NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield on Elephants, Donkeys and Leopards

They say a leopard doesn’t change its spots, but last week, North Carolina state representative Tricia Cotham switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, suddenly shifting the balance of power in the Tar Heel state. With Cotham’s assistance, Republicans in the general assembly now have enough votes to override any vetoes by the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. Our guest on Sea Change Radio is Rob Schofield, the Editor of NC Newsline, who will give us the inside scoop on Cotham’s spot-changing move to the GOP, lay out what it could mean for North Carolinians, and explore some other recent under-the-radar results from the 2022 midterms.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:14 Rob Schofield (RS) – It would be a truly remarkable spectacle to see Representative Cotham vote for something like that after having so publicly staked out her position, diametrically opposed for so much of her career. There would be…It would be a remarkable, remarkable scene, and we’ll it’s going to be an interesting few months here.

00:34 Narrator – They say a leopard doesn’t change its spots, but last week, North Carolina state representative Tricia Cotham switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, suddenly shifting the balance of power in the Tar Heel state. With Cotham’s assistance, Republicans in the general assembly now have enough votes to override any vetoes by the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. Our guest on Sea Change Radio is Rob Schofield, the Editor of NC Newsline, who will give us the inside scoop on Cotham’s spot-changing move to the GOP, lay out what it could mean for North Carolinians, and explore some other recent under-the-radar results from the 2022 midterms.

00:01:36 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Rob Schofield. Rob is the editor of NC NewsLine, formerly known as NC Policy Watch, there in North Carolina. Rob, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:49 Rob Schofield (RS) – Alex, it’s great to be back with you.

01:51 Alex Wise (AW) – So we had you on before the midterms and you explained what was at stake in North Carolina and things have changed very dramatically in the last week because of the. Changing of parties by one, Tricia Cotham, somebody nobody had heard of outside of North Carolina until last week and it’s really sent reverberations throughout the state, and it’s going to have an effect on millions of people. Why don’t you catch us up on what happened in the midterms and then get us to where we are last week, with Tricia Cotham’s party switch.

02:30 RS – Yeah. Well, the important thing to remember about North Carolina’s General Assembly is that it remain egregiously gerrymandered, we are a 50/50 state thanks to the to the courts, there was a a required redrawing of our congressional districts and lo and behold, of the 14 seats we have in Congress, seven are Republicans, 7 are Democrats. Because the maps were drawn in a a semi fair fashion. Unfortunately, that was not the case with the legislative maps, and as a result, Republicans, after the midterm elections picked up a few seats, which got them ohh so close to veto proof majorities. Super majorities. We have a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, but the Republicans since 2018 have been a little short of being able to override his vetoes as a result of the midterm elections. The Senate became veto proof. It went 30 Republicans to 20 Democrats. It takes a 3/5 vote to override a veto. Here, the House was one vote short, 71 to 49120 seats in the State House. And so there was lots of talk right from the get go that there was a, you know that there would be members who could be peeled off perhaps on individual votes. There are Democrats who are known to favor gun rights, Democrats who are not strong abortion rights supporters, so there was already a a deep concern in the state that there would be a possibility that the Republicans would be able to get back to overriding gubernatorial vetoes and they and there have been a lot of them over a lot of hot button issues over the last few years. But this was a little out of the blue. They had a lawmaker who, right after the election, a woman by the name of Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from the Charlotte area, who at one point was married early in her career to the state, to the chair of the Democratic Party in the state, and talked openly on the floor of the house in a previous term that she served about abortion and abortion she had obtained. She was strongly pro-choice. Her campaign, even this term, talked about featured Joe Biden on the website. It was it was a strongly democratic district. She won 59% of the vote. She was returning to the legislature after being away for several years as a lobbyist. But immediately we heard rumblings that she was making overtures to the Republicans, looking for perhaps to find some common ground. And lo and behold, there she was, escorting being in the escort committee for the members who would walk the new speaker of the House onto the floor of the House, early in the session, the Republican speaker. And she was rewarded immediately with a Co-chairmanship, Co-chair of a particular committee. So everybody was clearly the Democrats were a little nervous about that. “What’s going on, Tricia, our longtime friend and colleague? What’s going on with you?“ And one thing led to another until last week, she announced that she was actually going to leave the Democratic Party, become Republican and give the Republicans a 72 to 48 majority in the in the House, which would presume probably if she were to remain loyal to the Republicans and vote with him on hotly contested votes, make it possible to override the vetoes of the democratic governor.

