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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

North Carolina Republicans now have supermajority in state legislature

Tricia Cotham, who won her district with 59% of the vote against Tony Long last November, said the threats from the Democrats have been big, small and plenty, leading her to exit the party.

A Mecklenburg County Democrat elected in November to serve District 112 has switched parties. The move gives the North Carolina GOP a three-fifths supermajority in both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly and the ability to override Governor Roy Cooper’s veto power.

Tricia Cotham, a former Democratic representative of Mecklenburg County, announced Wednesday morning, surrounded by Republicans, her party-switch is due to threats and bullying behaviors she has endured in recent months. With House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger standing in support, Cotham said the Democratic Party has become “unrecognizable” today.

READ MORE: Political parties spent more than $2.7 million on the NC-7 Senate race

“The party wants to villainize anyone who has free thought, free judgment, has solutions, who wants to get to work to better our state — not just sit in a meeting and have a workshop after a workshop, but really work with individuals to get things done,” she explained at a Raleigh press conference hosted by the GOP. “Because that’s what real public servants do. If you don’t do exactly what the Democrats want you to do, they will try to bully you.”

Cotham, who won her Mint Hill district with 59% of the vote against Tony Long last fall, said the threats have been big, small and plenty — from being ridiculed over posting an American flag and praying-hand emojis on Twitter, to being mocked for her faith, clothing and hair.

“I’m not going to be fashion-policed by Democratic women,” she said.

Cotham also explained it has spilled over into face-to-face encounters. She recalled being berated in a Target with her son in tow, who has faced personal attacks by interest and lobbying groups that contacted the 12-year-old via social media.

“And it’s not just been one time,” Cotham said.

Democratic House Minority Speaker Robert Reives did not respond to Port City Daily’s request about Cotham’s bullying accusations. Democrats that held a press conference after Cotham’s announcement directed all queries on the subject to the speaker. 

Cotham’s mother, a Democrat that serves on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners and a former member of the Democratic National Committee, told Axios Charlotte she was worried over her daughter’s safety: “I’m sad that it’s come to this.”

Aside from threats, now-Republican Cotham claimed there was no room for bipartisan work in the Democrat Party, something she considered a hallmark of legislating. Rather, she perceived the party’s end goal to be centered on control.

Upon announcing her campaign last year, she gave the example of Democrats asking why she didn’t seek permission to run for office.

“I didn’t think I needed to do that,” she said. “And, quite frankly, I was offended.” 

When returning to the legislative floor in January, Cotham found a working order that changed from when she was last there seven years ago. She said she learned “very quickly” there was no questioning party beliefs and to vote in support with everything from the governor, whose term is up in 2024.

“From signing on to bills, to he wanted to pick your seat on the House floor, to your committee request — all of this sense of control,” she said. “I will not be controlled by anyone.”

She also said Democrats tried to label her a “freshman,” a common phrase used in reference to first-term representatives, and assigned her a mentor. Cotham first joined the House 15 years ago, despite having a seven-year break.

“I’m usually the one who mentors freshmen,” she said.

North Carolina Congressman Thom Tillis served with Cotham when they were both freshmen in the House. He wrote in a statement Wednesday, backing Cotham’s newly minted Republican status:

“I’ve always admired her independent streak and determination to deliver results for the people she represents even when it meant going against the head of her own party. Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly apparent that there is no room for independent thinkers in today’s Democratic Party in either Raleigh or our nation’s capital.” 

North Carolina Democratic Party and Mecklenburg County Democrats called for Cotham’s resignation Tuesday as Axios Raleigh broke the news of her impending party switch. A joint statement released by the North Carolina organizations decried:

“Rep. Cotham’s decision is a betrayal to the people of HD-112 with repercussions not only for the people of her district, but for the entire state of North Carolina. If she can no longer represent the values her constituents trusted her to champion, she should resign immediately.” 

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee out of Washington called the move a bait and switch that cost voters and organizations time, money and trust.

Representative Deb Butler, a Democrat for New Hanover County, echoed the sentiment in an email to Port City Daily.

“Every vote I have ever received is an honor. I know that sounds contrived, but it’s how I feel,” she wrote. “So, I am at a loss to understand how someone asks for votes based on certain principles and then betrays those principles four months later — after being elected,” she said.

In alliance with the state GOP, Nevin Carr, the new chairman of the New Hanover County Republican Party, showed support for Cotham’s move. He called the Democrat Party “radical.”

“The Republican Party has been home to those wishing to stand for American principles ever since it began as an effort to stop the Democrats from expanding slavery,” Carr wrote to PCD. “The vast majority of North Carolinians have no desire to live under the rule of left-wing extremists, and now that vast majority is reflected in our State’s House. We look forward to Republicans taking action to regain and protect the liberties that have been under Democrat assault in recent years.”

What it means for issues concerning NC

Cotham first began her political career at 28 years old when she joined the legislature in 2008 after the resignation of North Carolina House Speaker James B. Black from Matthews, North Carolina. She served the House through 2016 when she decided to run for Congress for the 12th district but lost. 

