A Season in Raleigh with Chris Sgro
Chris Sgro doesn’t have many kind words for much of the legislation that’s come out of the Republican-controlled General Assembly lately.
Disastrous, unacceptable, dangerous are among the terms he’s used to describe House Bill 2, the law dictating, among other things, that transgender people use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. He’s gotten into a war of words with Gov. Pat McCrory about who’s to blame for the boycotts spurred by the legislation.
But the Greensboro Democratic lawmaker also sees “the beginning of a conversation.” When he looks around him from his seat near the back of the House chamber, he sees plenty of potential allies, even among those with an “R” next to their name.
“I’m willing to take vocal principled stands,” he said. “But, I’ve also not come to throw grenades. I’m also willing to talk to anybody who wants to have a civil conversation. Most people inside the legislature really do look to be collegial with each other. So there’s an opportunity to try to forge relationships across the aisle.”
Sgro, 34, and the only openly gay member of the legislature, was appointed in April to finish out the term of state Rep. Ralph Johnson, who died from a stroke in March. But even before then, he was well-acquainted with the workings of government. As executive director of LGBT advocacy group Equality NC, he spent a good deal of time lobbying legislators, and was among the leaders in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage.
Prior to that he worked on the staff of U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan as director of economic development for her office.
“Sen. Hagan, she directed her staff to behave like we wanted to get something done on behalf of the constituents” Sgro said. “And part of that is meeting with county managers, county commissioners, county economic developers across the state who were Democrats and Republicans. You’ve got to be willing to talk to everyone.”
By 10 on a summer morning the Legislative Building in Raleigh is teeming with people. A carpeted staircase leads up to the viewing galleries for both chambers. But crowds in the morning are congregated mostly in the atriums below, around which lawmakers have their offices.
Sgro’s office in the southwest corner of the complex measures roughly 12 feet deep, and just barely wide enough for an adult to lay across. Sgro jokes that it’s about the best a newly arrived Democrat can hope for.
The office has a narrow floor-to-ceiling window on one end. On one wall is a state flag, on the other a North Carolina barbecue map. Some miniature flags, a wooden donkey and a North Carolina-shaped plate adorn his desk. Save for some newspapers and file folders, the space is free of clutter.
His only staff at the legislature is an assistant, Mildred Alston, whose office is next to his.
Sgro arrives on this day in a tan suit, blue shirt and plaid bow tie. All morning lobbyists and constituents are dropping by. When he steps out, people grab him, asking for a moment of his time. When he’s not conversing face to face, he’s checking his phone, answering texts and emails.
“He’s got a lot of energy, very hardworking,” fellow Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison said. “He’s only here for this session, he knows that he’s only got a limited amount of time. But because he knows the legislature so well, he was able to hit the ground running.”
Sgro, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, said his parents got him involved with the political process early on.
When he was 10, he worked a phone bank for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign (he was a delegate for Hillary Clinton at this year’s Democratic National Convention), and through his teen years, he knocked on doors for local candidates.
“My family has always been politically active,” he said. “And they helped me realize it’s not just about what happens in Washington D.C. It’s what happens in local town councils and state legislatures across the country that makes the most immediate impact on our communities.”
Sgro went on to American University in Washington D.C. to pursue a degree in political science, and worked in the nonprofit sector for a few years before taking a job on the finance team for Hagan’s Senate campaign.
“If you’re running for U.S. Senate in a state like North Carolina, you need to understand, as Sen. Hagan did, and I learned this from her, the impact of textiles on a city like Greensboro, or the impact of the farm bill on agriculture, which is the second largest industry in North Carolina,” he said. “Or the impact and deep footprint of the military and veterans in North Carolina. So I came to understand that with the most contentious issues in politics, you obviously need to have strong positions on them. But, you also need to understand the less sexy issues that impact communities across the state.”
Sgro said watching partisan gridlock take over the political landscape during Hagan’s term was “incredibly frustrating.” But he said Hagan’s staff nevertheless had good relations with the staff of North Carolina’s other senator, Republican Richard Burr.
“We’d all work together on many of the same projects,” he said. “Every year, for example, we’d put on with Sen. Burr’s office and one of the members on the House side, a defense trade show in Fayetteville. We realize there’s a huge defense footprint in the form of Fort Bragg, and that the needs of the second largest military installation in the world should be met by North Carolina-based businesses. And we hosted a show in order to make those connections in a very well coordinated fashion with Republican staff and Democratic staff alike.”
Hagan, who lost her Senate seat to Thom Tillis in 2014 and now works for a Washington law firm, said Sgro regularly traveled the state, and forged good relationships with a “wide variety of individuals and businesses.”
