Mecklenburg County commissioners kick off their new term with the traditional ceremony Monday night, though a break from tradition could give them a rocky start.
For the first time in a quarter-century, commissioners are expected to start a term by choosing a leader who did not get the most popular votes.
Five of the six Democrats on the 9-member board are expected to vote to re-elect Trevor Fuller as chair, bypassing Pat Cotham after a month filled with rancor, back-biting and charges of sexism – all among Democrats.
Cotham was the county’s leading vote-getter last month, finishing more than 22,000 votes ahead of Fuller and 18,000 ahead of the second-place finisher, Democrat Ella Scarborough. She won the chairmanship in 2012 after leading the ticket that year, though was later ousted.
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“You have to have a good reason, a really good reason, not to have your top vote-getter in the position,” Democratic strategist Tom Chumley told a roomful of party faithful last month. “Pat’s victory was far broader than her last one.”
But Democratic commissioners have made it clear they’re not supporting her.
George Dunlap called her “a snitch.” Vilma Leake said “she’s a notorious liar and her nose keeps growing.” Fuller said popular votes are “one factor but (not) the only factor.”
“You can’t really lead a group of people who don’t want you to lead them,” Fuller says. “To me that’s sort of the final line here.”
Cotham, 64, won’t give up easily. Last month she flashed a map of county election results that showed she won more precincts than anyone. Fuller didn’t win any.
“I will continue the fight because I have such a mandate from the people,” Cotham says. “I just don’t have the support of five Democrats on the board.”
Cotham is an unlikely person to face resistance from Democrats.
She’s one of a handful of N.C. Democrats elected to the party’s national committee. Her daughter, Tricia, is a state lawmaker; her son-in-law is a former state party chairman. She’s a past president of the county’s Democratic Women and still chairs the Uptown Democratic Forum, a group of party activists.
At a recent Forum luncheon, some Democrats clearly felt uncomfortable with the intra-party feud. “It’s unfortunate,” said Steven Porter, “but infighting comes with success.”
But Lisa Ellsworth said she’s done a “slow burn.”
“I’m not saying Pat’s done everything right, but in the real world you don’t get to choose your boss,” she said. “I have to think, if this was a man this wouldn’t be happening.”
Democrat Ann Wood called it “a reflection of the lack of support for women candidates.”
“For years I supported every male who ran on the Democratic ticket with my money, time and enthusiasm,” said Wood, 86. “I’m through.”