Spring is a beautiful time to visit the Governor’s Western Residence on Town Mountain. Governors and their spouses have traditionally opened the residence to the public twice a year — once in the spring when the rhododendrons are in full bloom, and once during the winter holidays. Last December’s gathering saw record attendance, according to a tour guide at this weekend’s open house. Last spring, though, a sporadic light rain resulted in sparse visitation and a relaxed feel, with few security personnel on hand. Anyone who wanted to tour the house could drive right up, park out front and stroll inside.
This spring’s gathering had a decidedly different tone. On Saturday, protesters lined Town Mountain Road and congregated in a yard across from the entrance to the residence, displaying signs criticizing the governor’s relationship with Duke Energy and supporting a range of causes including black rights, immigrant rights, transgender rights, workers rights and the rights of local governments.
At least 10 police vehicles from the Asheville Police Department and the state Highway Patrol separated protestors from the residence. Officers redirected visitors to the parking lot of the First Baptist Church, where they were required to pass through a metal detector before boarding a shuttle to ride back up the mountain to the house. One shuttle driver reported that the shuttling operation was a recent change in plans, based, at least partly, on the expected protest activities at this spring’s event. Outside the house at least four APD officers and at least five state law enforcement officers stood guard, while inside the house and throughout the grounds at least five plainclothes security personnel with visible holstered weapons circulated among the visitors. For someone who visited the house both last year and this spring, the increase in security this time was apparent.
Despite the security precautions, the charm of the Western Residence was on display, with rooms featuring a wide variety of art made by local craftspeople. And Gov. Pat McCrory was on hand to engage visitors with a smile and a warm handshake. Most of those who conversed with him could be overheard speaking in support of his initiatives, and many praised him for his efforts to protect the people of North Carolina and to improve the economy. Refreshments were served on the back patio, where a view of Asheville in the valley below and Mount Pisgah in the distance framed a bucolic scene.
McCrory is proud of the fire pit that was added to the sloping lawn behind the residence during his time in office. It’s his favorite place to find peace, he says, when he is staying in the western part of the state. While seated there, he invited this reporter to sit and have a few words with him. We were almost immediately interrupted by Amy Hamilton, who said she was “with the media too, the Asheville Blade.” She spoke harshly to the governor, saying “These brownies won’t take the bitter taste of discrimination out of our mouths.” She went on to tell him that she hoped he would enjoy being voted out this fall. Before she was led away by the governor’s security personnel, the two had a brief exchange, in which McCrory made it clear he did not appreciate her interruption. He then turned to recommence our conversation.
Mountain Xpress: The western part of the state is culturally very different from the Piedmont and the eastern part of the state. What does that mean to you?
Gov. Pat McCrory: Resilience and independence that’s unique to our country, that’s what I notice here. There’s an independence, in fact almost a libertarian type of independence, of “Leave me alone, and let us enjoy life,” on both the right and the left. I might add, they all kind of merge together, especially in the Asheville area. Plus, there’s an outdoor spirit here, of enjoying the outdoors as much as possible, which I like. Especially the minute the weather gets good, you just see everyone come out of the woodwork.
I was here last year and it was a much different affair.
There were probably two or three security folks here at that time.
We actually had more than that last time.
Okay, there might have been, but it’s much more visible this time.
Well, the concern is: Protesters on both sides of the issue had stated they were going to come here. And actually up until [that incident moments ago], we’ve had none of that. People have been extremely respectful in conversation. I’ve actually had extremely good dialogue with people, on many different issues, while I’ve been up here, while overlooking the scenery of the west, while looking at Mount Pisgah. I think that was the first thing that ever occurred, where someone came and [spoke harshly].
I think the reason a lot the protestors are here is…
We actually haven’t had protestors.
Well they’re outside, at the road. There are a bunch of folks there with signs and everything. One reason they’re there is that the LGBT community, and especially the trans part of the community, feels disrespected. I know from your perspective the spirit of the law is about security and safety…
No, it’s actually more about respect for privacy. Expectation for privacy is the main issue I’m speaking of. And today, I’ve had some wonderful conversations, very respectful conversations and dialogue, with people who both agree with President Obama and … disagree with HB 2, and those on the opposite [side]. And in fact, it’s been more interesting watching the two converse with each other. And what I’m finding, too, is there is no monolithic one thought from either group. It’s a very complex issue. In fact [I was] talking to a group of people who are transgender and having my pictures taken with them and great dialog. In fact I’m going to have follow-up dialog with several of these people.
So that’s a great example of personal respect between you and them…
Absolutely. And, by the way, I want to say that’s true about the people who also agree [with HB 2]. Because there are people here of different opinions, and I’m not seeing people being disrespectful. There’s just this one instance where I’ve seen an individual just express frustration.
But do you think there’s a policy path for making that group feel respected?
