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NC Dems furious as Tricia Cotham bails on Democratic Party

Rep. Tricia Cotham (right) explains her party switch at a Wednesday press conference in Raleigh.
Steve Harrison
Rep. Tricia Cotham (right) explains her party switch at a Wednesday press conference in Raleigh.

There was a bombshell in North Carolina politics yesterday. State House member Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County is switching parties and will now caucus with Republicans, giving the GOP a supermajority in the House to go with the existing supermajority in the Senate. WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison spoke to Morning Edition's Marshall Terry about this political earthquake.

Marshall Terry: Steve, before we get to more on what this means, tell us just a little bit about Rep. Cotham. What's her background?

N.C. General Assembly
Tricia Cotham.

Steve Harrison: Yeah, Marshall, you could argue that the name Cotham is one of the most recognized names in Mecklenburg politics. Her mom, Pat Cotham, is a longtime Democratic member of the Mecklenburg Commission and a Democratic National Committee member. Tricia Cotham is a former assistant principal at East Mecklenburg High and was first appointed to the legislature to fill the seat once held by Democrat Jim Black, the former House speaker who pleaded guilty to corruption charges. She served for 10 years, then ran unsuccessfully for Congress, and then was elected again in November. She won a seat that includes Mint Hill and a lot of east Charlotte.

Terry: Cotham came back to Raleigh. But pretty quickly she raised eyebrows among fellow Democrats. What happened?

Harrison: Yeah, Early on, House Speaker Tim Moore named her co-chair of the K-12 Education Committee, one of only three Democrats to get a top committee position in the House. So from the get-go, a lot of her colleagues were on edge and they wondered, will she stick with the Democratic caucus — because Moore was only one vote short of the three-fifths needed to override Democratic Governor Roy Cooper's veto.

Terry: So, Steve, let's talk about the votes and how in some cases she had voted with the GOP, right?

Harrison: Yeah, exactly. One of the first came in December when she was the only Democrat to vote for a constitutional amendment that would make members of the state Board of Election elected rather than appointed. And there were others, a bill requiring sheriffs to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And she rarely attended meetings with the Mecklenburg delegation. So her colleagues, when this news came yesterday, her colleagues were surprised — but not surprised.

Terry: And back to the votes for a second. The big one came last week when the House overrode the governor's veto of a bill that repealed the state's pistol permit law. Right?

Harrison: Yeah, exactly. That was the big one. Cotham said she was opposed to repealing the pistol permit law, but she missed the vote. She said she was at a doctor's appointment for long COVID. And, her absence on its own didn't make the difference. But combined with having two other Democrats not there, Moore had the three-fifths of members present. And immediately after that, that missed vote, the progressive group Carolina Forward blasted Cotham and the other two, and said it would, "be supporting a host of accountability measures against those candidates and others who chose political expediency over their constituents."

Terry: And I assume after yesterday's news that Carolina Forward did not hold back.

Harrison: It did not. Yes. The group wrote that she deliberately misrepresented herself to voters of Mecklenburg County and lied about her intentions for serving in the people's House. They said, "It was dishonorable and dishonest. There are no principles at play here, just pure interest." The group EqualityNC said she should resign. So did the Mecklenburg Democrats chair, the Democratic state chair, and pretty much most Democrats. The League of Conservation Voters, which was a plaintiff in a gerrymandering lawsuit, called her Turncoat Tricia. The chair of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, Jane Whitley, called the switch deceit of the highest order. So I think it's fair to say there is absolute fury on the Democratic side. And keep in mind, it's only been five months since she was elected to that seat as a Democrat. One more Democratic House leader Robert Reives said her constituents in District 112 deserve to know what values were most important to their elected representative. Because of that, the appropriate action is for her to resign. So her constituents are fairly represented in the North Carolina House.

Terry: And now, Steve, I assume attention turns to the issue of abortion. Republicans have struggled in their own caucus to come together in terms of how to further restrict abortion. How does Cotham's switch fit into all of that?

Harrison: Yeah, a really, really big question. At the start of the session, Cotham voted with Democrats to codify Roe. And in the past, in her previous, you know, time in Raleigh, she spoke on the House floor about having an abortion because of a life-threatening complication. North Carolina currently bans abortion after 20 weeks. Could she support, say, a 15-week ban? What about 12? No one knows. But those are going to be the discussions.

Terry: And one final question. What does this do to her reelection chances? Because winning as a Republican in Mecklenburg County is not an easy thing.

Harrison: Exactly. President Biden won her east Charlotte/Mint Hill held seat by 21 percentage points. So that seat is probably unwinnable for her in 2024. But here's the big but — Republicans can redraw the House map and perhaps draw a Matthews-Mint Hill seat that leans red, or maybe Cotham just runs for statewide office.

Terry: And Steve, you will be in Raleigh for a news conference with Cotham that is scheduled for 9:00 this morning, right?

Harrison: That's right. We will have more on that later today.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.