When the people of East Baton Rouge Parish elect a new mayor-president and Metro Council this fall, they will have a lot on their minds to ask the candidates, including the issues of road and sewer repairs, police and fire protection, parks and recreation.
One item that recent events have made inevitable on this list is anti-gay discrimination and its potential to disrupt the economic growth and growing tolerance of different ways of life in this community and region.
It’s not good business for Baton Rouge to remain an area that does not provide even basic anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian and transgender residents.
Do we want to continue to grow in Baton Rouge? The answer will be dependent on the site selection decisions of a slew of major companies, from Apple computers to Wells Fargo in banking.
A lesson for Baton Rouge should be the debate in North Carolina, where the controversial House Bill 2 upended a city ordinance on nondiscrimination in Charlotte, the state’s largest city. As lagniappe for the retrograde, HB2 included a number of other provisions intended to roll back what its more outspoken supporters call the homosexual agenda.
Business doesn’t like HB2, and the major corporations in America made that loud and clear.
The “discriminatory legislation” was collectively denounced by a who’s who of business leaders in the state and the nation. “The business community, by and large, has consistently communicated to lawmakers at every level that such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business,” the group’s letter to North Carolina’s governor said. “This is not a direction in which states move when they are seeking to provide successful, thriving hubs for business and economic development.”
The lessons of this fracas — it will be an issue in the fall elections in North Carolina — go beyond the state.
The rationale for fairness in employment is pretty obvious, as is the fact that there remains anti-gay discrimination in many areas of this region.
But the underlying business rationale for openness is well-stated in the CEOs’ letter in North Carolina. “We believe that HB2 will make it far more challenging for businesses across the state to recruit and retain the nation’s best and brightest workers and attract the most talented students from across the country.
“It will also diminish the state’s draw as a destination for tourism, new businesses and economic activity.”
A worldwide competition for talent makes it increasingly difficult for a mid-size Southern city to vie for economic development projects if it does not demonstrate a commitment to fairness.
The CEOs in the North Carolina debate made it clear they believe discrimination is wrong. Many of Baton Rouge’s major employers also have made that view clear in their internal policies.
Additionally, Mayor-President Kip Holden has backed fairness in city-parish employment, as did his Republican predecessor, Bobby Simpson.
But it’s still a hard sell in some quarters, as the 2014 failure of a fairness ordinance before the Metro Council demonstrated. As Baton Rouge now trails not only New Orleans but Shreveport in its city laws on this issue, candidates for mayor-president and the council this fall should face questions about their commitment to a dynamic workforce that welcomes the talented to Baton Rouge.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.