For most members of the N.C. House, the morning session on Wednesday, March 8, was unremarkable.
Lawmakers spent 90 minutes introducing more than a dozen bills; they debated and voted on a few others. Then came time for notices and announcements, the routine coda to every session that lets members say whatever’s on their minds. This, too, was unremarkable. Except to Tricia Cotham.
Two lawmakers stood to speak in honor of International Women’s Day and, in particular, pioneering women who served in the General Assembly. A moment later, Republican Speaker Tim Moore offered a recognition of his own.
“Members, we have a woman who is serving in our House now who actually has made history as being the youngest woman ever elected, who also had young children,” he said. “And that was Rep. Cotham, in fact. So, another trailblazer. Good to have you with us as well.”
Members applauded, just as they had for the earlier tributes. But that’s not quite what Cotham heard. The Mecklenburg County legislator, who in 2007 became the state’s youngest lawmaker at 28, told her mother that while Republicans clapped, Democrats sat on their hands.
“She said, ‘That really hurt. This was women’s history. And they couldn’t even clap for me?’” Pat Cotham, a Mecklenburg County commissioner, told The Assembly. “That was like gut-wrenching to her … That seemed to be, from the way she described it, a pivotal moment. She took that personally.”
Less than a month later, Tricia Cotham made history again when she switched from the Democratic to Republican Party. By giving Republicans a 72nd House vote, she cemented GOP super-majorities that essentially negated Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto power, and in so doing made national news.
It was a very public divorce, full of acrimony, distrust, communication breakdowns, and differing priorities. The split was revealed on live television in front of a swarm of ecstatic Republican politicians crowded into a room at state GOP headquarters.
At the April 5 news conference, Cotham, 44, explained her decision in personal terms. She said she was bullied, slandered, and ostracized by fellow Democrats and was expected to fall in line with party orthodoxy.
“They have made it very clear from the day I filed back in March of last year that they did not want me,” she said. (Cotham served in the state House from 2007–2016, when she ran for Congress and lost in the Democratic primary. She ran for the state House again last year.)
Such characterizations, like Cotham’s account of the clapping, baffled former Democratic colleagues.
“To hear those comments in that press conference was shocking,” House Minority Leader Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat, told The Assembly. “None of that is what I saw … None of that is what [Democrats] seemed to feel. It is hurtful.”
Other Democrats say they never witnessed or heard of the behavior Cotham described. Nor did they see their party refusing to clap during the session in March. No video recording is available, though an audio recording clearly registers applause that several Democrats attest was bipartisan.
Cotham’s switch could put her on the other side of culture wars raging here and across the country. Bills dealing with abortion, election laws, and education are among those that could put her at odds with her previous positions.
Though she’s long championed LGBT rights, for example, the week she switched parties GOP lawmakers introduced a handful of bills regarding transgender youth. When she announced her switch, she shared a hug with Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, author of 2016’s notorious HB2, the “bathroom bill” requiring people to use the restroom of the sex they were assigned at birth, that Cotham strongly opposed.
Tricia Cotham has declined to talk to The Assembly over the last two weeks, though she did do interviews with Fox News, Newsmax, and at least one Charlotte TV reporter.
Moore’s recognition on International Women’s Day seemed to be part of his party’s ongoing courtship of Cotham.
“I mentioned to her a few months ago that we in the GOP would be happy to have her as a member of our caucus,” Moore said in a text. “I have known the family for some time. As for the discussions about changing parties I mentioned it to her probably back in February … but in the last couple of weeks I got the sense she was actually considering changing parties.”
A Surprise Candidacy
As a Democratic legislator, Cotham long prided herself on her ability to work with Republicans. And they welcomed an ally. In 2013, two years after the GOP took control of the legislature, she was named co-chair of an education committee and saw her seat moved from the back row to near the front.
“I, as a Democrat from Day One, worked really hard to build relationships across the aisle,” she told the Charlotte Observer at the time, “and many of my friends are now the people in charge. Relationships matter.”
A year later she had good things to say about Republican Speaker Thom Tillis, who was running for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.
