2018 Charlotteans of the Year: Pat Cotham
The three-term county commissioner makes public service a face-to-face affair
ABIGAIL WILLIAMS FLED an abusive partner in Washington state in July and decided to move back to her native Charlotte to help care for her older sister, who has breast cancer. Williams, 51, lived in Section 8 housing in Washington and thought her housing voucher would transfer to North Carolina. But a stint in jail, related to her partner back in Washington, prevented it. Williams needed a place, any place, to stay. A cousin of hers who’d faced a similar predicament put her in touch with a woman Williams refers to as “Commissioner Pat.”
“Commissioner Pat has been supportive of me from day one,” Williams tells me on an early October morning. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham is a few feet away, having shown up to support Williams. They’re both outside the hearing room at the Charlotte Housing Authority office on East Boulevard, where Williams has just learned that her hearing to reinstate her voucher has been postponed a week. “There hasn’t been a time when I’ve texted or called when she hasn’t texted or called back.”
Cotham, 68, is serving her third term on the county’s governing body, and she’s earned an odd reputation as a public servant equally recognized and respected by citizens and scorned by some colleagues, often by fellow Democrats. Each of the three times she’s run as an at-large commissioner, Cotham has garnered more votes than any of her competitors. (The top three vote-getters win the countywide seats.) Yet she’s served as chairman, the position usually held by the commissioner who received the most votes, only for a year in her first term. She clashes frequently with other board members, some of whom perceive her as abrasive.
But she’s a Charlottean of the Year because of what she does when she’s not sitting behind the dais. Cotham takes “public servant” to mean just that, helping former inmates find work and helping the homeless find shelter. In the first days of 2018, when a cold snap plunged nighttime temperatures in Charlotte near single digits, Cotham roamed uptown with warm roast beef sandwiches from Arby’s, blankets, hand warmers, and ponchos, and helped the homeless by putting them in contact with churches and community centers providing aid after the homeless shelters filled up. The county is in charge of public health and human services. Well, Cotham argues, places like that are where the county needs to do the work.
“That’s what motivated me to run for office, because I saw the struggles … It helps me to better understand what I’m voting for when I experience it,” Cotham tells me at the CHA office. “If you want to meet me, don’t go to the Government Center. I’ll meet you on the street. That’s where I am all the time.”
She says she does it for moral, not political, reasons. But you can see why she keeps getting all those votes. There’s no substitute for caring. Before she leaves, Williams takes both of Cotham’s hands in hers. “When I get settled, Ms. Pat,” she says, “use me. Call me. Whatever you need.”