05:42 AW -. And what will that mean in terms of some of the more regressive policies in terms of education, women’s right to choose etc? I know that the Republicans are now goading trans and gay people wherever possible. What are some of the things on the docket that scare you the most?

06:03 RS – Yeah, I think those are areas that people all have concerns. Interestingly enough, just today as we record this, our Governor Cooper, ever the optimist, was tweeting out statements to the effect well, she still has the ability to stop really bad legislation and I suppose that’s true. It’s really not clear here how far she’s gone. What kinds of commitments she may have made to the Republican leadership? I think some people found it notable that after the announcement, she posed for a picture in front of the well of the State House with a coterie of conservative Christian pastors, which was a little surprising. It remains very much something that’s in motion, we’re not quite clear yet how it’s going to all pan out. And as I said, there were already rumors even before this happened that there would be Democrats who might abandon the governor on some other measures. They’ve already done that this session we had a long standing law in North Carolina that required sheriffs actually to perform a background check. Before you could buy a handgun in our state, it was called the pistol permit system is 100 years old and Republicans had voted to repeal it. The governor had vetoed it this session. They voted to repeal it, and a handful of Democrats went along with repealing it. So literally, just hours after one of the most horrific recent shootings in Nashville, TN, our legislature repealed the handgun background check law. So it’s very much something in motion. We’re not quite clear how it’s going to play out, but I think the Republicans have made it a top priority of this session to pursue their culture war agenda on issues like choice, LGBTQ rights. Privatization of public schools election law, you know, sort of buying into the crazy conspiracies about election laws. All those things seem to be, you know, that much closer to becoming law.

07:58 Alex Wise (AW) – And you mentioned how she was a Charlotte based Democrat with deep roots in the party in the Democratic Party. I would have been less surprised if it had been somebody from rural North Carolina knowing the strength of the evangelical vote in those regions. But Charlotte is a very cosmopolitan part of the state. And how is this going to play with her constituents? Is she going to be able to get re-elected? It seems like a very short sighted move by representative Cotham.

08:32 Rob Schofield (RS) – It certainly does at first blush. Her mother is a progressive Democrat County Commissioner and Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located. You know, there were some weird signs during her time as a lobbyist over the last several years in which she had taken on some clients that were in the sort of pro school privatization, charter schools, where some of her clients, she had had some pretty sketchy clients in that realm and some weird relationships that sort of struck people as you know, what’s going on? So it wasn’t like this came, I think for most people completely out of the blue. I think for her constituents, it mostly has. There’s been a tremendous amount of anger in the district calls for her resignation. Mission statements accusing her of a betrayal of her the people who elected her, as I said, with close to 60% of the vote in a solidly democratic district, she now seems to have a very tight relationship with the speaker of the House, and the Republicans seem intent on yet another round of gerrymandering this year and redistrict redraw. There are all kinds of rumors, perhaps in the past there were rumors that she was interested in running for statewide office, perhaps Superintendent of public schools. There are rumors now, perhaps of a congressional bid, some other kind of high power position. I think it’s safe to say that it would be very difficult for her to stay in office. With the district map that she represents now remained the same, but things are fluid in politics, and the next election is a ways off, so I guess she’s for now, content to approach it this way.

