Democrat Cites Emoji Bullying as She Hands GOP a Veto-Proof Supermajority
North Carolina House Rep. Tricia Cotham stood before a bank of television cameras flanked by a dozen former rivals on Wednesday and announced she was done with the Democrats. “The modern Democratic Party has become unrecognizable to me and to so many others throughout this state and this country,” Cotham said. “If you don’t do exactly what Democrats want you to do, they will bully you. They will try to cast you aside.”
Explaining her decision to change her party affiliation to Republican, Cotham said: “One of the absolute worst moments which was a deal-breaker, a turning point for me was when I was criticized for using the American flag and praying hands emoji on all my social media platforms — and even on the back of my vehicle.”
Cotham’s decision could have enormous repercussions for women in the state of North Carolina, and across the South. North Carolina is one of the few remaining states in the region where abortion remains legal and accessible, but Republican lawmakers would like to change that. One week ago, GOP members in the NC House introduced a bill that would ban abortion in every instance except to save a pregnant person’s life.
Cotham was coy when asked if she would support new restrictions on abortion: “I’m not going to give any type of number on anything. There’s a piece of good advice I learned a long time ago: don’t discuss legislation that’s not before you, so I’m not going to do that.”
That’s a stunning reversal for the ex-Democrat from Charlotte, who campaigned as a proudly pro-choice candidate in a district that backed Joe Biden by 23 points. Earlier this year, she co-sponsored a bill to codify abortion protections once offered by Roe and Casey in North Carolina. And in 2015, Cotham spoke movingly about her own abortion on the House floor. (She later told a reporter that a Republican colleague called her a “baby-killer” after that speech.)
Her decision will have seismic consequences in the state where, until Wednesday, Republicans were a single seat short of a veto-proof majority in the House — The GOP has held a supermajority in the Senate since November — and where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has often deployed his veto power to block Republican legislation. (According to one analysis, Cooper has vetoed at least 75 bills since assuming office in 2017.) Democrats have — until last week — stuck together to prevent Republicans in the legislature from overriding those vetoes.
To those who know Cotham and her family, her move was even more surprising: Cotham doesn’t just hail from a heavily Democratic district, she has deep, personal ties to the Democratic Party. Her mother, Pat, has served five terms as a Democrat on the Mecklenburg County Commission, her father was the chair of the Mecklenburg County Democrats, and Cotham was married for many years to a former North Carolina Democratic State Party Chairman, Jerry Meek, with whom she shares two sons.
“It doesn’t make any kind of sense,” Jane Whitley, chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, tells Rolling Stone. Whitely put out a joint statement with the chair of the state party on Tuesday calling Cotham’s decision to switch “deceit of the highest order… a betrayal of the people in NC House District 112 with repercussions not only for the people of her district, but for the entire state of North Carolina.”
But, for others, Cotham’s decision was less surprising: as far back as November, multiple sources tell Rolling Stone, Republican staff in the legislature were openly boasting that there was at least one Democrat — and as many as three — who were considering switching party affiliation. If that’s true, it may mean that Cotham, who campaigned as a Democrat in a heavily Democratic district, misled her constituents. (Cotham, at her press conference, offered a timeline that pegged her decision to the start of legislative session: “It became clear to me in early January,” she said, “that you better vote in line with everything that Gov. Cooper tells you to do.”)
North Carolina does not allow recalls of elected officials; Cotham can only be replaced if she resigns. (According to state law, her replacement would be chosen by members of the party she was affiliated with when elected: the Democrats.) Dr. Yolanda Holmes, Cotham’s opponent in the Democratic primary, tells Rolling Stone she and Cotham’s other constituents are “in an emotional space: it’s one of disappointment, and despondency, and despair. Many have shared their heartache and grief in regards to what has transpired.”
The first public sign of trouble for North Carolina Democrats emerged last week, when lawmakers in the House voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a pistol-permitting bill two days after a horrific school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee. Cotham and two other Democrats — Reps. Cecil Brockman and Michael Wray — were absent the day of veto-override vote.
Cotham later told Charlotte reporter Joe Bruno that she opposed the repeal of pistol permits, and only missed the vote because she was in the hospital receiving treatment for symptoms from Long Covid. (“It’s basically a part-time job,” one long-serving official, skeptical of Cotham’s explanation, pointed out to Rolling Stone, adding that at least one other Democratic member battling cancer re-scheduled her treatments around similarly important votes.)
North Carolina insiders say that it is not uncommon, particularly as the deadline to pass a budget approaches, for lawmakers to entertain overtures from the opposing party. Ironically, Cotham won her seat after her predecessor was ousted over a party-switching bribery scandal. The former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black paid Michael Decker, a Republican, $50,000 in checks and cash in an effort to retain the majority and his position; both men later pled guilty to federal charges. Cotham, a 28-year-old former teacher, was appointed by party leaders to fill the seat vacated by the disgraced former speaker — an appointment that made her the youngest member of the house.
For now, North Carolina Democrats can only speculated (as many are, feverishly) about what Cotham may have been promised in exchange for switching parties. With veto-proof majorities not only in the House and the Senate, but a majority on the state’s Supreme Court as well, Republicans will have free reign to redraw legislative maps. Some have floated the possibility that Republicans could carve out a GOP-leaning House district for Cotham; others suggested she might be able to use her leverage to secure Republican support as she seeks an even higher office — lieutenant governor, for example, or a seat in Congress. (Cotham lost a 2016 bid for Congress in the Democratic primary.)
Brockman and Wray — the two other Democrats who missed the veto-override vote last week — are the two individuals Democratic insiders worry could be next to leave the party: “It could be a domino effect,” one official warned. In an email to Rolling Stone, Brockman denied rumors that he is considering switching parties, but appeared to bolster Cotham’s narrative that she was bullied. “I think we are losing people when they read how we treat members of our own party. We need to get moderates to win the state, not just the people who agree with us. I want Democrats to win and I plan on helping them do so,” Brockman said. (Wray did not respond to requests for comment.)
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