In 2022, she re-emerged and campaigned on a platform for equitable public schools, affordable housing, doubling the minimum wage, a woman’s right to an abortion and equality for all.

In recent weeks, Cotham received pushback after she and two other Democratic colleagues, Cecil Brockman (Guilford) and Michael Wray (Halifax, Northampton, Warren), requested excused absences during a session that allowed Republicans to bring forth, again, Senate Bill 41. Gov. Cooper vetoed the Guarantee 2nd Amend Freedom and Protections, which drops the requirement for gun owners to secure a permit through the local sheriff’s office.

Upon learning of the absences, House Speaker Moore brought S.B. 41 back to the floor to override Cooper’s veto — the first time an override has succeeded since 2018.

ALSO: Pistol permits no longer required per General Assembly override

According to Cotham, she had an appointment to be treated for long Covid-19, which she clarified during Wednesday’s press conference she contracted three times during the pandemic.

After learning of the Democrats’ absences, House Minority Leader Robert Reives made a statement noting the representatives will face repercussions with voters. “The true defenders of public safety are the House and Senate Democrats who made sure they were on the floor to vote to keep our neighborhoods safe,” he wrote.

Cotham said Wednesday his remarks were a “low blow.”

“It really showed … where we are in this institution,” she said, noting when she reported to the assembly in January words like “nastiness” and “toxicity” were commonplace terms she heard in reference to the party.

“It’s never been like this here,” Cotham added. “I’ve never known a minority leader or majority leader … to directly call out a member of his or her own caucus.”

She added Reives — from Sanford and who has been re-elected four times to represent Chatham County — hadn’t conversed with her throughout the legislative session so far: “I’ve tried, I’ve reached out, I’ve offered to help. So I guess he gets his wish.”

Moore acknowledged Cotham’s switch gives an outright supermajority to the GOP, “which makes it easier by the way” when it comes to enacting legislation. He said lawmakers will be looking at redistricting voter maps in coming weeks for the House, Senate and Congress.

The General Assembly approved of redrawn maps in 2021 after the 2020 Census. The state Supreme Court determined last year they were in violation of the Constitution. It paused candidate filings for 2022 and delayed the primaries, resulting in court-ordered congressional maps to be used.

Now, with a 5-2 Republican majority, the Supreme Court decided to rehear the case. If it passes, it will result in 11 Republican-leaning districts and three Democratic ones.

Moore admitted he suspects the supermajority will help with the passing of the budget if need be. Yet, he said it has bipartisan support — a key sticking point at the GOP press conference Wednesday. Cotham staunchly stood by the fact she always worked across party lines and said she will continue to do so.

“I am the same person,” she said. “I have not changed. The Democrats have.”

“What happened to when we hear these ideas of ‘we’re inclusive, we’re tolerant, we’re so welcoming to everybody?'” she questioned. “No, you’re not. You’re welcoming, until you don’t go with every thing.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party, the LGBTQ+ Democrats of Mecklenburg County and the Democratic Women of North Carolina held a press conference Wednesday responding to Cotham’s red move. They questioned her motives and how her values shake out now, calling her defection “deceit of the highest order.” 

“Reproductive freedoms are on the line. Our public schools are on the line. LGBTQ rights are all on the line. Voting rights are on the line. Our future as a state is on the line,” Anderson Clayton, the 25-year-old chair of the state Democratic Party, said. “This is not about political vendettas. This is about the constituents that trusted representative Cotham to champion their values, who are now left with little reassurance that she will do that.”

Anderson Clayton, the 25-year-old chair of the state Democratic Party, at a Wednesday press conference.

A former teacher and assistant principal, Cotham’s been outspoken about education needs. Her Democratic platform included support for public schools. 

Wednesday, Cotham revealed that Democrats placed a “shadow chair” on her — someone to observe her actions — after Speaker Moore made her Education Committee Chair.

“I was shunned, they called me a traitor,” she said. “I believe that the state is changing, especially after what they saw and experienced firsthand in their home with Covid and learning. One-size-fits-all education is wrong for children.

Catherine Truitt, state superintendent of public instruction, stood alongside Republicans Wednesday. In a statement released thereafter, she praised Cotham’s advocacy for teachers, students and parents.

“I look forward to continuing to work with her on Republican-led initiatives the General Assembly is spearheading, like early literacy priorities to ensure that all public school students and reading to learn by third grade,” Truitt noted.

Clayton was clear that the almost 60% of Democratic voters that showed up for Cotham expect follow-through on blue values and said the constituents “did not elect a Republican.”

“She campaigned on equitable funding for schools in every neighborhood,” Clayton said. “She’s joined a party now that wants to divert funding from public schools altogether and promote private and charter schools.”

The chair of the state party denied Cotham’s claims that the Democrats weren’t welcoming to ideas that differed within the party or attempted to work in a bipartisan effort. She pointed to the party’s efforts for 10 years in working with a Republican majority.