10:27 (Music Break)

11:18 AW – This is Alex Wise on Cchange radio and I’m speaking to Rob Schofield. He is the editor of North Carolina and News line NBC So Rob, hearing the hypothetical plans that Representative Cotham might have for, you know, running for state office or something like that, that any Republican who primaries her will be able to say, look, you were against all these things that we stand for as as Republicans, why would we vote for you? And then conversely, I think she’s persona non grata to half of the state right now. Any Democrat is sickened by seeing somebody just betray what they were running on. It seems like you run as a politician on these points, you get elected and then all of a sudden you pull the switcheroo that feels like a real betrayal to voters.

12:08 RS – Yeah, it’s not unprecedented. We’ve had other politicians do this in North Carolina in the past, although not, I’d say not as high profile of the situation. Yeah, it’s really interesting. One, she’s not really given any kind of interview. She’s spoken in public about it. She hasn’t really addressed where her principles lie, what her motivations are, what her political calculus is for her own career. So much of this seems to be about herself. She said one of her top motivations is that the Democrats in her caucus weren’t being kind to her and were angry about her flirtation with the Republican. So it does seem that her motivation was principally about her own personal situation and future. But you’re right, it it does seem a rather difficult to sort of chart how you work your way to a path of success politically. Going forward, I suppose again, you know it’s conceivable that a Republican district could be drawn for her to run for some office. And that the powers that be in the Republican Party would use their, you know, their authority to sort of clear the way. And sometimes people who are converts become the most passionate for the new causes that they’ve adopted, and we’ve all seen that phenomenon play out throughout history. Anything’s possible, but it does seem a very, you know, questionable future lies ahead for her. Of course, for the Republicans, they’re just happy to have the vote. And if she’s going to vote with them to override the governor, well, it’s, you know, they’ll just chalk it up as another win. The Republicans are in a very strong position in our state. Our courts have taken some steps in the past to sort of rein in the gerrymandering of the districts. But because Republicans also were successful in winning control of the state Supreme Court by very narrow statewide margins in the fall election, they are really in a position now where the courts pose very little threat. To their efforts to gerrymander the districts, and we expect, you know, an aggressive redrawing of legislative districts again this year or later this year, so maybe she just figures she’s gone over to the side that’s going to be in charge for a long time and she might as well be with the winner.

14:24 AW – Yes, I mean when we think about the historical precedents here, there’s just a long list of well-known politicians who’ve switched parties and I remember Jim Jeffords in Vermont like 20 something years ago. And Arlen Specter, I believe he switched to the Democratic Party. And then there was more political expediency when the South was changing. You saw Strom Thurmond and Richard Shelby used to be a Democrat, and we have KYrsten Sinema right now flirting with the Republican Party. She’s no longer a Democrat, she says she’s an Independent, but in my lifetime we haven’t had such a gap between the two parties. We’re in such polemical times it seems hard to be able to skip over to the other side when we’re so divided. That’s why it seems like such a head scratcher to me, although it’s happened historically.

15:20 RS – Yeah, we, we and interestingly, we had an incident here about 20 years ago where there was a split in the legislature where it was literally 59 to or 61 to 59 something like that. And the Democrats convinced a deeply conservative religious right Republican to switch parties and to become a Democrat, and it ended up leading to that, ultimately, that person’s indictment for criminal, for a payoff, and the speaker who was behind it later was served time in prison. There was a corruption angle to it.

15:54 AW – Actually, that was one of my questions is will we find out that there was something unseemly behind the scenes that sparked this switch by Trisha Cotham like it was there some financial incentive for her to do this? Because it doesn’t seem like politically expedient, as you said.

