It seems only yesterday that Congressman Madison Cawthorn’s most newsworthy achievements were his citations for repeatedly violating motor-vehicle laws, including “extreme speeding” while driving his father’s car with a revoked license.
Since the traffic citations came to light last month, the 26-year-old Republican from Hendersonville earned bipartisan rebukes in Congress for calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and Ukraine “incredibly evil” — charges that won him accolades on Russian state television.
He then told a right-wing YouTube channel host that unnamed Republican lawmakers in Washington “in their 60s and 70s” had invited him to “orgies” and that he had witnessed them snorting cocaine.
And on April 4 , he took to the House floor to lecture Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a grandmother of nine — on biology. “I never imagined that one of my sacred duties in this hallowed chamber would be explaining to the House Speaker the difference between a man and a woman,” Cawthorn announced. “Take notes, Madam Speaker, I’m about to define what a woman is for you: XX chromosomes, no tallywacker.”
But while each outrageous comment gains him publicity and aids his fundraising for re-election, his traffic citations might actually land him in jail.
They are just the latest examples of a decade-long and growing record of law-breaking, rules flouting, accountability evasion, and questionable behavior. But a reckoning may be at hand.
Blames Media, Democrats for His Words
Not only does Cawthorn face a series of court dates for reckless driving and other charges, he has been pointedly ostracized by Republican Party leadership in Congress and within North Carolina who want to see him ousted in the May 17 primary election.
“On any given day, he’s an embarrassment,” U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) said of Cawthorn.
“Unfortunately, Madison Cawthorn has fallen well short of the most basic standards Western North Carolina expects from their representatives,” fellow Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said, citing what he said was Cawthorn’s “consistent pattern of juvenile behavior, outlandish statements, and untruthfulness.”
Cawthorn’s assertion that unnamed GOP colleagues snorted cocaine and invited him to an orgy drew a closed-door reprimand from fellow House Republicans and a 30-minute tongue lashing from an outraged Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader.
Cawthorn emerged red-faced from the scolding and, through his press secretary, admitted that he’d “exaggerated.” McCarthy bluntly called the stories “untrue” and said the once-rising GOP star had “lost my trust” and needed to “turn his life around.”
But Cawthorn quickly turned to social media to suggest that it was Democrats and the news media, not he, that made the allegations about cocaine use and orgies.
“My comments on a recent podcast appearance calling out corruption have been used by the left and the media to disparage my Republican colleagues and falsely insinuate their involvement in illicit activities,” Cawthorn said in statement posted to Twitter.
Whether he can coast to re-election is another question, according to Watchdog interviews with a number of local Republicans who backed Cawthorn in 2020.
The past month’s revelations, “combined with having a competitive field, have given the opportunity for former supporters not just to complain quietly, but to bolt,” said Western Carolina University Professor Chris Cooper, a specialist in the region’s elections.
Aside from criticism from the Republican Party leadership, Cawthorn faces a legal reckoning for the most recent motor-vehicle violations, the latest in a decade-long pattern.
Asheville Watchdog has found 12 motor-vehicle violations in North Carolina and three other states since Cawthorn became a licensed driver, most of which haven’t been reported before.
Until now, Cawthorn has avoided serious legal and political consequences. But this may change.
The motor-vehicle violations, although misdemeanors typically satisfied with payment of a fine, are classified as criminal offenses and could carry jail sentences upon conviction. Cawthorn awaits court hearings on April 18 and May 6 stemming from two recent citations in Polk and Cleveland counties respectively, either of which could carry a 20-day jail sentence and $1,000 fine.
Cawthorn’s brushes with the law haven’t been limited to exceeding speed limits. At least twice over the past several years he’s been ticketed for driving without a valid license or tag. And since his election to Congress from western North Carolina’s 11th District, Cawthorn has been flagged by authorities for a range of other violations not involving driving.
Among these have been four instances of carrying a switchblade-style knife onto school properties despite warnings from two county sheriffs (potential violations of state law), an attempt to carry a handgun onto a commercial flight from Asheville (a possible violation of federal law), and failure to pay Henderson County property taxes on time. Unpaid taxes expose property to lien and foreclosure.