Well, in the short term, because of the quick action of the Charlotte City Council, and even the Legislature, and now the president — in the short term, sadly it’s going to probably be resolved in the courts. In the long term, I think we have to have a clear dialog and understanding of the complexities of a new issue that’s come [to the] front in literally months. I mean this issue has never come up in my lifetime, in politics, up until literally three months ago. And I think that’s true with most people in America who weren’t talking about this issue three or four months ago. And all of the sudden, the media is focusing on it every single day in fact. The media wasn’t talking about this issue a year ago, you know?
Do you find that to be of value or a distraction?
Both. I think there’s been maybe too much weight put on this issue, in comparison to health care or addiction or to mental health or public transportation or education. But, it’s an issue you can’t avoid, and I think what’s happened is that this was an issue that no one was talking about and just letting kind of happen. And in fact some would say: Many people are looking for a solution in which the problem has yet to be defined. I said that yesterday on NPR radio, that I thought Charlotte was trying to find a solution to a problem that had not been defined. During my 14 years there as mayor, this issue had never come up. But it was brought up by more of a national group bringing this to North Carolina than North Carolina bringing this to the nation.
Except now, North Carolina has kind of brought this conversation to the nation.
No, actually it was a national group that brought it to North Carolina. In fact, the [Human Rights Campaign] told me they were going to make North Carolina the epicenter of the transgender movement for the United States of America, so it was strategically brought to North Carolina by a very powerful, national organization, which they’ve got the best political machine I’ve ever seen, and [the best] media machine I’ve ever seen, called the HRC.
So does that kind of bring it back to a centralization versus decentralization argument?
Yeah, I don’t think we’ve resolved that issue. I actually think, from a civil rights standpoint, the federal government’s responsible for the overall civil rights. And I’ve said before, I think the 1964 Civil Rights bill needs to be updated and discussed to include many issues that are being addressed at the local state levels in a hodgepodge of ways. I think it’s not good for the country, for every city and every state to have different discrimination laws. It’s caused confusion, inconsistency in application, and I think that’s harmful to the nation. And my dilemma with the federal government right now is that the president’s making all the decisions and his job is not to make law, but to enforce law. And I think all three branches of government have to be a part of this discussion, not just the executive branch. The executive branch, by the way, has suddenly brought this issue up. I don’t remember the president ever bringing this issue up during his campaign. [laughs]
It wasn’t really in the spotlight then, was it?
No. No, in fact, when [Obama] ran for re-election he was against gay marriage, and now we’re being lectured by his attorney general on an issue — that was definitely not at the forefront — a short time later, which is unique for me. Even today, I’ve had discussions where I get continued information and education on a very complex issue — about gender identity, gender expression and other terms that, frankly, I’m not sure we’re allowed to use anymore.
Xpress is actually looking at doing a story on terminology and definitions.
Because right now this debate’s about gender identity and I’d say probably 90 percent of the nation has no idea what we’re talking about.
It’s definitely a teaching moment, isn’t it?
And the media is using these terms and coming to conclusions when they have yet to define [them]. So the media hasn’t actually been responsible in this debate either. I think, frankly, the media has already come to a conclusion; but, boy, the nation hasn’t come to a conclusion because I go from one group of people to another and there’s just an extremely huge divide on this issue and I’m talking about within the towns, including even here this afternoon I’ve had people come up to me and go “Thank you, you hang in there, don’t budge,” and I’ve had other people come and go, “I’ll make sure you never get elected again.”
The issue has been incredibly divisive.
And it’s extremely quick how this came up through the coordinated campaign. And it was a well coordinated campaign.
Thank you very much for your time.
Immediately after McCrory finished this interview, he was engaged in an earnest and tense discussion by Hamilton’s partner, Matthew Ensley, for several minutes while security stood close by. Although a dozen or so people looked on from the patio, few could hear. Ensley left the conversation clearly emotionally distraught.
Ensley said he had come that day in hopes of being able to have a discussion with the governor, but that it wasn’t satisfying. “He smiled and said some really offensive stuff. It’s hard standing there telling him my concerns and having him smiling and saying ‘thanks for coming,'” Ensley explained. Ensley, who had been part of the protest outside the event earlier in the day, says one of his chief concerns is for trans children, but that McCrory had insisted, “Those aren’t little girls.” Ensley has volunteered with TranzMission, a local transgender/queer rights group, but he said it was a struggle to try to make his points to McCrory “as a cis, white man, when I can’t imagine how a trans-woman feels.”
Ensley then boarded a shuttle van with other visitors — some of whom supported the governor and some didn’t. But they all rode down the mountain, back to Asheville, together.
Editor’s note: David Forbes of the Asheville Blade has clarified that Amy Hamilton was not at the event on behalf of the Blade. While she has written an opinion piece for the Blade, she is not a journalist for them generally. —05/26/16