- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s attorney general says he sees no need for the state legislature to overturn a provision in Charlotte’s new nondiscrimination ordinance designed to ensure transgender people can use the restroom of their gender identity.

Attorney General Roy Cooper said Tuesday there are more important issues lawmakers should address with lost jobs, public school teachers leaving the state and tax changes now taking effect.

Cooper is a Democratic gubernatorial candidate this year who wants to replace Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte. McCrory has said legislators next should block the provision when they meet in late April and pre-empt other local governments from enforcing similar rules.

The governor cites safety issues and the right to privacy when using restrooms. Other Republicans have agreed with him.

“And this is the issue that the governor to talk about and bring before the General Assembly? I don’t think so,” Cooper told reporters. “I think we need to be working on priorities that help North Carolina families and help public education. That’s what we should be concentrating on, not this.”

Cooper didn’t address whether he personally supported the provision or the broader ordinance, which has support from gay rights advocates and passed in a 7-4 Charlotte City Council vote last week. In November he refused to join other states in a fight against efforts to force a Virginia school district to let a transgender student use the men’s bathroom.

Cooper campaign spokesman Jamal Little said later that passing such an ordinance “is a local issue which should be decided by local governments, businesses and communities.”

The ordinance, which takes effect April 1, adds sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status as attributes protected from discrimination when it comes to public accommodations including restaurants, retail stores and other businesses. Critics of the restroom provision say sexual predators could manipulate the ordinance to assault women and children in bathrooms or locker rooms.

Cooper said the ordinance doesn’t change the ability of prosecutors and investigators to go after criminal offenders: “Investigators throughout North Carolina still have the authority to prosecute under criminal law, and that will not change.”

McCrory and Cooper are considered the front-runners in their respective gubernatorial primaries March 15. McCrory Campaign Manager Russell Peck said Cooper is “supporting a radical special-interest plan to open bathrooms and locker rooms to the opposite sex.”

As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Cooper “has a sworn obligation to promote public safety and represent the people above special interests,” Peck said in a release. Ken Spaulding, a Democrat also running for his party’s nomination for governor, said while he opposes discrimination he sees practical problems with the rest room provision.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, agrees with McCrory and is polling colleagues about whether the legislature should reconvene earlier to pass legislation addressing the Charlotte ordinance. On social media, GOP Senate leader Phil Berger has pointed to a news report about a man who cited Seattle’s transgender bathroom rule in using a women’s locker room to change.

“By refusing to do his job, Cooper is forcing young girls to share bathrooms and locker rooms with grown men,” Berger wrote in a Facebook post later Tuesday.

Berger and three other GOP senators wrote Cooper arguing Charlotte’s ordinance “legalizes conduct that would put North Carolinians elsewhere in jail,” such as indecent exposure and trespassing, according to the Feb. 24 letter obtained by The Associated Press.

On Feb. 26, a senior attorney in Cooper’s office wrote to all district attorneys, saying that enforcement of a city ordinance “must give way” whenever it conflicts with state law and the state Constitution. The letter referenced an inquiry from some General Assembly members.

Bathrooms have become the latest battlegrounds in the national debate over anti-discrimination laws. While most of the largest U.S. cities now enforce state laws or local ordinances to accommodate transgender people, conservatives are fighting back to overturn them. Houston voters rejected a proposed city ordinance last November.

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