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Mecklenburg Commissioners Leake, Cotham Battle Over Prayer

Mark Hames
Charlotte Observer
Pat Cotham, left, lost her spot as chairwoman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners in 2013 to fellow Democrat Trevor Fuller, center. Vilma Leake cast the swing vote to elect Fuller.

They started as allies, even friends. Then they had a high profile falling out. Now Mecklenburg County commissioners Pat Cotham and Vilma Leake are at odds again, this time over prayer.

In separate interviews with the Observer, the two Democrats used harsh words to describe each other’s behavior.

“Hateful,” Cotham said about Leake.

“A notorious liar,” Leake said about Cotham.

The focus of this latest flare-up is the prayer said by commissioners to open their public meetings.

Mecklenburg County policy says each official meeting “shall open with prayer,” and that “the prayer shall be rotated among the commissioners.”

But Cotham, a Catholic whose favorite forms of prayer are the Rosary and the “Hail Mary,” told the board’s clerk she didn’t want to be included in the rotation.

“I enjoy listening to my colleagues (pray). But I can’t make up a prayer. That’s not who I am,” said Cotham, a parishioner at St. Matthew Catholic Church. “I could say a Rosary, but I don’t think that would be well received.”

County Attorney Marvin Bethune and board Chairman Trevor Fuller, also a Democrat, said commissioners are not required to give a prayer.

Leake, a member of Little Rock AME Zion Church, said she understands that there’s no requirement. Still, she said, “it was understood … that that’s what we do. We all share in the responsibility of saying a prayer before the meetings.”

During the commissioners’ two public meetings in April, when it was Leake’s turn to give the invocation, she went public with her view that a fellow commissioner – she never mentioned Cotham by name – was shirking a duty when it came to the prayer.

“In my denomination, we pray publicly, as do all that I know of in Christendom,” Leake said at the beginning of the April 7 meeting. “I was going to yield to another member tonight, but I decided not to do that. I’ll let the Lord take care of that.”

Leake was more pointed at the opening of the commissioners’ April 21 meeting: “Each commissioner has the responsibility to present the (invocation) to this body. Eight of us do this. There are those who decide not to do this. But it speaks differences to all of us when people cannot share their beliefs.”

Back and forth

Cotham said she considers those public remarks an effort by Leake to bully and publicly embarrass her. “Some people might think I’m a heathen,” she said. “It’s quite the opposite. I’ve been going to church my whole life. And I have a great prayer life.”

Leake emphasized that her intent was “never – I mean never – to embarrass Pat. I just wanted to know why because she professes to be such a great Christian.” Not mentioning Cotham’s name, she added, “shows that I wasn’t trying to embarrass her.”

Leake’s decision to not identify Cotham in her public comments was cited by board chair Fuller as the reason he hasn’t stepped into the prayer squabble.

“If she had identified Pat, that would be wrong,” said Fuller, who was elected board chair after a majority of the commissioners, including Leake, voted to replace Cotham from that top post in December 2013. “That would be a personal attack and I don’t think that’s justified. … But she’s never violated decorum, in my view.”

But another commissioner, Republican Bill James, said in an email to the Observer that, while he favors board members praying if they wish to, Leake’s “using Pat’s faith as a weapon to publicly embarrass her … is beyond inappropriate.”

After Cotham sought out James’ advice as the senior commissioner on how to respond to Leake, he told her in an April 22 email that he had been prepared the night before to intercede if Leake had tried to force Cotham to pray.

Then James, in his email to Cotham, put a biblical spin on the tiff, telling Cotham, “As Vilma was giving her speech, I kept thinking about Jesus’ statement to the Pharisee in the Temple in Luke 18. The Pharisee (Vilma) was proud and haughty and prays in public about how great she was. Jesus condemned the proud and boastful and gave the nod to the other guy.”

She said, she said

Other behind-the-scenes intrigue has transpired in the latest feud, including a confrontation about Pope Francis.

But the bad blood between the two commissioners appears to date back to that 2013 ouster of Cotham as chair, with Leake as the deciding vote.

In the year before that, when Cotham was chair, she and Leake were close allies on the commission. They voted together on several key issues, including firing longtime County Manager Harry Jones – a move that soured many Democrats on Cotham, who had led the campaign to ax him.

Cotham said she and Leake had even developed a friendship. “I would talk to Vilma three or four times a day,” she said, “and I’d come over to her house. Then, for really no reason, she stopped returning my calls.”

After Leake joined other Democratic commissioners in installing Fuller as chair, she and Cotham rarely spoke. At one meeting, though, Leake asked Cotham why she was “talking so long” on an issue and then pushed her chair.

And in May 2014, there was a report that Leake had jabbed Cotham in the head at a get-out-the-vote rally. Cotham confirmed the incident, but Leake denied it, saying she was trying to high-five Cotham but may have “touched her on her shoulder. … I did not hit her.”

There’s also a she said, she said quality to the different versions Leake and Cotham tell of their confrontation about the pope during a commissioners’ dinner meeting.

Leake said another commissioner had pointed out to her that Cotham had never said the invocation. So Leake said she asked Cotham about it.

Leake said Cotham explained that she was a Catholic and that Catholics don’t pray in public.

“I told her that the pope prays in public,” Leake said. “If she had said, ‘I don’t want to participate, I don’t want to pray in public,’ then OK. That’s her right. … But Pat said Catholics don’t pray in public. She’s a notorious liar.”

Cotham’s version? She said Leake told the board that one commissioner didn’t pray and that she thought the public should know about it, and so she planned to bring it up at the public meeting.

At that, Cotham said she told the board that Leake was referring to her and that, as a Catholic, “I don’t pray like you do. Catholics say rote prayers.”

Cotham reported that Leake then said she knew Catholics who publicly pray and that the pope was one of them.

“He’s the pope, that’s a different category,” Cotham responded, then walked away.

Cotham’s view of Leake: “I don’t really understand what prompts somebody to be so hateful.”

As for Leake, she said she’s tried twice to talk to Cotham about the issue, but “she says ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to talk about that.’”

Reached last week, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said it wasn’t her place to comment on the latest spat.

The commissioners “run their meetings the way they want to,” Diorio said. “The way they interact is really between them.”

A broader issue

The prayer squabble between two Mecklenburg County commissioners comes amid recent controversy over public prayers before meetings of the Rowan County and Lincoln County commissioners.

A federal judge ruled this month that the Rowan commissioners’ practice of opening public meetings with their own Christian prayers violated the U.S. Constitution. U.S. District Judge James Beaty of the Middle District of North Carolina wrote in his decision that the prayers advanced the commissioners’ Christian faith at the exclusion of other religions and effectively coerced participation by members of the public attending the meetings.

Then, last week, the chairman of the Lincoln County board said in interviews that only Christian prayers would be said at its meetings, and he added that Muslim prayers were particularly unwelcome. On Monday, the commissioners passed a policy allowing any religious leader in the county to sign up to deliver the invocation before meetings, according to WBTV, the Observer’s news partner.

Marvin Bethune, the county attorney for Mecklenburg, made a distinction between what the Mecklenburg commissioners do with their public prayers and what is done in the other counties.

“Every prayer (in those other counties) could be identified as Christian,” he said. In Mecklenburg, “they’re trying to do it in a nonsectarian manner.”

Some Mecklenburg commissioners have mentioned Jesus in their prayers, but not all have. A few former Mecklenburg commissioners were Jewish or Muslim and said prayers from their traditions.

Mecklenburg board chair Trevor Fuller said having a prayer to open the commissioners’ meeting offers them a reflective moment before they go about doing the public’s business.