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State representative from Mecklenburg County switching parties

Tricia Cotham, who was elected as a Democrat, will now flip to the Republican Party, giving the GOP a supermajority in the NC House.

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State Representative Tricia Cotham announced Wednesday that she's switching parties.

Cotham, who won the seat as a Democrat for Dist. 112 in 2022, made the announcement official on Wednesday.

It's a big setback for her former party, as the decision now gives Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in the General Assembly, allowing them to override vetoes by Gov. Roy Cooper and more easily pass conservative legislation.

Reaction from Democratic leaders

House Democratic Leader Robert Reives criticized the news in a statement on Tuesday, saying she was elected in a majority-Democrat district.

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"Rep. Tricia Cotham campaigned as a Democrat and supporter of abortion rights, health care, public education, gun safety, and civil rights. The voters of House District 112 elected her to serve as that person and overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates up and down the ballot," Reives' statement read. "Now, just a few months later, Rep. Cotham is changing parties. 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% Democratic district. Those constituents deserved to know what values were most important to their elected representative."

Reives further called on Cotham to resign, something state party chair Anderson Clayton also demanded.

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The official Twitter account for the North Carolina Democratic Party also weighed in, calling Cotham's decision to switch "deceit of the highest order".

Reaction from other Democratic leaders rippled back to Mecklenburg County. 

Julie Eiselt, who was the former Mayor Pro Tem of the city of Charlotte, demanded answers as well along with about a dozen of her constituents who said they felt misled.

“It’s basically a bait and switch," Maryjane Conti, constituent and precinct chair for Mecklenburg County Democrats, said. "We thought we were voting for a Democrat and turns out it was a Republican.” 

WCNC Charlotte reached out to Cotham for comment but did not hear back from her Tuesday night. However, she joined North Carolina Republicans on Wednesday for a news conference in Raleigh to discuss her decision.

"As long as I have been a Democrat, the Democrats have tried to be a big tent," she said. "But now, where we are, the modern-day Democratic Party has become unrecognizable to me."

Cotham alleged the party targets Democrats and others who have differing opinions, claiming that "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."

The representative also claimed Cooper, a Democrat, demanded legislators be in line with his vision. She also claimed others within the party have targeted her for disagreements.

"I've suffered many attacks since I've been up here from Democrats in the party, from blasting me on Twitter to calling me names to going after my family, going after my children," she said. "That is wrong. And I will not stand for that. I will not be bullied by them. And I will protect my children and my family."

Cotham claimed she was bullied for using the American flag and praying hands emojis on her social media platforms and similar symbols on her cars. She also claimed someone at one point gave her a tirade inside a Target with her son present.

A look at recent votes

Cotham's swing from Democrat to Republican is set to give the GOP a supermajority in the House, dealing a major hit to Cooper's power to veto bills. 

She was absent from a vote on Senate Bill 41, which was passed after overriding Cooper's veto, due to COVID-19 treatments she receives. The bill, which is now law, stripped the requirement for gun buyers to seek a pistol purchase permit from county sheriffs. 

She also had an excused absence for treatment from voting on House Bill 347, which concerns sports betting in the Tar Heel State.

While she held her seat as a Democrat, other recent votes showed an openness to break party ranks. For example, Cotham voted in favor of a bill that would require county sheriffs to cooperate with ICE detainer requests. She also voted in favor of House Joint Resolution 235, which calls on the U.S. Congress to trigger an Article V Convention of the States to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. 

Such demands are largely popular among conservative legislators and figureheads, though some experts warn such a convention could turn into a constitutional free-for-all.

David McLennan, a political science professor with Meredith College, said there are three main reasons a policymaker usually changes party affiliation: A major shift in political views, to improve election prospects, and to gain political power.

He said, while she has seemingly drifted more conservative over the years, the latter reason likely applies in Cotham's case since Republicans control the House.

"She could get more perks, like committee memberships, that sort of thing," McLennan said. "I think it's probably more that third reason for Cotham, and that she sees some personal gain from switching and serving within the Republican caucus."

One main policy impact to watch from this switch, McLennan said, is on the abortion rights front.

"Republicans will probably push a serious abortion law in the coming weeks, and that's where Cotham is going to be really tested, because traditionally she has supported abortion rights in North Carolina," McLennan said. "If the Republicans push a very restrictive abortion law that will challenge her, will she side with how she's typically voted and support abortion rights? Or will she go along with her party?"

Cotham has not made it clear how she would vote on upcoming abortion legislation. North Carolina Republicans are pushing for a 12-week abortion ban. Right now, state law outlaws abortion after 20 weeks. 

Last year, Cotham tweeted and said she'd codify Roe, and said she supported the right for a woman to choose. 

Seven years ago, Cotham also gave a personal testimony on the House Floor. 

While criticizing a 72-hour informed consent abortion bill, Cotham said her first pregnancy ended in an abortion after her doctor told her the pregnancy was not viable, and the procedure would save her life. 

“This is a personal issue," Cotham said. “It was awful, it was painful, and it was sad. And it was personal.”

Gathering held outside Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center

In response to the announcement, people gathered outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center Wednesday, calling for Cotham's resignation. 

Ray McKinnon, a pastor in the Charlotte area, was one of the speakers. He said he felt blindsided by Cotham's decision and it left a lot of voters untrusting of local representatives. 

"Earlier this morning, Tricia said the Democratic party is not the party she was elected to," McKinnon said. "Now the party is the same party it was five months ago.”

Others said with this switch, they fear the Republican supermajority.

Artie Hartsell with Equality North Carolina said their organization fears many Republican-backed bills, saying some seem aimed to directly target the LGBTQ+ community. 

“When did you realize your values were different than what you ran on and after the people supported you with their money and boots on the ground?" Hartsell asked. "There are bills that target LGBTQ healthcare, schooling and publicly out children to their parents."

Other people spoke on how this could impact public education in North Carolina, with some saying the Republican party has worked to privatize education.

Upcoming votes

Eric Heberlig, a professor of political science at UNC Charlotte, said this switch shifts the power dynamic in Raleigh quite a bit.  

“Last week, Republicans had veto majority in the Senate and were one short in the House," Heberlig said. "This week after her move, as long as they can get all Republicans to vote together, they don’t need to negotiate with the governor or Democrats. They have the votes where they can do what they want.”

He said that means if Cooper vetoes a future abortion bill, Republicans, if all agree, can see the legislation through regardless. 

Contact Vanessa Ruffes at vruffes@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

Contact Kayland Hagwood at khagwood@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.  

Contact Austin Walker at awalker@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.  

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