Shortly before 10 pm Wednesday night, North Carolina state Rep. Tricia Cotham (R) voted for a 12-week abortion ban, which was debated in secret and could devastate access across the South. (The bill passed the State House, though one vote shy of a veto-proof majority because another Republican didn’t vote.)
A Republican banning abortion isn’t news, but Cotham only joined the GOP when she mysteriously switched parties in April. Making the move all the more puzzling, in January of this year, she co-sponsored a bill to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade into state law, which would prohibit the state from banning abortion before fetal viability (about 24 weeks). And in 2015, Cotham spoke on the House floor about her own medically necessary abortion following a miscarriage. “This decision was up to me, my husband, my doctor and my God. It was not up to any of you in this chamber,” Cotham said in opposing an anti-abortion bill.
EMILY’s List, a pro-abortion PAC, revoked their support of her after she switched parties.
So what exactly happened here? Cotham did not respond to my request for comment by publication time, but it may be instructive to look at her five years out of the legislature, from 2017 to 2023, and her extensive ties to the conservative charter school movement. Cotham was a registered lobbyist from 2018 to 2021, working at both McGuireWoods Consulting and BCHL Strategic Partner. In 2018, she represented for-profit education companies, including Project L.I.F.T. and PowerSchool, who were accused of failing to improve struggling schools and excessive student surveillance, respectively.
In 2019, she was named the president of a group called Achievement for All Children (AAC), a firm that co-managed the only school in the state’s Innovative School District (ISD). The creation of that district allowed outside groups like charter school operators to take over low-performing schools. John Bryan, a retired Oregon business owner and megadonor to the conservative school choice movement, is the reason that school district exists. In 2021, Cotham also lobbied on behalf of a charter school construction company created by Bryan called Challenge Foundation Properties.
Then in January, Republicans made Cotham a co-chair— alongside two GOP members—of the K-12 education committee, which oversees charter school funding, public school ethics legislation, and teacher pay. She was one of just three Democrats to be given a gavel. People were skeptical of this move at the time, given that Republicans were one just vote shy of a supermajority. Cotham responded to suspicions about her appointment by saying in February, “I would never commit a vote to anything that I don’t know what it’s about or it’s not in writing hasn’t come through these chambers at all.”
When Cotham 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. The first piece of legislation she introduced as a Republican was a pro-charter school bill.
This does explain Cotham’s sudden switch to the GOP, despite representing a solidly blue district in North Carolina—but switching parties doesn’t necessarily mean you have to vote with them on everything. Her vote for an abortion ban after proudly proclaiming to support reproductive rights is a direct, egregious betrayal of her constituents.