Mecklenburg Democrat's flip electrifies Republicans, enrages her colleagues, and upends NC politics
Mecklenburg State House member Tricia Cotham — a longtime Democrat — announced W e dnesd ay she is becoming a Republican, a move that upended North Carolina politics.
Her switch gives the GOP supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, allowing the party to more easily override vetoes of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. And it unleashed a firestorm of criticism from Democrats in Raleigh and Charlotte, who said she should resign.
Cotham was one of the most well-known Democratic politicians in Mecklenburg County, whose mother, Democrat Pat Cotham, is a longtime Mecklenburg commissioner.
But on Wednesday morning, Tricia Cotham stood at the North Carolina Republican Party headquarters in Raleigh — wearing a dress that was unmistakably red.
She hugged and laughed with the state’s most powerful Republicans — House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate President Phil Berger and Rep. Dan Bishop.
She started by talking about who she is, including her background as a small business owner. She added:
"A woman with strong faith. A national championship basketball coach. And a public servant. And today, I add 'Republican' to that list," she said.
But: Why would a longtime Democrat make such a bold switch?
Cotham cast her former Democratic colleagues as closed-minded bullies.
"One of the absolute worst moments, which was a deal - breaker, a turning point, was when I was criticized for using the American flag and praying hands emoji on all my social media platforms and even on the back of different vehicles I have. I couldn’t believe that was the conversation I was having , and I was deeply offended," said Cotham.
Cotham served in the House from 2007 to 2017. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress, worked in the private sector and then won a seat representing east Charlotte and Mint Hill in November.
But when she returned, she said Democratic leadership treated her as a freshman. She voted with the GOP on some issues, like requiring sheriffs to work with federal immigration authorities.
"I was considered a traitor, a spy, please don’t come to caucus, you’ll tell them everything we know. That is a terrible mentality , and that’s just wrong," said Cotham. She continued: "Women in the House caucus have said and started vicious rumors that are very hypocritical of other stances they make. Attacking me on Twitter, in person to my face, attacking my mother and saying something to my boys."
Frustrations with Cotham over her alliances with the GOP boiled over last month when she and two other Democrats missed an override vote on repealing the state’s pistol permit law. That helped the GOP override Cooper’s veto.
The progressive group Carolina Forward blasted her on Twitter, saying she should be held accountable.
"Perhaps they don’t like what they can’t control. It became very clear to me this was about control on day one at the legislature. They picked the wrong chick for that," Cotham said, to applause.
How will she vote now?
Moore, the House speaker, said he expects her to vote how she wants to. The biggest question is what her flip means for abortion rights.
Abortion is legal in North Carolina until 20 weeks. Republicans want to restrict it further.
Nearly a decade ago, Cotham spoke on the House floor about having an abortion for medical reasons. At Wednesday’s news conference, she downplayed the singular importance of the issue. She also wouldn’t say whether she would accept restrictions at, say, 12 weeks or even six weeks.
"I believe women are much more. We are business owners. We help create economies. We raise families. We carry it all. And to always be tied just to that tragic, hard topic is wrong," she said.
While Cotham’s news conference was part celebration — and part an airing of grievances — Democrats reacted with fury.
A few blocks away, at the state Democratic Party headquarters, party chair Anderson Clayton blasted the flip.
"Rep. Cotham’s decision to switch parties is a deceit of the highest order. It is a betrayal to the people of Mecklenburg County. Reproductive freedoms are on the line. Public schools are on the line. LGBT rights are on the line. Voting rights are on the line," she said.
She stood in front of roughly 30 supporters holding black signs that said RESIGN.
Cameron Pruitt of the Mecklenburg LGBT Democrats spoke next.
"It’s a disgrace 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 HB2," Pruitt said, referring to the state's infamous "bathroom bill" that barred transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice before its repeal.
There were protests in Charlotte as well.
Donna Marie Woodson, president of the Democratic Women of Mecklenburg County, said Cotham needs to meet with her group to explain herself.
"She owes that to the Democratic Women of Mecklenburg County who have supported her with their time and their treasure. We have supported her," she said.
Cotham’s House district is heavily Democratic. President Biden won it by more than 20 percentage points.
But if Cotham wants to stay in the House, there's another possibility: The Republicans could draw her a new district in Mint Hill and Matthews that gives her a better chance to win.
Copyright 2023 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.