Pat Cotham's Own Way

In her first year as chairman of the county commission, she fired the county manager, angered the party she’s devoted her life to, and became the center of a debate over manners. You'll have to forgive her if none of this bothers her
LOGAN CYRUS
Pat Cotham is chairman of the county commission.

At nine minutes past closing time, the waitress is nervous. One of the great perks of working at the Showmars location inside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center is that it closes early, at 3 p.m., just after the people in suits finish their lunches. But occupying the last booth right now is Pat Cotham, perhaps the most powerful suit in the building. And she doesn’t appear to be ready to leave.

For the past hour, Cotham has been talking over noise from heavy-duty vacuum cleaners and clanging dishes. She doesn’t realize that the restaurant, which was full when she sat down, is now empty. She uses her hands when she speaks. Her head jerks from side to side and up and down. She blinks hard. She moves in bursts, like a hummingbird. Nothing about her is smooth.

Cotham’s office, a sprawling space with an American flag and a lengthy boardroom table, is 11 stories above the restaurant. She’s the chairman of the board of county commissioners, and if you want to understand what kind of influence she has, consider this: This spring, she orchestrated the firing of the highest-ranking staff member in the county. She’s not to be crossed, and everybody in the government center knows it, even the waitress.

“I’m sorry,” the waitress says softly. “But we’re closed.” She raises her eyebrows to soften the news.

Cotham halts. She brings her wailing hands down to a clasped and polite position in front of her. She jerks her head toward the waitress.

“OK,” Cotham says. “Sorry about that. We’ll leave.”

Cotham stuffs her iPhone into her bag. She stands. She tugs on the bottom of her suit jacket to straighten it. She points toward the door. She walks out to the lobby. And then the woman who’s been called heartless and inconsiderate by people all across this county turns around and wishes the nice waitress a good day.

Perceptions of Cotham vary from person to person. To some, she’s a backhanded manipulator. To others, she’s a welcome shot of honesty. She’s either trying to achieve bipartisanship or she’s a traitor. A brilliant maneuverer or an incompetent leader. The meetings she directs, which often stretch to five hours, show either dedication or a lack of management.

Vilma Leake (left) has become one of Cotham’s closest allies on the board.

Right now, to the waitress, the most important thing is that she’s gone. The waitress locks the door behind Cotham and waves from the other side of the glass. Cotham stands in the lobby and waves back.

In just a few hours, the building will be packed with citizens who want money for their groups, hoping to squeeze something out of a proposed county budget of nearly $1.7 billion. They’ll carry signs that say “School nurses save lives” or “Parks are vital” or you-name-it for you-name-the-group. They all want something. And they’ll come armed with a series of emotional stories about why they deserve it. Cotham is in a position to give it to them—or not.

She seems to have incentive to be generous these days. She’s a Democrat, for one, and don’t Democrats always want to spend more? Moreover, at this point in the history of local politics, she’s not exactly the most popular person. Her firing of County Manager Harry Jones was a rogue mission. She made secret trips to Raleigh. She excluded some of the commissioners who opposed her. Then she not only fired the man but, when he asked if he could speak, when he asked if he could say good-bye, she said, “No.” She wouldn’t even let him go back to his office, 11 stories up and right next to hers, to gather his belongings.

You don’t do things like that here, people tell her. Not in Mecklenburg County, and not in the South, where politeness is often more important than proper procedure. Dozens of schoolkids were in the chamber that night to present projects from the year. She made some of them cry. “Why did she have to be so mean to that man?” one little girl asked her mother.

People were outraged, even those who wanted Jones out—even those who voted Jones out. It wasn’t what she did but the way she did it, they say. The outrage grew in the weeks that followed, and citizens couldn’t wait to unload on her. “Charlotteans do not work that way,” Dr. Sandy Hoagland proclaimed during a public-comment portion of one recent meeting. “Anyone who carries themselves like that, you need to be voted out.”

To which Cotham responded, “Thank you, Mr. Hoagland.”

That only makes it worse.

How could she sit there, they wonder, showing no signs of remorse, no tenderness, no tears? How could she be so cold, so unshaken by criticism? How could she listen to her fellow commissioner and Democrat George Dunlap vow to campaign against her in the next election and simply respond, “Thank you, Mr. Dunlap”? How could she listen to people call her everything from heartless to racist? Or listen to them go so far as to criticize her clothes and her hair and her size? (A quote by an unnamed political observer in one recent newspaper story referred to her as a “Jack Russell terrier.”) How could she listen to all of this and not run home crying, thinking about what an awful person she is for all the disrespect she’s shown others?

