Democratic mayoral candidates Michael Barnes, left, Jennifer Roberts, center, and David Howard, right, during a mayoral forum on April 9, 2015 at UNC-Charlotte featuring three of the four Democratic candidates running for mayor. The forum, hosted by the UNCC College Democrats, was held at the Fretwell Building at UNC-Charlotte. The candidates answered student submitted questions, and there was a student moderator. Photo Credit: Diedra Laird/Charlotte Observer.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three Democratic candidates for mayor addressed their views on recently rejected LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances at the city’s first mayoral forum on Thursday evening.

The forum was sponsored by the University of North Carolina-Charlotte College Democrats. Held on campus Thursday, it is the first time candidates in the crowded primary field came together to discuss a variety of issues. The Charlotte Observer reports that the candidates generally agreed on most issues, ranging from economic incentives to transit.

But it was discussion of the city’s recently rejected public accommodations and other ordinances that drew some of the sharpest disagreement.

Barnes misleads on meetings, says Democrats may have gone ‘far left to the left’

Michael Barnes, currently the city’s mayor pro tempore, took the opportunity to express his disappointment in the process used to write and vet the ordinances’ proposal.

The process, he said, was undertaken “to the exclusion of the rest of us, essentially; also to the exclusion of the people who may have had concerns or questions about the policy.”

Barnes wasn’t present when the proposal was first presented to Council on Nov. 24, 2014, but he was present at a second meeting in February.

Barnes complained that a staff attorney from the Human Rights Campaign helped present the proposal.

“In February of this year, the attorney from the Human Rights Council [sic] came to the City Council and addressed the Council and took questions from the Council instead of the city attorney doing that,” Barnes told the campus audience. “I thought that the way we went about working that policy out was not right.”

Barnes and others opposed to the ordinances have consistently complained that they were excluded from conversations. But those complaints aren’t necessarily accurate.

Scott Bishop, chair of the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee, told qnotes that he met with Barnes more than two months before the November Council meeting. On Sept. 18, 2014, Bishop presented Barnes a packet of information on the ordinances and spoke with him about what local organizations were wanting to see accomplished. Additionally, the November briefing was public, as was the February briefing. As pointed out at the March 2 vote, any one of the Council members at any time could have requested the city attorney or city staff consult any information of their choosing.

Barnes has consistently taken anti-LGBT positions and has never been endorsed by MeckPAC. He’s generally regarded as a more conservative Democratic voice, something he also addressed at the forum.

“I don’t think [the ordinance vote] defines the Democratic Party in any particular way,” he said. “We are a large party. We are a very diverse party. There will be disagreements within our party. There are Democrats who are to the far left and Democrats in the middle and Democrats who are out to the right. What will be destructive for us as a party is to allow one issue to define and ultimately, I think, destroy the party from within.”

Barnes added that Democrats, though the majority party among voters, are losing too many elections.

“Is that related to the fact that our party has gone far to the left? Is it related to the fact that we’ve gone far left to the left? I’m not sure,” he said.

Roberts supports, Howard seeks compromise

Candidates Jennifer Roberts and David Howard also addressed the question Thursday evening. A fourth candidate, incumbent Mayor Dan Clodfelter, was not present.

Roberts said she fully supported the ordinance proposals.

“I want to be very clear on this issue — I am completely supportive of equality and inclusion,” Roberts said. “I have a deep-seated belief that every human should be treated with dignity and respect there should be equal protection for each person.”

Roberts added: “I am the one candidate willing to take a strong stand on equality and inclusion. We need to bring that issue back before the Council. We need to be a leader for the community.”

Howard, currently an at-large Council member, had tried to find compromise in the lead up to the March 2 vote. His proposal would have seen the addition of single-stall gender neutral restrooms in buildings. He said it was one of the toughest decisions of his career.

“Part of being an elected official is actually making some really tough choices,” he said. “In this situation, this was probably one of the toughest choices and more complex conversations I’ve been involved in.”

Like Barnes, Howard had voiced reservations about the use of restrooms by transgender people. But, Howard stressed, he embarked on an effort to educate himself and discuss the issues with others.

Saying both sides of the debate were threatening to pull their support of him, Howard said he “decided a long time ago I wouldn’t make tough decisions based on politics.”

He added: “For me, it was one of those things I need to figure out in my soul where I landed on it.”

His idea for compromise was an attempt to move inclusion forward, Howard said.

“I wanted to find a way that we could truly be a real inclusive community, making sure everybody feel safe, including transgender people, who I have a deep passion for,” Howard said. “I’ll be honest with you. Before this debate started, I didn’t have a lot of education about what it was. … It saddens me that transgender people feel like they don’t have a voice at the table. That bothers me, it does. As an elected official, my job is to find those grey areas, to find those compromises and try to figure it out without making compromises on what I believe at the same time.”

Howard said voters should appreciate a leader who is willing to examine the issues, come to a conclusion based on evidence and principle and stand by those convictions.

The mayoral primary will be held in September. Only one Republican, Scott Stone, has announced his candidacy for the office.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.