination protections for LGBT people.

The law provoked a backlash in the business community. PayPal dropped plans for a 400-employee facility in Charlotte. The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans. In all, the Associated Press estimated that North Carolina’s losses would amount to almost $4 billion over 12 years.

While a candidate for president, Donald Trump said during the Republican primary that Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender former Olympian and reality TV star, could use any bathroom she wanted at Trump Tower. Since becoming president, however, Trump has rescinded guidance to public schools instructing them to allow students to use the bathroom of their choice.

Republican Gov. Pat McCory lost his reelection bid in the fall of 2016 to Democrat Roy Cooper, in part due to the negative fallout from the bill. And the state Legislature passed a partial repeal of HB2 in March 2017, eliminating the bathroom restrictions but leaving other parts of the bill in place.

But Monaghan said that’s not enough.

“I wish it had never happened. Our brand wouldn’t be damaged. We wouldn’t have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Maybe we could pay our teachers more. Our infrastructure would be stronger. But the damage has been done,” she said. “But I really would like to see the whole thing repealed.”

Protesters in May 2016 gather across the street from the North Carolina state legislative building in Raleigh to voice their concerns over House Bill 2. (Photo: Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Monaghan’s adult son is gay, a fact she mentioned in an op-ed she wrote in the Charlotte Observer last fall.

She said she thinks Republican primary voters want their party officials to represent “values that I learned in the business community, which is you focus, come up with a series of priorities, you come from a place of shared values and you eliminate distractions.”

“Shared values seem to be missing, and this senator needs to be held accountable,” Monaghan said.

More than 100,000 people voted in the 2016 election that Bishop won over his Democratic opponent by 13 percent. The 39th District is heavily Republican, and Monaghan will have to win a significant number of conservative voters. But North Carolina law allows unaffiliated voters to vote in the primary of their choice, meaning Monaghan could also draw support from Democratic voters who choose to change their registration status to vote in the primary.

Monaghan is being advised by national political consultants based in Washington, D.C., who chose to get involved in this race because of its symbolic status.

“Although we work with candidates across the ideological spectrum, we especially work with candidates who focus on pragmatism and who can have a broad appeal to voters across the spectrum. Beth embodies that,” said James Slepian, a founding partner at Ascent Media.

Monaghan has lived most of her life in Charlotte, and in 2013 she sold her accounting business, which she had started from scratch in 1996.

Bishop, she said, “is so uncompromising on a social agenda no matter what the cost.”

HB2, Monaghan said, was driven by a fear among religious conservatives that “if [they] give on a right or a privilege to a group that doesn’t impact [them], something’s going to be taken from [them].”

“The conversation [around gay rights and religious liberty concerns] needs to be brought back to being collaborative and engaging and coming from a place of respect,” she said.

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