As criticism of her mounts, Cotham remains chillingly unshaken by any of it, which only makes her critics more furious, which only opens them up to make mistakes. The longer they attack her, the more they support her development into the sympathetic character.

“I’m always respectful to everybody,” Cotham says, standing in the lobby outside the restaurant. “They’re not to me. But I’m always to them. Because I’m not going to lower myself. I’m not going to do that. I’ve got to stay above that. I’m better than that.”

When people’s emotions are high, they want company. But Cotham refuses to join the noise. In a life filled with difficult moments, Cotham, 62, says none of this is all that painful.

“I can’t go through my life being mad at people,” she says. “I don’t want to live like that.”

 

On a late-spring morning, Pat Cotham is driving down Providence Road with a car full of Chinese girls. They live with her throughout the school year.

Through divorce or death, Cotham lost most of the family she’s ever cared for in the dozen years between 1996 and 2008. Her mother died first, then her mother-in-law, then her father, and then she lost her 34-year marriage. Cotham’s life became covered with blank spaces once filled by people.

In 2010, she began serving as host to three Chinese high school students a year.

This group is special. Lanna is an artist. Shelley and Amy play the violin. When Cotham is away at late-night meetings, the girls’ idea of letting loose is practicing the violin well past bedtime.

Cotham calls them the future of China.

The girls were here last fall, as Cotham was running for office, and last winter, when Cotham’s tensions with Jones grew, and all spring, after the firing. After some of the most difficult, loudest nights in the chamber, Cotham drove home and opened the door to her house to hear the beautiful sound of strings.

Cotham starts each day by making breakfast and packing their lunches. She drives them to school. This morning, one of the kids speaks up from the backseat. She’s forgotten a book she needs. Cotham stops and turns the car around.

“The future of China back there,” she says jokingly.

On nights when she has meetings, she leaves them several options for dinner. Tonight’s choices are rice and vegetables, chicken wings, or ribs.

“They like things on bones,” Cotham says.

The girls return home for the summers, under Chinese government orders to be on a flight within 48 hours after the last day of school. They’re schooled in the United States until they graduate from college. And then they’ll return home for good.

Cotham has dozens of pictures of them on her phone. She worries about them constantly, sending text messages throughout the day to make sure they’re OK. One of the first English words she teaches them is “vulnerable,” to let them know that people here might try to take advantage of someone who can’t speak the language. That sometimes resonates, sometimes doesn’t. Just before Christmas, the girls announced that they’d bought three plane tickets to New York for the holiday.

She, of all people, could respect their brash approach. But her mothering instinct took over, and she told them that 16- and 17-year-old girls don’t book plane tickets without telling anyone. She sat them down and said, “We don’t do things that way here.”

 

 

From the minute we’re old enough to understand the word, we are trained to bristle at “no.” It’s never the answer we want to hear. And so we expect the people who are delivering the message to show some tenderness.

In Mecklenburg County, these days, politicians are especially averse to “no.”

For better or worse, this region has become a place where you must pay attention to politics. It’s become a career launching pad. One former mayor is in the governor’s office. Another just went to Washington to become the country’s transportation secretary.

Throughout the spring budget sessions of the county commission meetings, board members regularly adjusted their ties, sat up straight, and made five- to 10-minute speeches on one issue or another, eyes looking directly into the camera.

Moments off-camera, though, are more revealing. Several times during the weeks that followed the Jones firing, members rolled their eyes at one another or buried their heads in their iPads, tweeting during meetings. During one long night, Commissioner Dunlap opened a bag of Doritos in front of his microphone. The crinkling over the sound system in the chamber made it hard to hear any of the speakers.

That the board gives the appearance of being dysfunctional is not really a matter of debate. But who takes the blame for it is. Is it the leader’s fault, or everyone else’s?

The answer depends on who’s talking.

“I put the blame squarely at the chairman’s foot,” Dunlap says. “If I had my druthers, I would appoint a new chairperson, one who understands the relationships and the importance of working together.”