“He obviously understands the LGBT community and importance of everyone in our state being treated equally,” she said in a telephone interview. “But he also had a broad understanding of all the business dealings in the state. And he understands the political process and that you’ve got to work together. At some point in the future, I sincerely hope he will run for office.
He would be of great service.”
During his time in the legislature, Sgro said he was most proud of being able “to provide a visible LGBT presence.”
“Just being there day to day and having people understand the needs and concerns of gay and transgender North Carolinians is vital,” he said. “And that will continue to be vital for long after…The shooting (at a gay nightclub in Orlando in June) reminded us that gay and transgender people are the target of violence and discrimination in this country, and that our rhetoric and our policies have consequences.”
The legislature’s short session came to an end on July 1. During the preceding 68 days, HB2 was the elephant in the room.
Perhaps the most infamous piece of legislation to come out of Raleigh in recent years, the bill, in addition to its “bathroom provisions,” also prohibits municipalities from enacting measures forbidding discrimination against the LGBT community, and from raising the minimum wage.
It was pushed through the legislature in March in response to a measure passed by the Charlotte City Council stating that businesses must allow transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Sgro and other Democrats had pressed for HB2’s full repeal, but in the end the legislature rolled back only a provision that had prevented workers from filing discrimination suits in state courts.
He called that concession a “farce.” “It was billed as a fix to House Bill 2, but it did not even fully restore the right to sue in state court,” he said. “It reduced the statute of limitations from three years to one year. So they didn’t even attempt to fix the small portion of the bill they were addressing, and I couldn’t in good conscience vote for it.”
On July 21, the NBA announced it was pulling its All-Star Game from Charlotte due to HB2. The next day, Sgro tweeted that McCrory had told him “Congrats, you got what you wanted.”
The governor has blamed left-leaning groups for the boycotts. But in a press conference about the NBA’s decision, Sgro laid the blame squarely at McCrory’s feet.
“McCrory didn’t have to sign the worst anti-LGBT law in just a few hours without any due consideration,” he said. “He didn’t have to ignore the warning signs from city leaders, LGBT advocates and legal experts. He didn’t have to defy clear guidance from the Department of Justice that HB2 violates federal civil rights law.”
Sgro himself came out to his parents when he was a sophomore in high school. They had no problem with his sexual orientation, he said, though his mother did initially worry for his safety.
“It was the year Matthew Shepard was killed,” he said. “My parents were very supportive, which is not a privilege that every gay kid has. But it was a scary time.”
Sgro met his husband, filmmaker Ryan Butler, at a gay and lesbian documentary class 11 years ago. They got married in 2006 in Canada, where same sex marriage was legal at the time, and were registered as domestic partners in Washington, D.C. They married in North Carolina on October 10, 2014 just after a federal judge overturned the state’s same sex marriage ban.
“That was very important for us, for that to be formalized,” he said. “We can file our taxes together, buy things jointly without unfair taxes. Made life easier. I’m not sure anyone expected the progression of marriage equality across the country to happen so quickly. When I came out, support for marriage equality was about 20 percent. Now a majority of Americans support it. And I think that bodes well for something like the battle over HB2.”
Sgro has been at Equality NC since 2013.
The organization’s Raleigh office is only a few blocks from the Capitol, and during session Sgro would walk over during lunch time or after the day’s legislative business concluded.
The space is cramped and on a June day was filled with boxes of T-shirts. But it offered a rare respite for Sgro, who took off his jacket, kicked back in a swivel chair and put his feet atop a table, while asking some questions about website access. He still had his phone in hand, though.
Sgro was chosen to represent House District 58 by the executive committee of the Guilford County Democratic Party, which, as dictated by state statute, was tasked with selecting Ralph Johnson’s replacement following his death.
Amos Quick, who won the Democratic primary to represent the district and is running uncontested in the general election, will take over from Sgro at the beginning of next year.
Sgro is still thinking about what his next step will be, but says he’s not ruling out anything, including a run for office.
With the legislative session over, he is back at work full time at Equality NC.
HB2 still looms large, however. A federal lawsuit challenging the law is pending and boycotts continue. According to a report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, economic losses resulting from the bill could total $5 billion.
“I think we’re going to continue to see economic backlash that is going to force this not to go away,” he said. “But more North Carolinians have heard from a transgender friend or a neighbor than ever before. I think as people get to know their transgender friends and neighbors they understand that they’re hardworking residents, and allowing them to do a basic thing and use the restroom poses zero safety risk.” !