The Cotham Effect: Today in the North Carolina General Assembly

North Carolina state Rep. Tricia Cotham announces she is switching affiliation to the Republican Party at a news conference Wednesday, April 5, 2023, at the North Carolina Republican Party headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

By Michael McElroy

April 19, 2023

The GOP’s new super-majority in the state House has emboldened Republicans to run gleefully toward some of the more contentious policies passed in other conservative states.

Batten down, North Carolina, for Hurricane Cotham.

Rep. Tricia Cotham switched her party from Democrat to Republican this month, giving the GOP a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly that they could use to override any veto by Gov. Roy Cooper. As long as all Republicans vote together, they can pass any law, and Democrats can do nothing to stop them.

The new demographics in the legislature have emboldened Republicans to run gleefully toward some of the most contentious policies passed in other conservative states—abortion bans, loosened gun restrictions, anti-trans laws—that Cooper’s veto threat previously prevented here.

It must be said, of course, that the General Assembly has also made progress on several bipartisan bills that would make big differences in people’s lives, including Medicaid expansion, a measure that would increase penalties for human trafficking, and a bill to find out how many schools in the state lack working carbon monoxide detectors.

These are big deals.

But the legislative docket this week offers hints of the big fights and enormous consequences to come after Cotham’s party switch.

On Tuesday, Republicans in a Senate committee voted to advance a bill barring trans athletes from competing on school teams that correspond to their gender identity. The bill gets another procedural vote in the Senate on Tuesday.

Republicans in the House also introduced a bill that would make it a felony to hold a drag show in public or at a private event with kids in the audience. 

While she was a Democrat, Cotham voiced strong support for codifying abortion rights and protecting LGTBQ youth in the state. 

In the press conference announcing her party switch, however, she declined to say how she now felt about these core issues, the ones that helped get her elected in her solidly Democratic district in Mecklenburg County.

Also on Wednesday, the full House will vote on a bill relating only to Beaufort County that would allow the county school board to replace the state’s social studies curriculum with one from a conservative Christian private university in Michigan whose thesis is that America is the best country ever and has never done wrong ever. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Keith Kidwell, was among those who introduced a complete abortion ban last month.

Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Democrat representing Wake County, tweeted on Tuesday that the bill was announced at 7 p.m. Monday night, and was heard the first time Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. Leadership did not answer questions about “the legality of using this curriculum in place of the standard course of study,” she wrote.

The full House will vote on this bill Wednesday morning.

Here are some other bills, both bipartisan and not, being discussed in various forms in the NC House and Senate today. 

  1. House Bill 561, The Coerced Debt Relief Bill: Would protect domestic abuse survivors against identity theft, fraud and economic abuse.
  2. Senate Bill 692/HB 149, Community College Governance: Would fundamentally alter how the state’s community college system is run, making the General Assembly fully in charge of deciding the system’s leadership.
  3. Senate Bill 579, Prevent Harm to Children: Would increase punishments for disseminating “obscenity” to children, though it makes no mention of what qualifies as obscene. Connect this dot to the GOP-efforts to criminalize drag shows and block trans access to sports teams and gender-affirming medical care, and you can read between the lines.

There are lots and lots more, including a bill raising the minimum age to give blood without a parent’s permission and one that would require a passenger to stay at the scene of a car accident and force them to give the police information about the driver.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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