Former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin, who in 2020 endorsed Cawthorn’s candidacy and urged other sheriffs and law enforcement officers to do likewise, has reversed his position and now apologizes to those he may have persuaded to support the charismatic Cawthorn.
“I know law enforcement is not enamored of him now,” Erwin said in an interview with Asheville Watchdog. “He says he ‘backs the blue,’ but the closest thing I can say to describe him now is ‘snake-oil salesman.’”
On Dec. 3, 2019, days before Cawthorn filed his candidacy for the congressional race he ultimately won, he was cited for speeding in Clayton County, Georgia, a southern suburb of Atlanta. He also was given a second citation for having an expired license tag, according to the county court clerk. He paid fines totaling $445.
Since then, the congressman has been cited for three driving violations that fit the North Carolina definition of “extreme speeding,” commonly known as reckless driving, because the speeds were more than 15 miles per hour above the legal limit.
Last Oct. 18 on Interstate 40, near Swannanoa, Cawthorn was cited by a state trooper going 89 miles per hour — 24 miles per hour over the posted limit — in a white Dodge Challenger with the license plate Maddy1. Cawthorn told the trooper that he did not have a wallet or a driver’s license. “Really?” he asked when the trooper told him his car was actually registered to his father.
Cawthorn could have faced a 20-day jail sentence plus a fine.
However, in an out-of-court settlement on March 4, the “extreme speeding” charge was reduced to a routine speeding ticket, according to North Carolina court records.
Three months later, in Polk County, Cawthorn was cited for driving 87 miles per hour in a 70 miles-per-hour zone, legally considered reckless driving. A court hearing on that charge is set for April 18.
Then on March 3, according to another citation, North Carolina Trooper T.J. Gantt stopped Cawthorn in a Toyota Tacoma pick-up after seeing the vehicle swerve over a highway center line near Shelby in Cleveland County, about midway between Asheville and Charlotte. Gantt ticketed Cawthorn for driving with a revoked license, which may have been the result of prior speeding convictions. If convicted of this offense at a court appearance scheduled for May 6, the congressman again faces a misdemeanor sentence of up to 20 days in jail and a fine.
Cawthorn did not respond to Asheville Watchdog’s requests to comment for this article. His spokesman, Luke Ball, also didn’t return calls, although he had given a statement to Raleigh television station WRAL saying, “Our office expects the traffic matters to be resolved quickly.”
First Brush With the Law
Cawthorn’s first brush with the law came barely two months after his 16th birthday. On Oct. 13, 2011, the newly licensed teenager was cited for traveling 89 miles per hour in a 65 miles-per-hour zone. A judge agreed to a reduced charge of going 74 miles-per-hour in that zone, below the reckless-driving level where Cawthorn’s license could have been suspended or revoked.
Less than a year later, on Aug. 18, 2012, Cawthorn was cited on an unknown charge that has been expunged from the court record. (The citation remains on the record, but all details are removed.)
Cawthorn’s driving citations continued even after the crippling injuries he sustained in 2014 while riding as a passenger in a car driven by a friend while returning from a Florida vacation. The friend lost control of his car on Interstate 4 near Daytona and crashed into a highway barrier.
Cawthorn, according to the accident record and subsequent testimony in a lawsuit against the driver’s insurance policy, was asleep in the passenger seat. The crash left the then-18-year-old a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair and drives with hand controls.
Six of the speeding citations on his record have come since then, including two at speeds above 80 miles per hour. One of those came on April 21, 2016, in Pickens County, South Carolina, just west of Greenville.
A state trooper ticketed Cawthorn for driving “more than 25 MPH over the speed limit,” according to the citation. It was reduced in court to speeding between 10 and 15 miles per hour over the limit.
South Carolina Highway Patrol spokesman Sonny Collins said that reduction was approved by the judge during the court hearing, thus dropping the charge below reckless driving. Collins said traffic-court judges frequently “give speeders a break to reduce the number of points they get on their record” and to reduce the size of a fine.