16:12 RS – No, I don’t know. I have no information about that. I suppose anything is possible. Hope that’s not the case. But you’re right, it’s what’s strange about this conversion is that so often, as you’ve noted, the conversions happen for people who have already sort of ideologically, we’re always sort of more aligned with the other party. And maybe they were just outliers in their own party for some time. She has been, at least in her past service in the General Assembly, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat – a person who got awards for her work on reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights, and I think that’s, as I said, spoke openly on the floor of the House about having obtained an abortion and how that was nobody else’s business and it is just striking to see that this happen and for this individual and that one again senses that it remains a fluid situation and she may be sort of really just sort of going day-to-day and trying to, you know, figure it out from day-to-day as to what she’s going to do. And sometimes I think we see too much in the way of, you know, deeply thought out motives. And those people are just winging this stuff and they’re just, you know, emotional. And they make interesting choices that aren’t terribly well informed or or thought out, and this might be one of those.

17:33 AW – So you mentioned the abortion issue. Let’s drill down on that a little bit more deeply, Rob, now that the Dobbs decision is the law of the land and Roe has been repealed. What is a nightmare scenario for a woman who is facing an unwanted pregnancy now that the General Assembly has flipped and they can override Governor Cooper’s vetoes?

17:57 RS – Well, I mean, North Carolina, it’s not just North Carolina and North Carolina is actually a bit of a sanctuary state for the South, where people can actually get here from states like Tennessee and South Carolina and Georgia and other Florida, where abortion is much more greatly restricted. We have some restrictions here that are nonsensical. We have a 20 week ban that doesn’t really serve any useful purpose and that it’s causing indeed causing women to have to travel outside of North Carolina, but we know that when it comes to a basic, early term abortion, North Carolina remains a sanctuary state where people are coming to obtain abortions and it is obviously a right that hangs very much by a thread in this state. At this point, I think that the Republicans have made it clear that they intend to pass legislation restricting the right it’s I think it’s safe to say that they’ve had some trouble actually early in the session getting their act together on that. And there’s some division within the Republican Party as to how far. They want to go the they’ve talked about first trimester. They’re of course true believers in their caucus who have introduced legislation to say that abortion is murder. I think the expectation if anybody had to bet is that there’ll be some sort of very significant restriction that will make it much, much harder. But maybe not a complete Tennessee like total ban, but it would be a truly remarkable spectacle to see Representative Cotham vote for something like that after having so publicly staked out her position, diametrically opposed for so much of her career, there would be a remarkable, remarkable scene, and we’ll it’s going to be an interesting few months here. Our legislature came in in January. They would typically go at least in some theory, try to wrap up the session in June and get out of here in July. But in recent years, the Republicans have kind of just been hanging around Raleigh a lot. They don’t go away for very long. So things could happen just about anytime going forward.

20:05 (Music Break)

20:58 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Rob Schofield. He is the editor of NC Newsline. So Rob, a lot of us were watching the balance of power play out in the Senate in the midterms, and things did not go well for the Democrats in North Carolina statewide. But why don’t you give us a recap of the elections that we may have missed while we were watching very tight races in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, etc.

21:31 RS – Yeah, I mean, North Carolina remains a very closely divided state. As I’ve noted, we have a Democratic governor who’s won reelection pretty handily in 2020. But in the 2022 midterms, as is so often. Case the things the election tilted to the party out of power in the White House. This was true in North Carolina, although as I noted, because the of the way the maps were drawn in our congressional districts, our House, U.S. House districts. Democrats actually picked up seats and went from being down 8 to 5 to with the addition of a new district thanks to the census and reapportionment. Now it’s split 77, but in the Senate race we had Richard Burr, a retiring sort of Country Club Republican who had had some ethical problems late in his career. Never a real firebrand. Actually voted to impeach Donald Trump at one point. He was one of the few Republicans who went that way. Burr was retiring and the Republicans were Donald Trump. Very early on endorsed a sort of obscure. Member of Congress who’d been in for a couple of terms. He’s a gun shop owner who like to do his TV ads with a gun in his holster, tucked in his, you know, his belt, a guy named Ted Budd. And he ran against an African American woman named Cheri Beasley, who had been the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court and actually lost her reelection to the Supreme Court by 400 votes in 2020. A very formidable candidate. But you know it was a tough uphill battle for her, and so bud ultimately prevailed. And it’s been a real turn to the right. As I say, Burr was a conservative Republican, but very much a sort of old-fashioned Country Club guy. Not a true believer in the Trump brand.

