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OPINION: The Gift That Tricia Cotham Gave Us

Tricia Cotham's congressional headshot.
Tricia Cotham’s congressional headshot.

Over the past two weeks, many Democrats have expressed shock and anger over House District 112 Tricia Cotham’s April 5 announcement that she would be officially switching to the Republican Party. Many have felt deceived and betrayed. There are, however, also quite a few others who are completely unshocked, as we have been watching her and her mother, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, move further and further to the “right” for some time.

Several party allies say they didn’t see it coming. If there is any positive side effect that comes out of this defection, it’s that it may force Democrats and liberals to question why that is. It’s a good time to take a long hard look at our Democratic Party’s values and the actions of those who claim alliance. What are the policies elected Democrats are supporting? How quick are they to hand out tax incentives locally without evaluating the tax breaks that organizations already receive at the hands of the Republican-controlled state General Assembly? 

In a business-friendly state like North Carolina, local tax grants should be used judiciously, especially in urban areas controlled by Democrats. Mecklenburg County desperately needs local resources for education, housing, access to health care and other services — resources that are sometimes diverted to prosperous hospitals and for-profit corporations. If we truly want systemic change, then we need to question the systems in which we assume we are forced to work. 

The Mecklenburg County Democratic Party will elect a new chair on Saturday, April 22. Democrats have a chance to evaluate what our values are by first electing a new local leader, then taking a step toward evaluating Mecklenburg’s elected leaders individually. For far too long, Democratic Party leaders have bragged about how “blue” we are in Mecklenburg County. That local monopolization, along with the extraordinary antics emanating from Washington D.C. and Raleigh, has distracted us from local accountability. We have relied too heavily on identity politics to get us by while our eyes and rage have shifted to national and state politics. 

I’m calling Mecklenburg Democrats into a time of introspection, which includes defining what our values are. These values include protecting the dignity of all people and using our collective resources for the common good through strong public education programs to build our future workforce and to expand access to physical and mental health resources, as well as providing housing and maintaining a commitment to public safety. 

Learn more: Democrats React to Tricia Cotham’s Decision to Switch Parties

We don’t have to agree on everything in our party. Despite Rep. Cotham’s claims that the Democrats are the rigid ones demanding narrow loyalty, the Democratic Party remains the “big tent” party. Our diversity demands that we welcome diverse ideas and viewpoints; it’s just that some “Democrats” are firmly outside the tent at this point as they support policies against immigrants and for easier access to weapons, for example. Cotham’s claims are pure gaslighting, landing particularly hypocritical amid the backdrop of the authoritarian drama taking place in Tennessee during the same week. 

Rep. Cotham has long been a champion of privatizing education dollars, a view largely held by the GOP, and it’s why her bait-and-switch didn’t come as a surprise to many in our community. Her policy and rhetoric are in line with conservative values at a time where our very Democracy is being torn apart, paralleled with the destruction of the traditional public school system.

Rep. Cotham had already voted this year for anti-immigrant bill HB10 and anti-education bill HB17 in committee as a Democrat. Her move to the Republican party presents no real change for those in the trenches of education and immigrant advocacy. She will continue to vote business as usual, though now more authentically, as a Republican. 

The next big hit for our state’s future will be when HB219 passes, requiring already struggling traditional school systems to relinquish even more financial resources to charter schools. HB219, as currently written, will deprive Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools of at least $17 million. Where is our Democratic community’s outrage about NC’s being ranked dead last in public school investment?

As more and more public money flows to for-profit charters and private schools through vouchers, North Carolinians would be wise to heed the call of the timeline adage “follow the money.” There has been a decades-long attempt to systematically dismantle the public education system in favor of moving money to the private sector. Crippling legislation and lack of appropriations are bringing traditional public education to its breaking point. 

Meanwhile Rep. Tricia Cotham creates a supermajority and “Democrats” such as former NC Sen. Joel Ford push for education privatization in Raleigh. Mecklenburg Democrats must pay attention and confront so-called allies who fail to see the big picture conservatives are painting through school board attacks across the country. It’s all interconnected, and education has been at the center of it. It’s been challenging to rally Democrats to pay attention to the dismantling of education amidst the other righteous battles we have to fight, including gerrymandering, reproductive freedom, and civil rights. 

Republicans have never hidden their gameplan. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, alt-right supporter Steve Bannon hit the airwaves announcing his goal to destroy the Democratic Party through the school boards. That strategy didn’t simply mean flipping local school board seats “red,” but rather through a more comprehensive campaign to convince election-hungry local Democrats to adopt conservatives’ disparaging rhetoric about the state of public schools while convincing them that conservative money-backed groups care about educating historically marginalized groups as they simultaneously work to erase the experiences of marginalized people from our textbooks. 

Democrats must challenge ourselves to look beyond identity and flashy retail politics and dig deeper. Candidates and officials showing up to “blue” events and the Pride Parade is no longer a guarantee a Democrat will fight for our values. Newly elected State Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton recently commented that Democrats know more about George Santos than who our own local officials are. 

Mecklenburg County Democrats can either accept Rep. Tricia Cotham’s gift as a call to action or be further fractured by her betrayal. 

As tarnishing as Tricia Cotham’s betrayal may seem, it can emerge as the silver lining the Democratic party needs. If we are smart, we will reunite on the issues, harness the power of the collective (Obama election-style) and train strong, progressive leaders who won’t back down. We have an opportunity to unite and hold our local officials accountable. We have too much at stake not to.

Jennifer De La Jara currently serves as an at-large representative on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

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