The opponent of District 2 commissioner Vilma Leake in Tuesday’s Democratic primary said he saw Leake “jab” fellow commissioner Pat Cotham in her head at a get-out-the-vote rally last week.
Leake disputed the account.
The event took place at the Excelsior Club on Beatties Ford Road on April 23, the eve of the start of early voting.
Dondhi Burrell, Leake’s opponent, said candidates were allowed to speak before food was served. When they finished, many high-fived those in the crowd of about 125 people as they returned to their seats.
He said Leake spoke before he did.
As Leake returned to her seat, Cotham applauded and held up her hand to high-five Leake, Burrell said.
“But she (Leake) took her hand and pushed her (Cotham) in the side of her head,” he said. “It wasn’t like she smacked her with her open palm or hit her with a balled-up fist. It was a jab, an open-handed jab with the tips of her four fingers on the side of her head.”
Responding to questions from the Observer’s editorial board, Cotham confirmed the incident. Thursday, she declined to comment further, saying “I’m just focusing on moving the county forward.”
But Leake on Thursday called the allegation “a lie.” She said she high-fived or shook hands with 25 to 30 people and, “I wasn’t paying attention to who I touched.”
She said she thought she tried to high-five Cotham but may have “touched her on her shoulder.”
“I did not hit her,” Leake said. “If there was some contact, it was not in any way confrontational. The place was packed; it was hard to walk through. We were all Democrats having fun. People were speaking. Eating chicken, high-fiving – and getting out the vote.”
Some at the event said they saw contact.
Charlotte City Council member Greg Phipps said he didn’t know what to make of it.
“I didn’t know if it was a gesture of greeting or something done in jest, because I don’t know if I got a real good view of it,” Phipps said. “Nothing really arose from it from what I saw ... so I was not concerned.”
Cotham was disturbed by the incident and left the event early, others said.
Leake and Cotham were close political allies on the commission last year, when Cotham chaired the board. They voted together on several key issues, including firing longtime County Manager Harry Jones nearly a year ago.
But after Leake was the deciding vote to replace Cotham as chair with commissioner Trevor Fuller, their relationship clearly soured.
Leake has said Cotham did “a fine job” as chair, but she supported Fuller for chair because she wanted to give other commissioners a chance in leadership roles.
Now at events, they rarely speak and during one commission meeting Leake asked Cotham why she was “talking so long” on an issue and then pushed her chair.
Burrell said Leake’s behavior at the Excelsior event was “like you’d expect a bully to behave.”
“It blew me away,” he said. “If you don’t stand up to that behavior, it will continue.”
After he spoke last week, Burrell did his share of high-fiving. When he got to Cotham, he said she “cowered.”
“She was upset. I said, ‘Pat I’m not going to hit you. I’m going to high-five you.’”