In a week otherwise full of positive news for liberals, one spot has hit a nerve: a switch by one longtime Democratic North Carolina lawmaker to the GOP.
The move by Rep. Tricia Cotham will give the GOP a veto-proof majority in the state house, which they already have in the state senate. It has also left some political observers scratching their heads.
Cotham, who was elected to the state house again last year after a first serving from 2007 to 2016, described the move as a reaction to discovering the supposed extremism in the Democratic Party.
“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 during a press conference announcing her switch.
Below are five points on the surprising situation.
This will supercharge GOP power in the state.
Cotham’s switch has attracted attention largely because it has the potential to cement GOP power in a purple state.
North Carolina went for Trump in 2020 by a margin of just 1.3 percent, and has a Democratic governor in Roy Cooper (D). Control of its Supreme Court and governors mansion have alternated between the parties over the last decade.
That’s not the case for the legislature. Recent elections — and aggressive gerrymandering — have given the GOP a stranglehold on both chambers. Republicans have a supermajority in the Senate, and were one short of a veto-proof supermajority in the House — before Cotham switched. Following Novembers’s election, the GOP also has a majority on the state Supreme Court.
Republican leaders have not been shy about what they see as the benefits of Cotham’s choice.
“That’s a supermajority, in case you’re keeping count,” John Bell, GOP majority leader in the state house, said at a Wednesday presser.
This may change less than you may think …
It’s not clear that Cotham’s switch is as cataclysmic for Democrats in the state as it’s been portrayed. That is, in part, because Democrats in the state have not always been unified in the face of their GOP opposition.
Cotham has played a role in that dynamic. She cited criticism she received over one specific vote — or, rather, lack of vote — as triggering her switch.
In that case, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) had vetoed a GOP-backed bill that removed a requirement that purchasers receive a permit from the local sheriff’s department before obtaining a handgun.
House Republicans last month were able to overcome Cooper’s veto largely because several Democrats — including Cotham — simply failed to show up for the vote.
One North Carolina political operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, suggested to TPM that the seeming legislative disorganization in the state is fueled by the reality that the situation for Democrats was already pretty bad.
“If there were that many members walking on critical veto uphold votes, then how much power did they have?” the person told TPM.
Cotham cited a medical appointment due to long COVID as her reason for missing the vote, and cited backlash to the missed vote as one reason for flipping parties.
“I will not be controlled by anyone,” she said.
… but it’s still a surprising choice.
Cotham comes from not only a blue district, but also a family that’s long been involved in Democratic politics.
Her father chaired the Democratic Party for her home county, and her mother is a Democratic commissioner there. Her ex-husband was formerly the chair of the state Democratic Party.
A former public school teacher, Cotham spent much of her first stint in the state House focusing on education issues. One of the main issues she supported was abortion access, which is now imperiled by the GOP’s strengthened majorities.
Part of what led to the consternation over Cotham’s decision is that she represents a blue district. According to one analysis, her area, as currently constituted, voted Democrat in recent elections by about 60 percent margins — fairly safe.
Dems HATE this.
State Democrats were furious at her move, with some demanding her resignation.
Anderson Clayton, state Democratic Party chair, called the switch a “betrayal” and “deceit of the highest order.”
House Democratic leader Robert Rieves pointed out that she had “campaigned as a Democrat and supporter of abortion rights, health care, public education, gun safety, and civil rights.”
“The appropriate action is for her to resign so that her constituents are fairly represented in the North Carolina House of Representatives,” he added in a statement.
And Cameron Pruette, head of LGBTQ+ Democrats of Mecklenburg County, Cotham’s home county, said that his trust had been violated.
“It is ironic to me that in the middle of Holy Week, when we’re about to discuss Judas trading away people for pieces of silver, what did Tricia Cotham trade away for my community?” Pruette said.
Look at her more recent history
Some speculation for the surprise switch point towards some of Cotham’s activities from the time she mounted a failed bid for Congress, in 2016, to her return to running for elected office in 2022.
During that time, Cotham became a lobbyist, and also began to work for a non-profit called Achievement for All Children.
“She was upset that Democrats didn’t roll out a red carpet for her when she came back to the legislature after being a lobbyist for right-wing interests during the most consequential six years in American politics,” one former adviser told Vice.
Achievement for All Children was hired by the state of North Carolina to administer a single public school in her home county. Local news reports tied the group to John Bryan, a wealthy Oregonian who, at the time, was an influential proponent of school choice.
Achievement for All Children said in a 2020 tax return that it received more than $450,000 from the school district project. The state moved to phase out the program the next year, earlier than its contract anticipated.