On Wednesday morning, Republican leaders announced that Rep. Tricia Cotham, a longtime Democrat from Mecklenburg County, is joining the North Carolina Republican Party.
Cotham, who was elected as a Democrat in 2022, said she was switching because the Democratic Party is not the party it once was.
Cotham has voted in Democratic primaries since at least 2005. She was married to the chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party. Her mom is a Mecklenburg Democratic county commissioner and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Her dad was the chairman of the Mecklenburg Democrats.
“As long as I have been a Democrat, the Democrats have tried to be a big tent, but where the [modern-day Democratic Party is now] has become unrecognizable to me and to so many others in this state and country,” Cotham said.
Cotham said the Democratic Party “wants to villainize anyone who has free thought, free judgment, who has solutions, who wants to get to work to better our state.”
“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. I saw that when I first ran for office and was told, ‘Why didn’t you ask for permission?’ I didn’t think I needed to do that, and quite frankly, I was offended,” Cotham said, saying as a female, this approach especially disturbed her.
Republicans now have an official supermajority in the state House, which does not differ much from what was already deemed a “working supermajority.” The working supermajority had already overridden Gov. Roy Cooper’s first veto of the year.
If Cotham begins voting with Republicans more often than she did previously, then her move to officially switch parties could pave the way for Republicans to pass more of their agenda.
Cotham challenges Cooper’s control
Cotham indicated that behind closed doors, Democrats operate in a very top-heavy manner.
“It became very clear to me early on, in January, that you better vote in line with everything Governor Cooper tells you to do, from signing onto bills, to [letting Cooper] pick your seat on the House floor, to your committee requests—all of this sense of control,” said Cotham. “I will not be controlled by anyone.”
There were already several factors prohibiting Democrats from being able to stop Republicans on major legislation this year. Before Cotham’s switch, the House had a working supermajority; the Senate had an official supermajority; and Governor Cooper signed a bill to expand Medicaid—conditional on the passage of a state budget—which will include a number of policy provisions.
Cotham’s switch simply moves the House from a “working supermajority” to an official one.
Democrats behind the scenes
“I have always tried to work across the aisle from day one, and I am proud of that work because that means we are working together as statesmen and stateswomen,” said Cotham. “Unfortunately, that is taught in the Democratic Party that that’s a good thing, but there is little action.”
Cotham said her Democratic colleagues called her a traitor and a spy. They told her not to come to Democratic caucus meetings because they were concerned Cotham would share things with Republicans.
Democratic-aligned groups not only went after Cotham on social media, but she says there were multiple instances where her 12-year-old son received text messages.
“Interest and lobbyist groups that are aligned with the Democratic Party have directly sent messages to my 12-year-old son, and that needs to stop,” said Cotham. “And it’s not just been one time.”
Cotham said female Democratic colleagues confronted her for having too long of hair and wearing the wrong color outfit on certain days. She said she was attacked for matters as trivial as which emojis she had in her social media bio.
“One of the absolute worst moments, which was really a turning point for me, was when I was criticized for using the ‘🇺🇸’ and the ‘🙏🏻’ on all my social media platforms, and even [having an American flag] on the back of different vehicles that I have.”
“I could not believe that was the conversation that was happening at the time, and I was deeply offended,” said Cotham. “I am proud to be an American. I am proud of our country. I’m proud of the men and women in my family who have served.”
Cotham said when Speaker Moore made her Education Committee Chair that, instead of this being seen as good, she was shunned and called a traitor. Democratic leadership even assigned her what she referred to as a “shadow chair,” who kept tabs on her for the Democrats.
What Republican leaders said
Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, NC-08, who stumbled into the press conference on crutches because of a torn Achilles he suffered on Sunday, was the first to speak about Cotham at the press conference where Republicans introduced Cotham as their own.
“I’ve been friends with Tricia Cotham, even though we’ve been political opponents, for many years,” said Bishop. “I’ve been good friends with her mother,” Bishop said, in reference to Patricia Cotham, who is a Democratic National Committee member, a delegate member of the Executive Council of the N.C. Democratic Party, and is serving her third term on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.
“I’m glad to be here with a friend today,” Bishop said. “She is a strong woman, a strong leader… My entire life has been in Mecklenburg County, and I can tell you this. Tricia Cotham is going to get all the support she needs in Mecklenburg County.”
“We probably still have disagreements from time to time, but this latest development in which a major party cannot abide dissenters on particular issues within its ranks is something that is bad for America,” said Bishop. “I’ve never seen that in the Republican Party.”
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, whose Senate Republican caucus already had a supermajority, said there were a lot of people like Cotham who feel left behind by the Democratic Party.
“It is unfortunate that [Cotham] is now the latest in a long line of folks to come before the public and say, ‘I didn’t really leave the Democratic Party; it left me,’” Berger said. “There are a lot of folks in North Carolina who feel exactly the same way. It’s one of the reasons that the Democratic Party in North Carolina continues to lose members in historic ways.”
Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell, called Cotham a top legislator in the General Assembly and the most powerful Democratic lawmaker from the Charlotte region. And yet, “she was rewarded with being shunned by her party, vilified by her caucus, and bullied by other women,” Sawyer said.
“In [the Republican caucus] freedom, liberty, and independent thinking are valued,” Republican House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, said. “We like strong-minded people with opinions, various backgrounds, and ways of life to come into our caucus.”
“I respect your bravery. You have a backbone, there is no doubt,” Bell said.
Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, another top Republican in the House, said he had noticed Cotham, who is “normally smiling, who is normally happy, start to have a little concern on her face” over the last few weeks leading up to Cotham’s departure from the Democratic Party.
“Tricia Cotham has been someone who is reasonable, who is moderate, who we’ve been able to work with in this session,” said Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell. “Her principles and her views have not changed. What has changed is the Democratic Party in North Carolina. The party has left her, and it is leaving reasonable people behind.”
Hall also called out some of the comments made against Cotham.
“The misogynistic and sexist accusations that have been put forward against Rep. Cotham is absolutely despicable,” Hall said.
“Everybody just can’t be the same and do the exact same thing and act the exact same way on every issue,” Cotham said. “What happened to the concept of a big tent party?”
“When we hear these ideas — we’re inclusive, we’re tolerant, we’re so welcoming to everybody — no, you’re not,” Cotham said. “I think the country is getting sick and tired of that. I’m not going to fit into a box. I’m not here to push the button just because someone tells me to.”
Cotham has previously been pro-choice, even so far as rebuking Republicans in a 2015 floor speech for proposing longer waiting periods. When asked if she would support a 13-week abortion ban, Cotham said she was going to pray on the issue.
“I’m still the same person, and I am going to do what I believe is right and follow my conscience,” Cotham said. “I’m going to listen to others; I’m going to ask their opinion; but most importantly, I’m going to look inside, and I’m going to pray on this issue. I know that’s where I’ll find the answer.”
Democratic minority leader Robert Reives put out a statement many read as calling for primaries against the three Democrats who did not show up on a critical vote. After the news broke that Cotham was switching her party affiliation, Reives said she should resign.
When a reporter asked Cotham about her relationship with Reives and whether she had given him notice of her intent to switch parties, Cotham said Reives has not talked to her all year, despite her efforts to reach out to him.
Speaker Moore said he has been having conversations with other Democrats about joining the Republicans.
Moore also said there is intent on redrawing Senate, House, and Congressional maps.
Cotham gained a reputation as a moderate Democrat this year. She was one of a few Democrats who had been willing to work with Republicans on certain issues, including those related to public safety and school choice.
Previously, Cotham was appointed to serve in the state House by Democratic Governor Mike Easley, replacing Rep. Jim Black. When she was appointed, she was the youngest female member of the state House in North Carolina history.
Cotham served until 2016 when she announced she would not run again. Instead, she ran in the Democratic primary for the newly drawn U.S. Congressional District but lost to Alma Adams.
Cotham received backlash from the Democrats when she was not present for a vote to override Governor Cooper’s first veto this year. She was one of three Democrats not present. Cooper’s veto would have been sustained if two out of the three absent Democrats had voted against the override.
However, Cotham and Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, were out for medical reasons, and Rep. Michael Wray, D-Northampton, said he was out because of a family emergency.
After these three missed the critical vote, Democratic minority leader Robert Reives said that Democrats can make their voices heard in the primary and general elections, referring to Cotham, Wray, and Brockman.
Immediately after the 2022 election, there was speculation that one or more House Democrats were thinking about changing parties. If true, there is a chance Cotham will not be the only Democrat House member to join the Republican Party.
Some have already speculated whether Wray will join her.
Cotham’s House seat in Mecklenburg is not a Republican-leaning or even a swing seat. House District 112 is a district that President Biden won by 23%.
Oftentimes when members switch parties, it is viewed as a tactical decision due to changing dynamics of their district. Cotham’s current district will likely not be voting Republican anytime soon.
Following the news of Cotham’s switch, Brockman said Democrats have themselves to blame. “I hope the [Democratic] party takes a strong look at how they react to people making the decisions that they make,” Brockman said. “They put themselves in this position.”
Former Democratic state senator Joel Ford talked about his experience siding with Republicans on some issues.
“Yeah and [Democrats] turned on me like a wild pack of dogs,” Ford said. “The most dangerous thing a Democrat can be today is an independent thinker.”
Many Democrats were not as understanding of Cotham’s decision. Several of her Democratic colleagues took to Twitter to voice their thoughts.
Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, called her decision dishonest and undemocratic. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, and N.C. Senate Democrats were among hundreds of Twitter users to retweet her comment.
North Carolina is the third state in less than one month where state Republicans have gained supermajorities. The Tar Heel state joins Wisconsin, which gained a supermajority when a Republican won a special election, and the Louisianna state House, which gained a supermajority after a Democratic defection.
“I want to be a part of that change agent for the greater good of our state of all the public servants behind me,” Cotham said toward the end of the press conference.