A Democratic state legislator in North Carolina is switching parties just three months after being sworn-in, giving North Carolina Republicans the ability to pursue their agenda with a veto-proof majority over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Rep. Tricia Cotham’s decision sparked fears that Republicans would use their new power to pursue legislation such as an abortion ban, in a state that’s become an unlikely outpost for abortion access since Roe v Wade was overturned last year.
Cotham’s switch was first reported by Axios Raleigh on Tuesday. She did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News Tuesday, but that afternoon, her staff cleared out her desk on the Democratic side of the aisle and she took her place on the Republican side.
During a press conference in Raleigh with Republican leaders on Wednesday, Cotham blasted her now-former party and said that the Democrats “villainize anyone who has free thought, free judgment, has solutions, and wants to get to work to better our state.”
“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.
Democratic party leaders forcefully condemned Cotham’s move. Rep. Robert Reives, the leader of Cotham’s now-former caucus, blasted her in a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying she betrayed her Democratic-leaning constituents and the values she campaigned for, and calling for her resignation.
“That is not the person that was presented to the voters of House District 112. That is not the person those constituents campaigned for in a hard primary, and who they championed in a general election in a 60 percent Democratic district,” Reives said. “Those constituents deserved to know what values were most important to their elected representative.”
State party chair Anderson Clayton and Mecklenburg County chair Jane Whitley called the switch “deceit of the highest order” in a joint statement, and also called on her to resign.
“Rep. Cotham’s decision is a betrayal to the people of HD-112 with repercussions not only for the people of her district, but for the entire state of North Carolina,” the statement said.
A former campaign adviser for Cotham, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VICE News that Cotham is “a professional victim who takes responsibility for nothing and is now at home in the Republican Party.”
“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,” the former adviser said. “Then she was triggered by some tweets after she voted for a few bills that would directly harm her overwhelmingly Black and brown constituents. That’s absurdly all there is to it… there was no strategy behind it.”
Cotham was elected to represent a district in the Charlotte area in November. It was her second tenure in the legislature; she’d previously served for 10 years before declining to run for re-election in 2016.
During her first tenure in the House, Cotham was a mostly liberal Democrat, and vocally opposed Republican efforts to limit access to abortion. In 2015, during a debate over a bill to mandate a 72-hour-waiting period to obtain an abortion, Cotham spoke about her own abortion of a non-viable fetus on the floor of the House, saying that the bill (which ultimately passed into law) “would have likely caused me my life.”
She later told Time that she received harassment as a result of her opposition to the bill, including being called a “baby-killer” by a GOP colleague. “I don’t think I had emotionally moved on,” Cotham told Time in 2015. “The real healing came that day on the floor.”
After the draft of the ruling that overturned Roe was leaked last May, Cotham said in a tweet that North Carolina needed leaders who were “unwavering and unapologetic in their support of abortion rights,” and that she would “fight to codify Roe in the [General Assembly] and continue my strong record of defending the right to choose.” In January, she co-sponsored a bill, introduced by Democrats, to do just that.
Cotham has not commented on if or how her policy preferences have changed. Asked during the press conference about her prior emotional support for abortion rights and if she would now support a 13-week ban on abortion, Cotham told the Associated Press, “I’m not going to give any type of number on anything.” She added that she was “going to do what I believe is right” and that she would “pray on this issue.”
Pressed even further, Cotham claimed that she never believed “this was the bigger issue facing women in North Carolina”—a stark departure from her previous comments.
Abortion is currently legal in North Carolina up to 20 weeks. Since Roe was overturned, North Carolina has become a refuge for patients seeking abortions in the South—one that’s set to become even more important, considering Republicans in Florida will soon likely ban all abortions after six weeks. A group that operates three clinics in North Carolina reported in November that more than half of its patients were from out of state, according to NC Policy Watch.
It’s so far unclear how Cotham’s party switch will affect her support for abortion rights. North Carolina Republicans have discussed a number of proposals including a six-week ban, the AP reported in February, but have so far been unable to coalesce around a single strategy.
Cotham’s decision could also have implication for a host of other issues, such as LGBTQ+ rights, education, gun laws, voting rights, and criminal justice. Cooper was first elected in 2016, and while he’s been constrained by Republican legislative majorities, he has limited Republican priorities and even brokered some major deals, such as a partial repeal of HB 2 and expanding Medicaid after a decade of Republican resistance to the Affordable Care Act.
The last time North Carolina Republicans had a veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly, along with former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the governor’s mansion, they remade the state into a model for right-wing politics across the country.
Cotham had faced criticism from Democrats last week after she and two other legislators were absent during a vote to override Cooper’s veto on a bill loosening gun regulations. Cotham later said in a statement to WBTV that she was receiving treatment for long COVID symptoms at the time and that she opposed the veto override.
During her five-year hiatus from elected office, Cotham, a former teacher and assistant principal, spent time as the president of a charter school operator. After her election to the legislature for a second time last November, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore appointed Cotham as a co-chair of the House Education Committee, where she was voting with Republicans even prior to this week.
Cotham sought to downplay speculation about why Republican leaders would give a chairmanship to a Democrat.
“I stand strongly on my record for working with Republicans and Democrats and all different types of organizations,” Cotham told Spectrum News in February. “Does that make me a target? How are they defining what target is? Because I’m practical and results-oriented?"
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