Strangely, much of Cotham’s support comes from people who aren’t in her own party.

Cotham was the only Democrat to raise her hand against a county tax increase in June. Her fellow party members Kim Ratliff (left) and Trevor Fuller were among those who helped it pass.

“It is evident to me that some of the commissioners have it out for Pat Cotham,” says Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, a Republican. “They seem to be trying to exacerbate the problem rather than trying to develop a solution. They seem to think that by attacking her, they make themselves look good. It’s childish.”

For her part, Cotham sits mostly quiet during meetings. She rarely says anything controversial in public, never speaks a bad word about another commissioner or an idea in a meeting setting. In fact, the outrage that followed the Jones firing stemmed from just one word: “No.”

She insists that she was following the law in not allowing Jones to speak or retrieve his belongings that night. Others disagree.

“I think she fails to understand that there’s a difference between what you do and how you do it,” Dunlap says. “It’s as if she was saying, ‘I was required to be nasty.’”

Outside the chamber, Cotham is less reserved. She sounds off in one-on-one conversations. A profile of her in The Charlotte Observer this spring quoted her as saying “Screw ’em” about those who opposed her. I asked her about that in one of our many conversations that took place over the course of six weeks in May and June.

“I’m not one who normally uses words like that, but I guess I said it,” she told me. “But in those few weeks, it was a heated time. When I have people on the board who are attacking me from within my own party, that was new.”

Dunlap is actively campaigning against Cotham. “Every chance I get,” he says.

I asked Cotham how she could work with these people—especially Dunlap and vice-chairman Kim Ratliff, who swipe at her the most—for the next 18 months, until the 2014 election.

“I really can’t,” she said.

Regardless of who’s to blame, this much is clear: Cotham cares a great deal about children and lower-income citizens and inmates and others in the county who need help. But she cares very little about what her colleagues think of her. She isn’t bound by a lifetime of work for the Democratic Party. And in her first term, she doesn’t adhere to the idea that she should do things the way her predecessors have done them. If unspoken rules of decorum exist, she doesn’t care.

In this way, she’s become the strangest of politicians: one who does what she believes, regardless of her affiliation and whom it might piss off in the political ranks.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison is a non-elected official. He moved here from Nevada last year. In May, as Cotham prepared to vote against a budget that would add money to the school system he runs, Morrison said that if nothing else, he trusts Cotham.

“We expect politicians to be perfect. But they’re people. They have emotions. They have pressures. They have challenges,” Morrison says. “But I think above anything, integrity is really important. We may not agree on things. But I’ve never doubted that what she was saying was true.”

 

This spring, Cotham had a rare night off, and that came with a rare treat. One of the Chinese girls, Shelley, had her mother in town visiting. Shelley’s mother cooked the group a whole chicken, head and all. That night, Cotham learned something.

“The thing about the black chicken is, they come in full, with all of their private parts on,” Cotham says. “And it’s very important that you get a male.”

In May, Cotham attended the annual Charlotte Asian Festival and Dragon Boat Festival. Every year, the chairman of the board dots the eye of a dragon during the opening ceremony. There, she met John Chen, chairman of the Carolinas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce. Afterward, she told him about her three kids. He was stunned.

“She’s not like a usual politician,” Chen says.

The chemistry between Cotham and the Chinese students seems obvious, the more Chen thinks about it. Chinese children are quiet, private, and mission-driven. And Cotham?

“She’s not the typical American that will pat you on the shoulder or make a joke,” Chen says. “She’s caring, but more in a motherly or grandmotherly way.”

Cotham has similar sentiments about the girls.

“They’re different,” she says. “They’re not warm and fuzzy like American kids. They’re all business.”

 

In the first full-time job she had after college, Cotham cold-called people and tried to sell them life insurance with this opening line: “Hi, I’m the man from Equitable.”

That was 1973. She wasn’t trying to be funny. She was following the company’s handbook, which was developed for an all-male staff.

Cotham grew up the middle of five children, born in 1950 in a family that moved around. Her father was a salesman, and her mother stayed at home.

The family lived in Philadelphia when Cotham began to show signs of independence. The foreign-language department at her school took trips to Europe every year. Her parents didn’t have the money to send her, so she tried to find a job. But she was only 15, and state laws at the time prevented her from working until she was 16.

