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What Tricia Cotham's switch says about N.C. politics
This unprecedented look inside the Democratic Party is deeply unsettling - and gives Republicans a historic opportunity
Perhaps the final straw for N.C. Rep. Tricia Cotham came in the aisles of Target.
The Mecklenburg Democrat and her son were wandering the toy aisles, checking out Nerf guns and remote control cars, when a woman came out of nowhere to accost them.
"She cussed me out, up and down, screaming at me," Cotham said last week.
Her infraction? Failure to fully obey the Democratic Party.
In an emotional press conference at the NCGOP headquarters, Cotham announced Wednesday that she is changing her party registration and joining the Republican caucus in the House.
In doing so, she pulled back the curtain on intraparty politics in an unprecedented way — giving us a glimpse of what the Democratic Party has become under Gov. Roy Cooper.
The news sent shockwaves through the North Carolina political landscape and even grabbed headlines nationally. For good reason, though not the one you might think.
While Cotham does represent the 72nd Republican in the state House, a supermajority of the chamber, she is not a sure vote on GOP priorities. Liberal handwringing over a General Assembly with free rein to pass conservative legislation is wildly overblown.
What Cotham's defection really does is reveal how deeply the toxicity of the "very online" and "woke" factions of national Democrats has infected the state party.
And it shows that the same strategy that entrenched Gov. Cooper in power is now threatening to relegate his party to obscurity.
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Who is Tricia Cotham?
If you don't follow Charlotte politics, you might not truly grasp how big of a deal this all is. The Cothams are a local institution, with a bulletproof reputation for public service, integrity and putting the good of the community over petty politics.
Cotham is a former public school teacher and assistant principal who has long made education her top policy priority. She was first appointed to the state House in 2007 by Gov. Mike Easley to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Jim Black — who was on his way to prison on corruption charges. At that time, Cotham was just 28 years old, the youngest legislator in that body.
She was elected for a full term in 2008 and ultimately served through 2016. That year, she entered a tight primary for U.S. Congress, falling to current U.S. Rep. Alma Adams.
She re-entered politics in the 2022 cycle, handily winning the Democratic primary for House District 112 over her closest rival Yolanda Holmes, a pastor and public school system employee. In November, she defeated Mint Hill town commissioner Tony Long, the Republican nominee, by nearly 18 points.
Cotham's mother, Pat Cotham, is a long-time member of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, where she has developed a reputation as an excellent public servant who is respected by just about everybody (Pat Cotham has no plans to leave the Democratic Party).
What exactly happened?
While the Target incident was the most public and dramatic, tension had been building between Cotham and the party establishment for months — all the way back to when Cotham first filed for office in March 2022.
In private conversations, Twitter posts and public statements, Democratic leadership had attempted to bully Cotham into swallowing Gov. Roy Cooper's priorities and whims wholesale and following the new party orthodoxy.
Cotham said she even was criticized by party leaders for including a praying hands emoji and American flag emoji in a social media post.
"It became clear to me that this was about control from day one," Cotham said Wednesday. "They picked the wrong chick for that."
Finally, she reached a breaking point — soon after missing the vote that led to the first veto override in five years.
Cooper's first veto of the 2023 long session was Senate Bill 41, which repealed North Carolina's archaic pistol purchase permit system. The veto was easily overridden in the Senate, where the GOP holds the requisite 30 seats.
But in the House, Cotham was one of three Democrats not present for the override vote. That meant Republicans could override the veto with just the 71 Republicans in the caucus at the time. Cotham told local media outlets that she would not have voted to override the veto but was receiving treatment for long COVID at the hospital.
The reaction from Democratic Party leaders was swift and intense. Using violent imagery, liberal organizations called on Cotham to resign and began raising money for a primary challenge to her in 2024.
"I was considered a traitor, a spy. I was told not to come to caucus. That is a terrible mentality, and that's just wrong," Cotham said Wednesday. "Even though they say they are the party of women, they will slice and dice you in a second."
The reaction to Cotham's defection only proves her point. Current and former state legislators who have found themselves on the outside of the Democratic bubble defended Cotham's move. Former Mecklenburg Sen. Joel Ford described a similar experience before he left office. Current Rep. Cecil Brockman, who also missed the override vote, did too.
