Published DateBy Erik Eisele
CONWAY — For most voters, this election is about jobs and the economy, but one local contest may hinge on something very different: ladies' bathrooms.
Carroll County's District 7 floterial seat is new this year, created by the redistricting plan tied to the 2010 census. The two candidates running for the seat, Republican Norman Tregenza and Democrat Ed Butler, represent the far ends ends of the political spectrum. Tregenza's libertarian views echo Texas Congressman Ron Paul's, while Butler is an outspoken proponent of gay and transgender rights.
Butler's sponsorship and support of House Bill 415, formally titled "adding certain terms regarding non-discrimination to the laws" but more commonly known as "the Bathroom Bill," has become a focal point of the race.
The 2009 bill would have added the words "gender identity and expression" to New Hampshire's anti-discrimination law in more than 35 places. In 10 of the places the words "sexual orientation" would also have been added. "Sexual orientation" was already included in the rest of the anti-discrimination law.
The bill ultimately died in the Senate after opponents pounced on the bill, citing concerns the bill would open women's bathrooms and locker rooms to men.
Tregenza, in his first advertisement in the newspaper, raised exactly these concerns with a paragraph pointing out that Butler was the prime sponsor of "The Bathroom Bill."
"All women's bathrooms and locker rooms would be open to predators or to men," the ad said, implying rapists and pedophiles would have been able to use the language to avoid prosecution.
The issue hit a nerve among voters, with a handful writing letters expressing outrage about legislation that would give predators such protections.
It is not clear, however, that Tregenza's assertion is accurate. Sixteen states, the District of Columbia and more than 140 counties and cities have adopted similar protections, according to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, including all five other New England states.
Officials in charge of implementing the law in two neighboring states, Maine and Vermont, said they knew of no instance where a sexual predator used anti-discrimination laws to avoid jail, either in their state or elsewhere.
"This is in my view a smokescreen," said Robert Appel, the director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, the state agency tasked with overseeing the state's anti-discrimination statute. "I know of no reports either in Vermont or in other states," he said. Such assertions do not stand up to scrutiny. "It's not based on reality," he said. "It's based on fear."
Appel's counterpart in Maine, Amy Sneirson, said in her experience the concern about predators exploiting the law has never come up. "We have not heard any claim like that," she said.
They are not alone. Tregenza, who ran the ad, said he is not aware of any instance where a predator was able to use the law to avoid prosecution.
"Yet," he said. "They haven't had the wrong person test the law yet."
These laws are not new, however. Discrimination based on gender identity has been outlawed in Maine for seven years. It has been outlawed in Vermont for five years. Other states, like Rhode Island and Minnesota, have outlawed gender identity discrimination for more than a decade. Cities like New York (more than 700 registered sex offenders), Denver (almost 1,400 registered sex offenders) and Chicago (more than 1,000 registered sex offenders) all have similar laws.
Still, Tregenza rejects the notion that raising the specter of predators in ladies' bathrooms is fear mongering. "I think New Hampshire men and women are all better off without the bill," he said. "Transgender people can go to the bathroom now."