Imagine campaigning for a Democratic politician—a thankless, low-paying job, especially at the state level—because you believe in what they stand for. The candidate gives powerful speeches about abortion rights that make you proud. You’re in a purple state, where every single seat in the legislature is critical to protecting abortion access. So you join the fight, help them win, and continue working for them in the legislature. Then inexplicably, in the middle of their term, that politician does an about-face, switches parties, and votes in favor of an extreme abortion ban, delivering Republicans the one vote they needed to override a veto and actually shutter clinics in the state.
Two (now former) aides to North Carolina State Rep. Tricia Cotham found themselves in that position earlier this month. Cotham, a Democrat until recently who was endorsed by EMILY’s List, had given speeches for years about abortion rights, sworn over and over to defend them, and even talked about her own medically necessary abortion. “My womb and my uterus is not up for your political grab,” she said in one particularly passionate 2015 speech.
Then this month, in a stunning move that drew national headlines, Cotham decided to switch parties and vote in favor of a bill that would ban abortion after 12 weeks and could close clinics. Her defection gave North Carolina’s Republican Party the supermajority they need to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) veto and jam the bill into law, which will further decimate abortion access throughout the South.
The people who helped elect Cotham and worked for her are, understandably, feeling devastated, betrayed, and confused.
“It makes you wonder, did this person ever believe anything at all?” Jonathan Coby, who advised Cotham’s campaigns and resigned from her staff in April, told me in an interview. “For her to vote for this is not just a betrayal of her district, but it’s a betrayal of who she has portrayed herself to be for her entire life.” Coby said everyone he’s spoken to on the ground in North Carolina feels “deeply angry” and “heartbroken”—and not just about the “disgusting and awful” politics of the move. “There’s also a real human betrayal of just using and discarding people,” he said.
Autumn Alston, a Democratic activist who canvassed for Cotham’s two most recent campaigns and advised her often, echoed that sentiment. “She used people when she needed them and now she has abandoned them,” Alston told me, noting that Cotham stopped contacting her after switching parties.
Naturally, everyone would like to know what could possibly motivate a politician to abandon their whole platform, their constituents, and their dignity so suddenly and dramatically. We reported last week on the possibility that Cotham, a former charter school lobbyist, traded a vote on the abortion bill in order to co-chair the Education Committee. When she announced her defection, she said it was in part because she’d been “bullied by her fellow Democrats and had grown alienated from the party on issues like school choice,” per the New York Times. (Cotham has not responded to Jezebel’s requests for comment.)
But Coby, in whom she confided about her decision to switch parties, said it wasn’t really about any genuinely held beliefs, political issues, or even money. “I wish I could say that she took a giant bag of cash at an IHOP and that’s why she did this—but it’s so much dumber than that,” he said. “It’s just a deeply petty, personal thing.”
Cotham served in the state house from 2007 through 2016; she left the role after failing to win a seat in Congress. In 2022, she ran for her old seat, and Coby said she felt a sense of entitlement that seeped through her actions. Cotham blew off endorsement meetings, didn’t attend freshman orientation, and skipped caucus gatherings.
When Cotham told Coby she was thinking of switching parties about two days before the news broke, he says she was stuck on the idea that her Democratic colleagues didn’t like her. “The Democrats don’t want me, and the Republicans have helped me out a lot,” he recalled her saying.
As local media has reported, Cotham felt Democrats had repeatedly slighted her since her January swearing-in—including criticizing her for using the American flag and prayer hands emojis online and supposedly not clapping for her when the Republican House Speaker recognized her on International Women’s Day as the youngest woman ever elected to the State House. (Local news reported that Democrats did in fact clap for her, but as her mom recalled to a local reporter, Cotham had said of the perceived slight, “That really hurt. This was women’s history. And they couldn’t even clap for me?”) Cotham also bristled at criticism for missing a vote that let Republicans repeal a gun permit law.
Cotham had also been annoyed that Planned Parenthood didn’t endorse her, despite her self-described “very powerful” speech on abortion rights. During her campaign, she’d sought the endorsement of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic—the affiliate serving North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia—and filled out their questionnaire, writing that she’d “been an unwavering advocate for abortion rights” and citing her 2015 speech about her medically necessary abortion following a miscarriage. “If elected, I will continue to work hand-in-hand with Planned Parenthood and allied groups to protect abortion rights and access and oppose anti-choice legislation,” she wrote.
But then she blew off the actual endorsement interview for the group multiple times. A PPSAT spokesperson told Jezebel, “Rep. Cotham’s campaign scheduled numerous candidate interviews with our board (the board endorses candidates), but she did not attend any of the interviews,” which is why they didn’t endorse her.
Then the day after the Supreme Court Dobbs opinion leak, Cotham complained to Alston via a now-public Twitter DM that Planned Parenthood and another organization had “really screwed” her. In the message, Cotham asks Alston if she would share a video of her abortion speech.
Alston told Jezebel she believed Cotham sent the DM because she was upset about not getting the PPSAT endorsement, as “she had considered herself such a champion for women and women’s rights.”
“The only thing that I can say for sure about Tricia Cotham from here on out is that she will always be the victim,” Coby said. “That is just who she believes herself to be, just a victim of life.”
And so, feeling under-appreciated and under-celebrated by the left, Cotham saw an opportunity “to be the new shiny object in the Republican Party,” as Alston put it. And that meant being the hero who delivered them a huge victory on abortion. Nevermind everything she said before on the subject, or that she was throwing her own constituents who voted for her, and millions of other people, under the bus.
Now, Cotham still has a chance to change her mind. Gov. Cooper is expected to veto the abortion ban on Saturday, after which Republicans will take a vote to override it. Cotham could, by some miracle, decide not to join them, and activists on both sides are certainly pinning their hopes on her. The influential anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has launched digital ads to support Cotham and three other lawmakers they accuse the governor of “bullying” in advance of the expected veto override. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic is appealing to her conscience.
“We hope that a person who has experienced an abortion would do everything they could to protect access to it,” said Jillian Riley, director of public affairs at PPSAT, told Jezebel in a statement. “Rep. Cotham has one last chance to do that—to honor her personal experience and to stay true to her word.”
Alston, meanwhile, says she would just “like Tricia Cotham to remember where she came from,” having experienced life as a young mother working in the State House, needing an abortion herself, and more recently, struggling with long covid.
“Her new party would not support the decision she had to have an abortion. Her new party downplayed the significance of covid. She is now aligning herself with a party that is directly opposed to so many things she has not just stood for, but who she is and has been as a person,” Alston told me. “Selling out your soul is not worth it in the long term.”