"I think she just wanted to do what’s best for her district and when you’re constantly talked about and trashed — especially the way that we have been over the past few weeks — I think this is what happens,” Brockman, a Democrat from Guilford County, told The News & Observer.
Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party blasted the decision as a "betrayal" and "deceit," and demanded that she resign. During Holy Week, party leaders in Charlotte blasphemously compared Cotham to Judas Iscariot.
Rather than try to win her back, Democrats have declared war.
What this reveals about North Carolina Democrats
The past week really reveals two things about the state of the Democrats as an institution in North Carolina.
The party is fully captured by Gov. Roy Cooper, with no other competing source of leadership or tolerance for dissent. The “big tent” party is no more.
Under Cooper, the party has embraced the positions and scorched-earth tactics of far-left activists. In this world, political opponents aren’t just wrong, they’re evil — and nothing is out of bounds to stop them.
Both are damning indictments of the N.C. Democratic Party and threaten to undermine its future as a viable organization.
On Cooper’s power
We’ve long known that Gov. Roy Cooper tries to rule his party with an iron fist, but until this week the public has not known the extent of it. For a time, the approach made sense. In Cooper’s first two years of office, he was little more than an impotent figurehead, with no ability to dictate the political conversation.
That changed in 2018 when Cooper began a campaign to break the Republican supermajority in North Carolina’s legislature. The entire movement hinged on the power of his veto — and it was extremely effective. Democrats gained the seats they needed, and for five years Republicans were not able to overcome Cooper’s red stamp.
However, to maintain that power, Cooper had to put the screws on members in the Democratic caucus. This included pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a primary challenger for former Sen. Kirk deViere, who chose to vote his conscience and district rather than Cooper’s demands.
That type of power is difficult to maintain, and Cotham gave us a glimpse of just how much has been happening behind the scenes.
During the Wednesday press conference, Cotham reported that Cooper wanted to dictate everything from committee assignments to even where Democrats sit on the House floor. He pushes members to co-sponsor certain bills and demands that they vote in certain ways. Threats, coercion and ostracism are commonplace.
"If you don't do exactly what the Democrats want you to do, they will try to bully you. They will try to cast you aside," Cotham said Wednesday.
This is very different from how Republicans manage their party, at least here in North Carolina. "One of the things we pride ourselves on as Republicans is that we always tell our caucus members: 'Vote your conscience. Vote your district. And then vote with your caucus.' That's a hallmark we have," House Speaker Tim Moore said during the Wednesday press conference.
By all indications, he's right. On issues as wide-ranging as Medicaid expansion, sports gambling, and medical marijuana, Republicans have regularly voted out of step with party leadership. While Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger certainly wield power, choosing what issues come up for a vote and what gets buried in committee, they do not appear to bully members into submission. There were no calls for primary challenges or attacks in the press.
What Cotham’s experience reveals is that there is one way to act in the Democratic Party: Roy Cooper’s way. It’s a precarious position to be in, especially with Cooper term-limited and about to leave office in a year and a half.
Much has been made nationally about cancel culture and toxic politics, and you can certainly fault both sides. Failure to adequately support former President Donald Trump makes you an enemy, and failure to embrace far-left politics makes you a bigot and a threat to democracy.
But the dynamic is different here at the state level. While Republicans have taken a generally genial tone, the past week confirms that the N.C. Democratic Party has fully adopted radical tactics as an institution. The last few weeks in particular have been a public dumpster fire on the Democratic side — one that Cooper could put a stop to easily, but he deliberately chooses not to.
This is such a harmful way of conducting political discourse and it naturally drives away moderate and independent-minded people.
What comes next for Cotham
Though Cotham was welcomed by Republican leaders with open arms and wide smiles, she faces an uncertain political future in the GOP.
General Assembly members serve two-year terms, which means Cotham will be up for re-election in just over a year. Cotham's current district is rated D+12, according to the Civitas Partisan Index — virtually impossible for her to win as a Republican.
However, districts are likely to be redrawn later this year, presuming that rulings from the N.C. Supreme Court allow the General Assembly to revisit legislative districts. You would think that her new party would try to draw a district that’s friendlier to her.
Still, Republicans have been almost completely wiped out in urban areas like Wake and Mecklenburg County, and as WFAE reporter Steve Harrison notes in his latest newsletter, there’s no easy way to carve out a safe seat for her.
