County officials spur local protests and national scrutiny over contraception vote

By Samuel Wilson | Staff Writer

In the realm of local politics, we often think in terms of more nuanced and less polarizing issues than those we hear discussed on nationally syndicated talk shows and throughout the halls of Capitol Hill.  Lately, not so much. Last Monday, the all-male New Hanover County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to turn down a state grant of almost $9,000 that would have gone toward providing contraceptives to women via the county’s public health department.  And the public response was swift.

Social networking channels began lighting up that day as coverage of the controversial vote received thorough play in local media outlets. A petition began circulating in response, reaching 1,000 signatures in less than two days. Within hours of the vote, “A Protest for Responsibility” Facebook event had attracted massive attention. It referenced a quote from County Commission Chairman Ted Davis, wherein he explained his vote by professing that “if these young women are being responsible and didn’t have the sex to begin with, we wouldn’t have this problem to begin with.”

The commissioners’ decision, along with Davis’ now-infamous “responsible” line, received national attention. Rachel Maddow’s blog on MSNBC’s website carried the story, along with several mainstream blogs including The Huffington Post and Daily KOS, shining a red spotlight on a locale that historically tends toward a more liberal voting base than the Bible belt’s norm.

The protest was organized quickly and took place the following Thursday at downtown Wilmington’s Riverfront Park. Behind the impromptu podium on the edge of the Cape Fear River, the setting sun glinted off the slow-moving water, providing an odd contrast to the succession of passionate speeches delivered to an energetic crowd numbering over 300. A local noise ordinance prevented the use of megaphones without a permit thirty days in advance, so attendees were forced to crowd in while speakers shouted to be heard throughout the park.

Amy Schlag, a Wilmington resident and volunteer for state representative Susi Hamilton, decried the broader conservative establishment in the county, referring to them as “Thom Goolsby and his ilk,” and adding a promise that “Ted’s head will roll” in the upcoming elections.

And make no mistake; election season is in full swing. Speakers included Hamilton, as well as county commissioner hopeful Ron Zapple, a Democrat who received resounding applause after charging that the commissioners “took a populist vote” that was “wrong for New Hanover County and wrong for women.”

Deborah Butler, a Democrat challenging Goolsby the incumbent Republican state Senator, said that the economics behind the decision was straightforward and expressed dismay that “vilification of women on a national level has trickled down to the local level.”

Emilie Swearingen, a Democrat running against Davis for NC House District 19, addressed the crowd as well, expressing disbelief and invoking a reference to the women’s rights movements of the 60s and 70s. It was a popular theme, with New Hanover resident Karen Skoglund telling the crowd, “I thought this was put to rest 40 years ago.”

Democrat Tom Gale was also among the speakers, referring to his opponent in the race for state House District 20, current commissioner Rick Catlin, by saying he had “screwed up a commonsense decision.”

To their credit, two of the commissioners behind the recent furor were brave enough to appear. Jonathan Barfield, the lone Democrat in the county’s main governing body, was received relatively well, having made an ideological one-eighty less than a day after his vote. The next day he had appeared on a local radio talk show and explained that his wife had been the catalyst for his sudden change of heart.  “All I can say is, thank God for wisdom,” Barfield remarked at the end of the protest.

Also conspicuously present was Republican Jason Thompson, one of the two county commissioners running for reelection this year. After the protest, he managed a shout-out to his background in the armed services, calling the public (and direct) tongue-lashing he received from a couple speakers not as bad as his time in Iraq. He insisted afterwards that his vote was against the specific form of contraception specified in the health board’s recommendation, intrauterine devices (IUDs), and indicated that he would be more comfortable spending the money on birth control pills and education.

That statement may well be put to the test when the commissioners revisit the issue April 2. Two days after the initial vote, Davis officially requested that the item be put back on the agenda. There will also be a limited public comment period at the hearing and presumably a more comprehensive discussion of possible uses for the grant money.

Given the stakes, Jonathan Barfield might not be the only one with second thoughts on his vote. If nothing else, there will undoubtedly be many more eyes watching the second time around.