In 2015, after Moore replaced Tillis as speaker, she lauded Moore’s efforts to work with Democrats when they controlled the House. “She’s always had friendly working relationships on both sides of the aisle,” said Charles Jeter, a former Mecklenburg Republican lawmaker who served with her.
Last year, Cotham surprised Democrats by filing to run for the state House again, hours before the deadline and after three Democrats already had joined the race.
Ann Newman sensed a change in Cotham. The Mecklenburg Democratic activist has long considered herself a friend. Newman and her son, who both live in Cotham’s heavily Democratic district, tried to reach out.
“We offered to help,” Newman said. “We never got a return phone call.”
Lisa Ellsworth, a party activist and former president of the Democratic Women of Mecklenburg County, said Cotham has rarely responded to others in recent years. “I’ve had absolutely no indication that she’s wanted to build any relationships with Democrats in Mecklenburg County for the last 10 years,” Ellsworth said.
Cotham’s candidacy surprised some people because of her ongoing and well documented bouts with Covid.
Pat Cotham said her daughter may have been one of the first people in Mecklenburg to contract the disease. Tricia had fallen ill with what she thought was the flu in January 2020, back when the outbreak was first detected in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even contacted her at the time in its early efforts to trace the disease.
Tricia Cotham described her drawn-out battle on social media. “The last thing I wanted to do in this pandemic was end up in the emergency room,” she said in a post reported last year by WSOC-TV. “[B]ut when doctors … tell you that the symptoms that I was suddenly now presenting are considered life-threatening and needed immediate care and you’re the mom to two small boys, you go.”
Cotham, who’s been vaccinated and boosted, also chronicled her ongoing struggles with long Covid. In late March, she said she was at a doctor’s appointment when the House voted to override Gov. Cooper’s veto of a bill that repealed the requirement for pistol purchasing permits. Cotham voted against the bill, but was absent for the override vote, which helped it pass.
Some colleagues said Cotham’s mood seemed different when she returned to the House this January.
“There is a distinct difference between the person I served with [previously] and the person I kept in contact with when she was gone,” Reives said. He said her energy level seemed much lower.
Cotham said she bristled when Reives appeared not to value her prior service and treated her as another freshman lawmaker.
Some Democrats see Cotham as a Trojan horse, someone Republicans recruited to run in the highly Democratic district. Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist and blogger, said such speculation “makes the left look as unhinged as the right.” In particular, he dismisses suggestions that Republican PAC money helped elect her.
“The PACs that funded Cotham’s campaign were business-oriented PACs who had relationships with her based [on] her past tenure in the legislature,” he wrote last week. “They [gave] based on personal relationships and an understanding that Cotham was more likely to support their agendas than a more progressive candidate. She was also more likely to win than her primary opponents.”
After last year’s election left House Republicans one vote short of a super-majority, she appeared to be high on the GOP’s list of potential allies.
On election night, GOP strategist Jim Blaine tweeted: “Good time to remind #ncpol that multiple senior #NCHouseGOP leaders have told me they believe there are 1-3 Democrats (among the winners tonight) considering a party switch ahead of next year’s long session.”
A February Assembly article named Cotham as one of three Democrats most likely to work with House Republicans. “We do have a number of Democrats who have indicated that they’re going to be willing to vote with us on numerous override opportunities that are out there,” Moore told reporters after the first day of session.
The ‘Wrong Chick’
At her news conference, Cotham said she sensed she was returning to a different House Democratic caucus. “If you don’t do exactly what Democrats want you to do they will try to bully you, they will try to cast you aside,” she said. “… It became very clear to me this was about control on Day One at the legislature. They picked the wrong chick for that.”
Cotham criticized Cooper by name, saying he wanted too much control. Last year, Cooper took the unusual step of intervening in a Democratic primary when he endorsed the opponent of Sen. Kirk deViere of Fayetteville, who had sometimes voted with Republicans. DeViere lost.
She also accused unnamed Democratic women of spreading “vicious rumors” about her. Later that day, Moore told reporters that there was no truth to rumors that he and Cotham were dating; each is single. Two sources–one close to Moore and one close to Cotham–told The Assembly that they do not believe the two are romantically involved.