“We have sat there and asked and pleaded with the Republican Party to advance issues that are important to North Carolinians,” Anderson said. “Don’t tell me our party has not done that. Because we have — this is about honesty and accountability to the people who elected her and to serve in their best interests. I’m from a place where honestly means something, where folks are going to take you at your word because that’s what your word is good for. Your word is good for a hill of beans, though, if you’re not going to stick to it.”

She called for Cotham to resign if she cannot follow through with what the voters expect of her.

LGBTQ+ lobbying and advocacy group Equality NC, which backed Cotham last election season, also urged her resignation Tuesday:

“She has betrayed those values, voting against equality, by supporting legislation that targets the rights of marginalized communities. Her ‘yes’ votes on anti-protest bill H.B. 40 and ICE collaboration bill H.B. 10 have made it clear where she stands.”

READ MORE: Riot bill stiffens punishment on protestors, has enough votes to override governor veto

Cotham wrote on her campaign website for last year’s election: “Right now, LGBTQ+ youth are under attack by Republican state legislatures across the country. I will stand strong against discriminatory legislation and work to pass more protections at the state level.”

Cameron Pruette of the LGBTQ+ Democrats of Mecklenburg County suspected something awry when Cotham didn’t show up to the Human Rights Campaign dinner a few weeks ago. 

“Is this a premeditated move? How long has she known? Her voters deserve to know,” Pruette said. 

When asked earlier in the day when she began thinking about joining the GOP, Cotham told media she couldn’t pinpoint an exact time.

One of the people who stood alongside her at the press conference was Congressman Dan Bishop, who in 2016 authored H.B. 2. It required students to use locker rooms and restrooms with the sex that aligned with their birth certificates. It was considered an assault on transgender rights by advocacy groups, and its repercussions resulted in the state losing millions of dollars from businesses and industries that took money elsewhere.

Cotham called the legislation “radical and hateful” on her campaign website.

“I’ve been friends with Tricia Cotham, even though we’ve been political opponents for many years,” Bishop said at the GOP podium. “We have been in disagreement over political issues from time to time, but we’ve we’ve always remained friends.”

On behalf of the Democrats, Pruette said the alliance was unacceptable.

“When representative Cotham used our votes, our dollars, our door-knocking, and then today stands next to Congressman Dan Bishop, who is no friend of the LGBTQ community, the author of H.B. 2, that cost us lives and jobs and talent — we cannot stand for this.”

Abortion rights also were a topic of grave concern to the Democrats. Cotham spoke out eight years ago on the House floor about the 72-hour-waiting period then being proposed. She shared a personal anecdote saying the bill “would have likely cost me my life” when she found out her child wasn’t viable.  

After Roe v. Wade was overturned last spring, Cotham tweeted the state’s need for leaders who offer “unwavering and unapologetic in their support of abortion rights.” She co-sponsored a bill in January to codify reproductive rights.

When asked whether her stances have changed since, Cotham said Wednesday: “If you go back into my history, you will know I was never someone that said this was the biggest issue facing women in North Carolina. I believe women are much more — business owners, we raise families — so to always be tied, just to that tragic, hard topic is wrong.”

House Bill 439, sponsored by New Hanover’s Rep. Butler, was put forth last month and proposes legalizing abortion until viability, as Roe v. Wade outlined. The term varies per person, but is typically around 22 or 24 weeks or pregnancy. It also asks to drop the 72-hour-waiting period and make more allowances on who can conduct the procedures, such as midwives.

A few days later three Republicans filed House Bill 533, The Human Life Protection Act of 2023, which essentially bans abortion at conception unless it puts the mother’s life in danger. It criminalizes the act as well, making it a Class B1 felony for any action that results in death of an unborn child.

“Our state is now one of the few places that they can come to seek a safe legal abortion,” said Elizabeth Goodwin, chair of the Democratic Women of North Carolina, at the press conference. “The other day when Cotham was conspicuously absent during the pistol permit veto override, she also missed three of her now colleagues filing a bill that would completely ban abortion within the state of North Carolina, with no exception for rape or incest.”

Port City Daily reached out to area representatives about where they stand on both abortion bills.

Frank Iler (R-Brunswick County) was clear he thought the two pieces of legislation were “extreme.” 

Butler noted the Human Life Protection Act does not make the state better suited to protect women’s rights of privacy, as “upended by the Supreme Court” last year during the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Nor does it set a good precedent for civil rights, voting rights and LGBTQ+ rights, she added.

“The highest court in the land has turned their back on anyone who isn’t white, male or privileged,” Butler added. “The legal doctrine of stare decisis is on perilous footing and so I would say that if you fall in any of the aforementioned categories, or if you are a white male who believes in equality, it’s time to get very serious with your vote and your advocacy.”

Cotham skirted the abortion issue Wednesday. She would not answer where her allegiance now lies or how many weeks she would support a woman to receive a procedure. North Carolina currently allows abortions up to 20 weeks.

“I’m not going to be pigeonholed,” she said. “I’m going to research the bill, I will talk to others, I will have these internal dialogues.”

Butler called Cotham’s now-Republican badge one of betrayal to her voters.

“Make no mistake,” Butler said, “she will have to answer for that one way or another. It’s about character. And some have more than others.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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