North Carolina politics was rocked by the announcement that Democrat Tricia Cotham was switching parties, giving Republicans a supermajority in the state house. While this party switch is the most notable in the state in years, it isn’t the most notable in state history. That honor goes to an unusual switch made just after the 2002 midterms – one later revealed to have been the result of bribery.
A high-stakes switch
Following the 2002 midterms, Republicans gained a razor-tight 61-59 majority in the North Carolina House of Representatives. With Republicans outnumbered in the Senate and holding only one of 10 statewide offices, this represented their only check on Democratic control. However, this all changed after the fight over who would became Speaker was thrown into turmoil. Ahead of the vote, Forsyth County Republican Michael Decker switched his registration to the Democratic Party and announced his support for Democrat Jim Black. This moved the chamber’s partisan composition to a tie, resulting in the eventual election of co-Speakers: Black and Republican Richard Morgan.
From the start, Decker’s party switch seemed unusual. Decker was known as a staunch conservative; his opposition to all abortions and socially conservative stances earned him support from religious conservatives. Bizarrely, Decker would later switch back to the Republican Party ahead of the 2004 primary, where he was defeated by a 54-point margin. Black denied that he’d promised anything to Decker; this later turned out to be a bald-faced lie.
A bribe at IHOP
After a federal investigation, Decker pled guilty in 2006 to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, and money laundering. It was revealed that Decker and Black had in fact reached an arrangement. In exchange for his support, Black would pay Decker $50,000: $12,000 in cash, and $38,000 in campaign contributions. This bribe was delivered in the bathroom of a Salisbury IHOP. Decker was initially sentenced to four years in prison, later reduced to two.
Although Black denied involvement, he was brought down just a year later. Thanks to evidence provided by Decker, among others, Black, the longest-serving house speaker in state history, was convicted on a slew of corruption charges: obstruction of justice, public corruption, and bribery. Black resigned from the House in 2007 and would end up serving three years in prison.
The impact of the scandal on North Carolina politics was significant. It further eroded public trust in the state’s political institutions and highlighted the need for greater transparency and accountability. Republicans pointed to Black’s corruption in campaigns even years after his resignation. Scandals associated with North Carolina Democrats are often credited to their defeat in 2010, which saw Republicans claim both houses of the legislature for the first time in 110 years.
Interestingly, the woman who replaced Black in the legislature was none other than Cotham, whose own party switch has shocked the state. Unlike the party switch Black orchestrated, Cotham’s doesn’t appear to involve any foul play – but it might be just as consequential, gifting state Republicans a supermajority.