As Cotham said Democrats had changed, they sensed a difference in her as well. She was a virtual no-show at meetings of the Democratic Caucus and even of the Mecklenburg delegation.
“She seemed really intent on distancing herself from other Democrats,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, who is also from Mecklenburg County. “I think we all felt a little wary of what her intentions are and what she might do.”
Aisha Dew, a party activist from Mecklenburg, said, “There are a lot of folks who reached out to her, and she didn’t reach out to them.”
Among them was Cooper. Representatives from his office reached out to her by phone or text more than a dozen times, a spokesperson said. Each time was unsuccessful.
Democrats saw other warning signs. Moore named Cotham co-chair of the K–12 education committee, one of only three Democrats named as a committee co-chair. And in the February Assembly article, she suggested she could support tighter restrictions on abortion.
“I’ve always been pro-choice,” she said. “But I hear from so many different sides … At some point there’s a consensus somewhere.”
In March, she was one of three Democrats to join Republicans in support of a bill requiring sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“She gave them many reasons not to trust her,” said Jonathan Coby, her former campaign adviser. “And then when they didn’t, she felt personally attacked and victimized for it.”
Republicans say Democrats didn’t pay enough attention to Cotham.
“If they’re too shortsighted, and quite frankly, too damn dumb to realize that that would happen—when we only needed one vote—I mean, what planet do you live on?” Republican Rep. Jason Saine told The News & Observer.
Though the conservative policy group Civitas Action gives Cotham a lifetime “F” for her votes, she’s widely considered a moderate. She’s pledged to stick with her principles, but some on the left are wary.
In 2013, Equality NC honored her with its Legislative Leadership Award, saying Cotham “distinguished herself as a champion for equality and LGBT issues.”
“Tricia has always been known as somebody who is incredibly affirming and friendly to the LGBTQ community,” Matt Comer, former communications director for Charlotte Pride, told The Assembly.
“I hope, regardless of her party switch, that those principles and values of hers will remain. The state GOP has not made any secret to the fact that they are targeting LBGTQ people and transgender young people in particular.”
There was a time when Cotham and her family had impeccable credentials in the Democratic Party.
In 2007, a small group of Democrats met in the East Mecklenburg High School library, and overwhelmingly elected Tricia to fill the seat vacated by former Speaker Jim Black, who was embroiled in a corruption scandal.
A year later, she married Jerry Meek, the outgoing chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Tricia’s father, John, is a former chair of the Mecklenburg Party. Her mother once chaired a Charlotte group called Uptown Democrats and in 2014 was elected to the county board of commissioners. She’s been the leading vote-getter in four of her five elections to the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, and once served as a state representative to the Democratic National Committee.
Those party ties have been strained in recent years.
John Cotham, who has had a long legal association with Moore, has donated to his campaigns for nearly a decade. In 2021, when John Cotham was a Democratic precinct official in Gaston County, he was censured by the state party’s Council of Review after a verbal altercation with another Democrat in Gaston.
Meek, a lawyer who represented John Cotham in the dispute, served as the state party chair from 2005 to 2009. He changed his registration to unaffiliated in 2021, according to voter records. Cotham and Meek, who have two boys, divorced a few years ago.
Pat Cotham, though usually getting the most votes at the polls, has only been chosen by her fellow board members as chair once; that job usually has been given to the top vote-getter. Democratic colleagues criticized her outreach to Republicans.
Some Democrats say they’ll continue to try to work with Tricia Cotham. Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, for example, asked her in recent days to cosponsor a bill regarding death with dignity.
But anger remains—on both sides. If there were once shared memories of happier days, they’ve been forgotten. A joint statement from the leaders of the state and Mecklenburg Democratic parties called Cotham’s switch “deceit of the highest order.”
For her part, Cotham quickly adopted Republican trolling language. She began referring to the “Democrat” party, and told Newsmax that Democrats “canceled me, and that’s been their goal all along.” The divorce is final.
Jim Morrill covered politics for The Charlotte Observer for 37 years. Follow him on Twitter @jimmorrill.