One night, she and her mother pulled out her birth certificate, a gallon of bleach, and a Q-tip. They changed the birth date on the certificate from 1950 to 1949. The next day, Cotham got a job at the local dime store. Within a year, she’d saved enough money to help pay for not only the Europe trip but the remaining balance on her braces.

On March 21, 1966, the braces came off and she got on a plane.

“It was the best day of my life,” Cotham says.

The trip took her to Italy, Vatican City, Austria, Switzerland. She came back and decided she wanted to learn languages. She enrolled at the University of Missouri as a Spanish major. After her sophomore year, she sought a more practical program that would increase her chances of finding a job after school. Missouri has one of the best schools for journalism in the country, so she met with the directors of the program and talked to them about a double major. They discouraged it. Pick one, they told her. No, she told them. She stayed in school an extra year to earn both degrees.

At her graduation ceremony in 1973, Cotham hung one red tassel and one white tassel from her cap, indicating the double major.

“I was the only one with two,” she says.

 

After her time at Equitable, Cotham went to Revlon, where she was the fourth woman ever hired by the products company. The company moved her to Chicago and then to Pittsburgh.

While living there, she married a man she’d met in Missouri, John, who was in the trucking business. During their marriage, John and Pat moved from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Louisiana to Atlanta to Rock Hill to Dallas and back here to Charlotte. During the moves, Pat left Revlon for Avon. She spent 10 years with the company in four different cities before taking a job as an image consultant for banks in the 1980s.

They were living here in 1989, when John’s mother came to town for a visit and suffered a massive stroke. She lost use of the left side of her body. She couldn’t move without help. She couldn’t speak. She spent the remainder of her life either in Pat and John’s house or in a nursing home. 

Pat quit her job. It was the start of what became nearly 20 years of caregiving to elderly members of her family. She and John were raising a daughter, Tricia, who was 10 years old when her grandmother came to live with the family. Tricia is now in her 30s and a state legislator.

Pat took a job at Walmart in the Arboretum area, near her home. The job allowed her to go home for lunch to check on her mother-in-law. She worked there for four years, moving up from health and beauty aids to customer service manager. She oversaw more than 40 cashiers and started a weekly newsletter for the store. Then she moved to a nearby Harris Teeter to become a customer service manager.

Pat’s mother died in 1996. Her mother-in-law died in 2001.

Pat started an executive recruiting business in February 2002. And just as that was getting off the ground, her father became ill and moved in with her and John. She worked from home, making calls to companies all over the world. She and John continued to be active members in the Democratic Party. John, in fact, became president of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party.

At the time, these were the labels Pat wore—caretaker, wife, business owner, Democrat.

In 2007, Pat’s father died.

In 2008, John left Pat. They divorced after 34 years.

In 2009, Pat lost her business in the divorce.

She was 59 years old. No one to take care of. No husband. No business. All she had left was her daughter and the label Democrat.

A devout Catholic, she went home and prayed.

 

 

Cotham holds out her iPhone and flips through the pictures of the girls. There’s Lanna with her violin. All three before prom.

Then she comes upon other photos of young men holding diplomas.

“This is where I was last night,” she says. “The sheriff has a high school in jail. And these boys graduated.”

Cotham was a speaker at a graduation ceremony for a program that helps jailed youths earn high school diplomas.

People find answers to hard times in different places. After she lost her father, husband, and business, Cotham took a job at a nonprofit, the Center for Community Transitions, helping inmates reenter the working world. Then she started housing Chinese students. Then she was running for a seat on the county commission on a campaign that focused on people who needed help. When Cotham lost everything, she surrounded herself with other people who were in their own blank spaces. And still today, those people seem to drive her whirlwind life. 

“I look at affluent people,” Cotham says, rolling her eyes on the word “affluent,” “and I say, ‘That [poor] guy over there doesn’t want the quality of life like you have. He wants a bike and a room and a job and to be able to have dinner with his mother on Sundays. He doesn’t want a house in southeast Charlotte. He doesn’t want your life.’ ”

In June, Cotham voted against a 2.35-cent tax hike in the county budget. During her public explanation, she said she didn’t want to raise taxes on some of the county’s poorer citizens.

Her speech drew cheers from several people in the chamber.

But not Democrats.

She was the only member of her party to vote against the budget. It still passed by a 5-4 margin, but Democrats saw it as a slap against them.

