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Friday, December 6, 2013

Pat Cotham, the no-b.s. political bulldozer

Posted By on Fri, Dec 6, 2013 at 11:39 AM

Sometimes you need a bulldozer. When a stubborn bad habit needs to be gotten rid of. When the road is bumpy and needs to be smoothed out. When bad habits lead to a dysfunctional muddle. That's when you need a bulldozer.

Enter Pat Cotham. She may be a small woman, but she's also a highly energetic go-getter with a long history of active public involvement, creating jobs and helping the disadvantaged. Her history is one of corralling whoever is interested in getting things done, regardless of ideology, and then look out, she's coming through!

And that's what eventually got her into trouble.

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Cotham was chair of the Mecklenburg County Commission for one year and provided an example for future chairs of how to get things done. When she was named to the post, public respect for county government was as low as Charlotte has seen since the early '90s brouhaha over arts funding. The main reason public confidence had sunk to a new low was simple: Harry Jones, the county manager who thought he'd been elected king and paraded his arrogance for all to enjoy. The 2011 property revaluation was a disaster? Let's hide the facts and deny there's a problem, he said. DSS is involved in one scandal after another? Stonewall the press. Old cronies getting secret payments from the county without the commission being informed? Yeah, well, so what? That's my style, said the king.

Within a year under Cotham's leadership, the commission ditched the failed revaluation overseen by Jones, and had a more accurate one produced, and started DSS on the road to some semblance of organization and sanity. And, of course, she cobbled together a bipartisan coalition and got rid of the county government's lingering major problem: King Jones. When she didn't allow Jones to make a comment after his firing - something an attorney had told her was how the situation needed to be handled legally - lots of people thought it was a bit much, but she was unapologetic. As a result, a substantial part of Charlotte's African-American community was outraged for what they saw as disrespect for Jones.

After Jones' departure, Democrats on the commission who supported the former county manager (Dumont Clarke, poster boy for the "go along to get along" philosophy of governance; Kim Ratliffe, an effective activist with a temper and a tart tongue; and George Dunlap, the eternally smirking grouser, whether on county commission or in his former public trough, um, position, as school board member) did little to mend fences with Cotham. She, in turn, being the bulldozer in the equation, responded by cutting the Pissy Trio out of important discussions, and thus she was left trying to govern with a coalition of two Dems and three Republicans. Of course, that further enraged the Pissy Trio who then worked on Cotham's lone remaining Democratic ally on the commission, Vilma Leake, finally convincing her to vote to ditch Cotham as chair.
The kind of power struggle we've seen on the commission, complete with vengeful motives and vicious backstabbing (and naturally, behind the scenes accusation of racism from Cotham's opponents as well as Bill James) is as common to politics as dog shit is to suburban lawns. Cotham is on the outs now, but that doesn't change the fact that she came in like a whirlwind and got the things done that voters were most concerned about: a new revaluation and ditching Jones. We owe her a debt of gratitude for being the bulldozer who got the job done. She may not have the requisite tact to permanently lead a political lawmaking body, but she sure was the right person at a critical time.

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