Pat Cotham sits on the Democratic National Committee, chairs a monthly Democratic forum and served as president of the Mecklenburg Democratic Women. Last year she was named Grassroots Democrat of the Year and this fall, Democratic Woman of the Year.
So why did her fellow Democrats oust her as chairwoman of the board of county commissioners?
One reason: Some thought she gave more deference to the board’s three Republicans than to five other Democrats.
“Reaching across the aisle was being done to the exclusion of reaching out to those in our same party,” new commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said Wednesday. “It just became harder and harder to explain away.”
On Tuesday the board voted 5-4 to make Fuller chairman. Cotham and the Republicans voted against him.
The vote capped a turbulent year that saw commissioners wrestle with major issues and, in another contentious vote last May, fire longtime county Manager Harry Jones. It was Cotham, who took office last December, who engineered his departure.
“From the very beginning I was asking a lot of questions, and that didn’t go over too well,” Cotham said Wednesday. “In the past it was go-along-get-along. I was more like what the hell is going on?”
For Cotham, blunt and outspoken, the questioning began shortly after she took office last December when she walked into county offices and found seven expensive poinsettias around a Christmas tree.
“To me that was excessive,” she said. “I started asking questions: ‘What are we going to do with them? Give them to the poor or the Salvation Army?’ They said senior staff takes them home.”
From the start, her relationship with county staffers was tense. As she describes it, she got little cooperation. “Something was wrong there, nobody was talking to me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Did you not know I was coming?’”
Troubles with fellow Democrats also started early.
“She came into office with a 6-3 majority on the board, and it fractured immediately under her leadership as chair,” said Democratic commissioner Dumont Clarke.
“A number of people felt that she failed to communicate, that she came in highly distrustful both of staff and other board members.”
Cotham said from the beginning she “got on the wrong side” of Clarke and commissioner George Dunlap “because I kept asking questions.”
“I started getting push-back,” she said. “It just kind of grew from there. I was hoping to get help from the Democrats, but that’s not what happened.”
In January, Cotham felt senior county staffers misled her about the future of MeckLINK, the county agency that oversees mental health services. Other commissioners disputed that. Later she butted heads with some colleagues over her choice of an assessor to help handle the county’s botched 2011 property revaluation.
Then in May, she found herself with the support of the three Republicans and only two Democrats – Fuller and Vilma Leake – in firing Jones.
After the firing, she refused to let Jones speak from the dais on the advice of a legislative attorney. But some commissioners, including Fuller, were upset at the treatment and chided Cotham publicly.
Later, he distanced himself from Cotham’s coalition and recently began to openly criticize her leadership of the search for a new county manager. Cotham chaired the four-member search committee, which included two Republicans.
Speaking to a reporter in May, Cotham dismissed critics who she said “don’t volunteer to help. Instead they throw rocks.” “Screw ’em,” she said.
Though she considers herself a loyal, “yellow-dog” Democrat, Cotham has reached out to the board’s three Republicans.
“It’s a respect issue,” she said, saying they, too, were elected by voters.
Her commission critics agree that it was about respect.
“She totally disrespected her Democratic colleagues,” said Democratic commissioner Dunlap. “She formed a coalition of five people, and she totally discounted everybody else’s thoughts and ideas.”
Some Democrats put the board tensions in a wider context.
“As Democrats right now, we feel we are a team under assault by Raleigh,” said Dan McCorkle, a Democratic strategist whose clients include Fuller. “Reaching across the aisle is fine, but it looked like that was all she was doing.”
Leake was apparently the final Democrat to decide to oust Cotham.
“My contention was if you talk to the Republicans you need to talk to the Democrats,” she said.
Leake’s pastor, the Rev. Dwayne Walker of Little Rock AME Zion Church, said he prayed with her about the decision this week though he declined to describe their conversations. But he said it’s frustrating that local Democrats are expected to work with Republicans while Republicans who control the General Assembly and the U.S. House rarely reciprocate.
“They’re not making any effort to reach across the aisle,” he said. “As a Democrat I’m frustrated by that whole reality.”
Cotham’s daughter Tricia, a Democratic legislator from Matthews, tweeted that she was “very proud of my mom’s leadership this past year. I know she will always be for the people and not herself.”
Cotham said she intends to move forward with plans to start a jobs program in Charlotte’s Hidden Valley neighborhood. She also plans to seek re-election, and run on her record.
“People don’t want people to ruffle feathers especially if it was a woman,” she said. “I was doing what I thought was right. And it was right.” Staff writer David Perlmutt contributed.
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