23:16 AW – More like a blue blood old school Republican?

00:23:19 RS – Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.

00:23:21 AW – But Budd is part of the new generation of the Ron DeSantis mold of Republicans?

00:23:26 RS – Seems that way. Interestingly enough, the now now senior state senator, a US Senator by the name of Thom Tillis, not really a true Trump believer. He’s crossed Trump a couple of times early in his tenure, although he’s usually quickly retreats into the shadows when called out on it by the Trump wing. He has actually expressed some interest, we’ve heard, of running for governor in the state like a lot of people who find Washington sort of a tough place to hang out in politics. But he faces the challenge that we have a true fire breathing. Lieutenant governor who’s very well known. And interestingly enough, an African American Republican who has already basically made it plain that he wants to run for governor in 2024.

24:13 AW – And who’s that again?

00:24:14 RS – This is a fellow by the name of Mark Robinson. Mark actually is a classic accidental politician, a person who, really. Much of a job, or had much of even a career of any kind, but had the good fortune to give a pro gun rant at a Greensboro City Council meeting that went viral, which got him enough name recognition to help him win a crowded race in the Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor. In 2020, that had a zillion candidates in the primary. He eked out a victory and then similarly won a statewide election for Lieutenant governor. Over a rather uninspired Democrat and is all of a sudden the most the highest elected Republican in North Carolina state government. And he is a true frightening character who regularly espouses anti-Semitic views, who is an avowed homophobe who is far right. He makes sometimes Donald Trump look like sort of a liberal. So he will be an interesting character that if the Republicans actually nominate him for governor in two years or in one year next year.

25:26 AW – And the Republicans picked up some seats in the state Supreme Court as well during the midterms, didn’t they? Why don’t you give us a brief summary of those elections? It’s kind of strange to me that people vote for.

25:39 RS – Supreme Court?

25:40 AW – Or a judge when they don’t know any. I mean, they’re supposed to be apolitical positions, but that’s tradition.

25:48 RS – Yeah, North Carolinians have always elected their judges. Interestingly, in the late latter part of the last century and early part of this century, when the Democrats still controlled things, they made several moves in that were really encouraging. They actually moved to make sure that all these races were nonpartisan and actually pass laws to provide for public funding for judicial campaigns made it possible for candidates who made a, you know, minimal demonstration of viability as a candidate to get public funding, it was a couple of very progressive changes when Republicans got back in, they immediately repealed all that stuff, made all the races partisan they they’ve made the calculation that it’s better to be a Republican running for a judge than a Democrat, and it’s generally worked that way for them in the last few elections, the Democrats had managed to hold on to a four to three majority in the state Supreme Court. But one justice had to retire in the recent at the end of her term in 2022, another justice was running for reelection. They were the only two that happened to be up in the 2022 election, and the Republicans narrowly won both races. So they went from being down four to three to up five to two, and that’s going to be the case for several years now, because these are eight-year terms, so the Democrats are out of power in the state Supreme Court and that has provided just another important backstop for the Republicans in the General Assembly, who had seen some of their actions receive, you know, critical review by the state Supreme Court with Democratic majority. Unfortunately, our courts have become sort of as divisive, divided politically as our legislatures and congressional maps these days. And so, it’s pretty much playing out that way in the courts right now.

27:43 AW – Well, I appreciate the deep dive into the Tar Heel states politics. It is a bellwether state for any political observer. He is the editor of NC Newsline. Rob Schofield. Rob, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:00 RS – Alex, always a pleasure, man. Take care.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Who, The Marcus King Band and The California Honeydrops. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.