"I’m a target not only because I’m chair but because I’m female and I’m new. But that doesn’t scare me This is life.”

A week before that tax vote, during a public-forum meeting of Mecklenburg County Democrats in June, Cotham endured one of those loud nights of blasting. The group called for a straw vote on the tax increase, and she was the only one to raise her hand against it. Their anger grew from there. They chided her again for her handling of Jones, who was in the crowd but didn’t speak to her.

Ratliff and Dunlap, both Jones supporters and Cotham opponents, were on Twitter during the meeting. They seemed to revel in Cotham’s uncomfortable spot. “Pat Cotham is on the hot seat and choosing not to answer most questions,” Dunlap tweeted.

The next day, I called Cotham. She’d been a superdelegate at the Democratic National Convention last year and a lifelong Democrat. So what was that like, I asked her, to be ripped by the party she loves?

“I’m a target not only because I’m chair but because I’m female and I’m new. But that doesn’t scare me,” Cotham said. “This is life.”

Her opponents take it further. “She alienates just about every group she’s in,” Dunlap says.

Earlier this spring, at a meeting of Democrats in uptown, Cotham invited Commissioner Ridenhour, who’s not only a Republican but was a delegate to last year’s Republican National Convention. The invite surprised even him.

And it did more than raise eyebrows among Democrats.

“I understand the need to be bipartisan, but in some cases, you don’t have to, especially when you have the supermajority,” says Robin Bradford, president of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. “She talked about bipartisanship (when she was campaigning), but she’s really picked up that gauntlet, and she’s running with it. And people are just baffled because she was such a strong, staunch Democrat.”

On May 21, in the first full, public meeting since Jones’s firing, Cotham walks up and down the stairs, shaking hands and introducing herself to people.

“I’m Pat Cotham,” she says. “Thank you for coming.”

Just a few blocks east of the government building, all living mayors of Charlotte have gathered for a powerful political conversation about the future of the city. Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor, is there. So is Pat McCrory, the governor. Anthony Foxx participates through a video message from Washington. Meanwhile, just to the west of the government building, thousands of fans have gathered inside Time Warner Cable Arena to celebrate something else: The Charlotte Bobcats are changing their name back to the Hornets. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in history, will make the announcement.

Great leaders are all around the city. Cotham considers herself one too. Earlier in the week, she paid for her own poll to gauge public reaction to the Jones firing. The results came back in her favor.

The meeting starts with a roll call. Bill James says hello. Ridenhour puts on a Charlotte Hornets hat and smiles as he introduces himself. Trevor Fuller emphasizes that it’s his “privilege and honor” to serve. Vilma Leake says she’s “grateful to represent District 2.” Then Dumont Clarke, a good friend of Jones’s, asks the question.

“Madam Chairman,” Clarke says, “may I have a moment of personal privilege?”

“No,” Cotham says.

Clarke says he’s baffled. “I’ve seen others use it,” he says.

For the next 25 minutes, with some of Charlotte’s greatest leaders just a few blocks away, the county commissioners engage in a bitter, drawn-out argument over Robert’s Rules of Order.

A man in the crowd beside me, community organizer John White, turns on his cell phone and calls someone. “Turn the TV on,” he says. “This woman’s lost her mind.”

The meeting goes on for another five hours, filled with debate from all sides. But a closer look at the meeting reveals something else: Pat Cotham, sitting in the middle of the chaos, says almost nothing.

Ratliff, the vice-chairman, accuses Cotham of not including her on any committees. At one point, Ratliff uses the phrase, “heard through the grapevine.” Dunlap says he’s never campaigned directly against any politician before, but he will now.

Then citizens step up. Most of them are furious. Some of them raise their voices too.

It’s a loud meeting.

Finally, at 11:49 p.m., nearly six hours after the start of the meeting, they agree on something: It’s time to adjourn.

When they vote to do that, Cotham speaks. And she says the strangest thing: “Go team.”

Everybody laughs, and then the most impenetrable woman in local politics walks out of the chamber, gets in her car, and drives home, unfazed by the noise behind her, heading toward the beautiful sound of strings.

Email: michael.graff@charlottemagazine.com. Follow Michael Graff on Twitter at @michaelngraff.

Categories: Feature, Longform, The Buzz