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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

‘Insufficient’ on LGBT issues, Pat Cotham led push for LGBT proclamation

Screenshot of Pat Cotham with rainbow flag in front of her
Mecklenburg County
Pat Cotham with a rainbow flag in front of her at the Mecklenburg County Commission meeting.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

Before the March primary, the LGBTQ+ Meck Dems gave Democratic Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham one of its lowest ratings: “Insufficient.”

Cotham has long been an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community, wearing rainbow tutus at the August Pride parade and supporting the passage of a county nondiscrimination ordinance.

But her reelection bid came less than a year after her daughter Rep. Tricia Cotham defected to the Republican Party. Tricia Cotham gave Republicans a supermajority in the General Assembly, allowing the GOP to ban most abortions after 12 weeks and pass restrictions on medical procedures for minors who want to transition to a different gender.

The LGBT+ Dems did not cite Tricia Cotham in their endorsement. Instead, they said that Pat Cotham “has been resistant to new changes and initiatives that our committee found to be important, especially when it comes to affordable housing.” It also criticized her for not supporting the $2.5 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bond referendum. (Commissioner Arthur Griffin also voted against the bond, but still received an “excellent” rating.)

Pat Cotham, who had once been seen as unbeatable, lost in a near-landslide in the Democratic primary. Needing a top-three finish to hold onto her at-large seat, she finished a distant fourth. She will leave the Mecklenburg Commission in December, when the new commission is sworn in after the general election.

After getting the “insufficient” rating, Cotham said she would still fight for the LGBT community.

And last week she got her opportunity, in a performative way at least.

June is Pride Month nationwide. Mecklenburg Commissioners have in the past issued a proclamation in support of Pride Month, but most of June had passed by with no vote.

LGBT activist Cameron Pruette said he wasn’t sure why a proclamation hadn’t been considered before last week. He speculated it may have been because the commission had changed its meeting dates.

For whatever reason, the proclamation was late.

Cotham heard about this. Late in the week before the meeting, she started a push to consider a Pride Month proclamation at Tuesday’s meeting.

The ensuing debate laid bare the county’s rivalries and factions on the all-Democratic board.

Commission chair George Dunlap — who does not have a good relationship with Cotham — said he supports Pride Month. But he said the proclamation couldn’t be placed on the agenda because the deadline for adding items had passed and the clerk’s office was short-staffed. Rules are rules, he said.

Cotham then came to the meeting with rainbow sunglasses and a small rainbow flag that she placed in front of her on the dais.

Cotham has always been effective about harnessing attention, and some of her colleagues privately disdained her showmanship. But they agreed with her in wanting the proclamation on the agenda.

Dunlap was correct, procedurally. The deadline had passed. But commissioners can still place an item on the agenda during a meeting if everyone agrees. So there was a way to consider the resolution without violating county policy.

Seven members voted to do that. Dunlap and Elaine Powell voted no.

That meant the proclamation never reached the agenda to get a vote, though some retroactive version could be considered next month.

Laurie Grauer with the LGBTQ Meck Dems said she doesn’t regret the decision to label Pat Cotham as “insufficient” earlier this year.

“We can’t go back in time and change that, nor would we,” she said, noting the endorsement was based on many things. “But I am thrilled she put forth that resolution. We salute everyone who signed on.”

After the meeting, the Mecklenburg Commissioners who voted to place it on the agenda signed the paper copy of the proclamation — a bit of symbolism layered upon an already symbolic proclamation.

And the controversy didn’t stop there.

That prompted an upset email from Dunlap, who wrote: “Wow! Such a blatant disregard for following rules. Just last year the board reaffirmed that the Chairman is the only person who signs proclamations.”

In a reply, Commissioner Mark Jerrell then acknowledged he was wrong … for signing the piece of paper.

He wrote: “After a meeting where emotions ran high, my intent was to provide a ‘symbolic’ show of support and not to undermine Board policy.

“With that said, I want to acknowledge that the action taken, no matter the intent, was indeed a violation of our policy and other means of support could have been utilized. While the action cannot be changed, it can be used as a learning opportunity. You were correct to point this out.”

Cotham was first elected in 2012 and has five months left to serve. The proclamation push may be her last big turn in the spotlight.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.