GREENSBORO, N.C. — “It’s scary and it’s something we haven’t faced as a community before,” Ian Palmquist told an audience of about 250 LGBT and straight ally North Carolinians on Saturday morning.
Palmquist, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina, spoke frankly with those attending his organization’s annual conference at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Usually, the event is a time for celebration — Equality NC has been largely successful on a host of pro-equality issues, policies and legislation. But, the mood is much more somber after this year’s election gave Republicans control of both houses of the state legislature.
As previously reported, Republican legislators might attempt to pass an anti-gay constitutional amendment on marriage, although it failed to appear in GOP legislators’ October list of their eight most pressing policy and legislative agenda items.
The amendment has the backing of a slew of conservative and religious groups across the state. While their overall influence has waned, the amendment itself has been a cause célèbre for several long-serving legislators. Democratic leadership has kept the amendment in committee for seven years in a row, and North Carolina remains, for now, the only Southeastern state without such a discriminatory constitutional provision.
If approved by the legislature, the constitutional ballot initiative could cost the state nearly $5 million. That, of course, doesn’t take into account whatever private money is spent by groups both opposed and in favor of the amendment. Palmquist said he doesn’t know exactly what a fully-operational campaign to defeat a ballot initiative might cost. Similar campaigns across the country have ranged from as little as $70,000 to as much as tens of millions. He’s already reached out to some national partners and funders.
Equality NC hopes they can appeal to fiscal conservatives within the GOP who might be uncomfortable spending $5 million in such a tight economic climate. The state faces a nearly $4 billion shortfall next year, and that reality could also impact recent increases in HIV/AIDS prevention and medication funding.
Despite what seems like bad news, Palmquist said the new political landscape actually provides new opportunities to reach across the aisle.
His group has spent years building relationships with GOP lawmakers and constituents. A former executive director of the group identifies as a Republican, and the current Equality NC Board chair, Dan Gurley, is a former executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. Some outreach has already begun with potential GOP House and Senate leaders, some of whom are stressing economic improvement over social policy.
Making inroads with Republicans is just one small part of Equality North Carolina’s new strategy. Palmquist says they’ll also push for unity among the legislature’s remaining Democrats and work to build strong, diverse coalitions across party lines and ideologies.
Palmquist also hopes existing relationships with Gov. Bev Perdue and Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton will put a stop to any anti-LGBT policy moves by legislators. “We fully expect and will be calling on Gov. Perdue to veto any anti-equality legislation,” he said.
Equality NC’s one day conference, which included several workshops and seminars, wraps up Saturday night with a dinner and award presentation. N.C. House Speaker Joe Hackney will receive the group’s Legislative Leadership Award. Five community leadership awards will be presented to several advocates advocates from across the state.