Cotham would have a better-than-average shot to hold onto a seat that becomes a D+4 or D+5, if that’s possible to draw. But there’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to continue to serve in her current post.
Some Charlotte Democrats have argued that Cotham tricked her voters by switching parties, but this argument doesn’t quite hold water. Cotham’s brand of politics is well-known in the area, and there’s no indication that she’ll vote differently than she always has or how she campaigned.
To be sure, there undoubtedly were some voters who cast a ballot for Cotham thinking she’d be a generic Democrat who would toe the party line at all times. But that’s not really how voting works. Party affiliation is a vital piece of information voters can use, but it’s not the only one. There were likely a greater number of voters who may regularly vote for a Republican but chose to opt for Cotham instead.
What comes next for Republicans
It will be fascinating to see how Cotham meshes with her new caucus. She is definitely not conservative: While she embraces school choice and agriculture, she also has laid out liberal positions on LGBT issues and abortion.
In reality, the veto override dynamics have probably not changed all that much. Cotham will likely now be a more reliable vote on fiscal bills like the state budget and tax relief, but she’s far from a sure bet on conservative legislation on social issues.
Cotham will be a moderating force in the N.C. Republican Party, which has drifted in that direction already over the last half-decade. Don’t expect a more conservative abortion bill to emerge as a result of Cotham’s switch.
But do expect Cotham to take more of a leadership role in education in the Republican caucus. She immediately becomes one of the party’s top education experts with perhaps the most credibility on the subject.
What comes next for the Democratic Party
Rather than take Cotham’s defection as a wake-up call, this past week will likely entrench the state’s Democrats even further. While I don’t want to read into this too much, there’s a chance that it could become an inflection point historically.
For a century, Democrats dominated the state of North Carolina. But within that party, there were multiple factions that competed for power.
The liberal wing (a spectrum that runs from Kerr Scott to Terry Sanford and Frank Porter Graham), the conservative wing (from Clyde Hoey to Willis Smith and Beverly Lake), and the moderate wing (Dan Moore, William Umstead, Luther Hodges) fought for votes among and primacy in Democratic primaries. Republicans were largely a fringe political movement that carried a small number of seats in isolated pockets of the state. Moderates joined the Democratic Party to have a voice in governance.
Republicans now have the opportunity to become that big tent party that dominates the political landscape. Being comfortable with disagreement within the party is an excellent way to expand the definition of Republicanism — and expand power.
If Democrats continue to push out moderate voices and insist on total allegiance, they could soon be the ones relegated to a shrinking number of seats in urban pockets of the state.
Things can change, for sure. But we might now be looking at a Republican Party that can govern our state for generations.
2 things of note
Budget bill, sports betting head to the Senate
What’s happening: While largely drowned out by the Cotham news, General Assembly business did proceed last week. The House gave overwhelming approval to its version of the biennial budget, sending it over to the Senate. The House also voted in favor of the sports gambling bill, by a much more narrow margin.
Why it matters: Both are major pieces of legislation that seem poised to have an easy time being enacted into law. We reported on major pieces of the budget bill last week, but the upshot is this: A fiscally responsible budget with significant raises for teachers and state employees — plus some conservative extras that will give parents more power in education.
What comes next: The General Assembly seems poised to have a budget together quicker than normal. This could give the legislature more opportunity to spend time on other priorities, like determining districts for the 2024 elections.
Gov. Cooper joins video call with Ukrainian president
What happened: Gov. Roy Cooper delayed the Council of State meeting this week in order to take part in a video conference with other governors and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, WRAL reports. “It’s important for Americans to pull tougher to support Ukraine in all the ways that we can,” Cooper said, per WRAL. “I mean, they are standing up for democracy and sending a message to these dictatorships all over the world that democratic countries aren’t going to stand for it.”
Why this matters: This is further evidence of Cooper’s shifting priorities and growing national profile.
What comes next: Don’t be surprised if Cooper’s name is widely shared as a potential VP pick should President Joe Biden drop out of the race, or for a Cabinet post if he stays in.
1 good idea from another state
Iowa to slim down state government
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that will cut down on the size of state government, including streamlining executive agencies, eliminating vacant positions and giving the executive branch greater power to adjust salaries based on market conditions. North Carolina is way overdue for an overhaul of state government, as well.
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