Apr 11, 2023 - News

What Tricia Cotham's party flip means for North Carolina

Illustration of a name tag, with a Democratic Party donkey symbol instead of a name, changing to a Republican Party elephant symbol.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The fate of abortion restrictions, LGBTQ rights, policing and education reform this legislative session may now rest in the hands of newly-Republican state Rep. Tricia Cotham.

Why it matters: Cotham's party switch, which she announced in a press conference last week, changed the game for North Carolina Republicans by handing them a veto-proof supermajority and the ability to pass some of their biggest priorities unfettered for the first time in five years.

Yes, but: Cotham was expected by political observers to be a swing vote this session regardless by backing her former party on issues like abortion and voting with conservatives on the budget and law enforcement legislation.

  • In last week's press conference, Cotham and fellow Republicans indicated her party flip won't change that.

What they're saying: "Tricia Cotham has been someone who is reasonable, who is moderate and we've been able to work with in this session," House Rules chairman Destin Hall said in the press conference. "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."

Between the lines: Though Cotham has so far declined to say how she'll vote on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights, her voting history and past public stances hint at when she might side with Republicans, and when she might hinder them.

The other side: "Am I worried? Yes. But do I hope the person that I've known all these years sticks to her beliefs and guns? I absolutely do," House Democratic leader Rep. Robert Reives told reporters Wednesday. "I hope she'll stick with her beliefs — not with us — but with her beliefs on the issues."

  • "Since I've been here, I have not seen anybody breaking with the Republican caucus on issues that leadership cares about."

Context: Cotham, a former public school teacher and assistant principal, hails from a family of Democrats, and her last name is an institution in Charlotte.

  • Her mother, Pat Cotham, is a longtime Mecklenburg County Commissioner, and her ex-husband, Jerry Meek, is the former chairman of the state Democratic party, making her flip to the other side of the aisle all the more notable.

Flashback: Cotham, 44, became the youngest lawmaker to serve in North Carolina's House in 2007, when she was tapped to replace disgraced former House Speaker Jim Black.

  • "They want a new face for the Democratic Party,” Cotham said at the time, according to the Charlotte Observer. “And they want somebody who will play fair. And I’ll play fair."

Here's where she stands on some of the biggest issues that will come before the legislature this year.

LGBTQ rights: In 2013, EqualityNC granted Cotham the legislative leadership award for her championing of equality, including by sponsoring legislation that would have implemented workplace protections for state LGBTQ employees.

Abortion: Two years later, she made headlines for testifying on the House floor about her experience having an abortion, saying the issue is personal and that a proposed extended wait period would create barriers to access abortion.

  • "This decision was up to me, my husband, my doctor and my god," Cotham said then. "It was not up to any of you in this chamber."
  • This year, Cotham joined Democrats in sponsoring legislation that would codify Roe v. Wade.
  • "I still am going to stand strong in my convictions. But I'm not going to be pigeonholed on any one particular issue," Cotham said in the press conference. "And I made that very clear in our conversations that there are just some things I'm not changing."

Education: Cotham has joined other Democrats in calling on legislative Republicans to fully fund a plan to provide students with a sound, basic education, the Charlotte Observer reported.

  • She's also signed onto Republican-sponsored legislation this session that would relax rules to approve more charter schools, and she signaled last week her support for expanding school choice.

The latest: Cotham's votes in recent weeks also offer a window into what's to come.

  • She voted with Republicans on legislation that would require sheriffs to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers or warrants.
  • And she recently skipped a vote to override Cooper's veto of Republican-sponsored legislation relaxing some gun laws, handing Republicans the votes they needed to usher the bill into law.
  • Last week, she voted with Republicans and a few moderate Democrats to pass the House's proposed budget, which contained numerous provisions Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is unlikely to support.

What's next: Republicans appear to be a long way off from introducing abortion restrictions but could take up numerous anti-transgender health care bills in the coming weeks.

  • Without the pressure to vote in lockstep with Democrats, Cotham could also be the pivotal vote on whether the budget, Medicaid expansion and other key Republican priorities become law this year.
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