The record for that citation also includes the FBI’s National Crime Information Center code number indicating “EXTORT-THREAT INJURE REPUTATION.” Collins said he could find no incident report or other information relating to that notation. Asheville Watchdog‘s attempts to reach the trooper were unsuccessful. At the time, Cawthorn was working as a staff assistant in the local congressional office of then-Rep. Mark Meadows, a job that entailed answering constituent calls and preparing a review of local news media.
Less than six months later, on Oct. 7, 2016, the 21-year-old Cawthorn, newly enrolled as a freshman at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA., was ticketed on the charge “follow too close.”
The record in the Loudoun General District Court shows that Cawthorn was “Tried in Absentia” on January 27, 2017, after he had dropped out of the school. He paid a $100 fine and $96 in court costs. The ticketing officer, Purcellville Police Sgt. Paul Kakol, did not return repeated phone calls for comment.
Joy Rides and Predatory Behavior
Cawthorn’s driving habits before and while he was enrolled at Patrick Henry drew other complaints from schoolmates, mostly women. In an article in World magazine, which carries the motto “Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth,” three women described Cawthorn as being “sexually aggressive” toward them after being invited to accompany him on a car ride.
The article ran in August 2020, after Cawthorn had won the Republican nomination in the congressional race. A few weeks later but before the general election, more than 150 alumni and Patrick Henry classmates of Cawthorn signed an on-line petition detailing their complaints featuring these car rides. The petition read:
“During his brief time at the college, Cawthorn established a reputation for predatory behavior. His modus operandi was to invite unsuspecting women on ‘joy rides’ in his white Dodge Challenger. Cawthorn would take young women to secluded areas, lock the doors, and proceed to make unwanted sexual advances. It became a regular warning in the female dorms not to be caught alone with Madison Cawthorn. Additionally, he referred to female students as ‘bitches’ and ‘sluts,’ both in private amongst his friends and often publicly. He also called our female peers these derogatory names when they refused to go for a ride in his car.”
At that time, one of the petition signers, Giovanna Lastra, was a senior and student counselor at the college in a female dorm. In an interview with the Asheville Watchdog, Lastra said so many students complained of being victimized by Cawthorn in this manner that she warned others that, if invited by him to go on a “joy ride,” to “stay away; he’s trouble.”
Cawthorn dropped out of the conservative-Christian school in early 2017 before completing his second semester. He later attributed that decision to his having suffered a “broken heart” because his then-girlfriend had broken off their engagement.
Since his election to Congress in the state’s 11th District, Cawthorn has cultivated a national reputation for publicity seeking and backing right-wing causes. He was a featured speaker at ex-President Trump’s “Stop-the-steal” rally preceding the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and is listed to be a featured speaker at a Trump rally in Selma, NC, on April 9.
He frequently takes to the House floor to attack President Joe Biden, all Democrats, moderate Republicans and especially House Speaker Pelosi. He recently and falsely told a gathering of his supporters and in a Twitter variation that he could personally attest that Pelosi was a drunk. Pelosi’s associates say she does not drink alcohol, and previous reports alleging her drinking have been debunked.
Embracing Conspiracy Theories
He also is quick to embrace far-right conspiracy theories, such as those emanating from the QAnon cult. At a Hendersonville GOP candidates’ forum in March, Cawthorn claimed that a hiking and bicycling trail being completed along the abandoned Ecusta railroad connecting Hendersonville and Brevard was “absolutely a communist project,” part of a Chinese government scheme to control abandoned railroad land throughout the United States.
The Ecusta project has been championed by state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who happens to be Cawthorn’s leading challenger in the District 11 GOP primary. It has been unanimously backed by local lawmakers, most of whom are Republican, and was developed by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national non-profit organization created during the Reagan Administration. Brandi Horton, the organization’s communications director, told Asheville Watchdog that Cawthorn’s allegation is false, adding that, “This is a first for us.”
It echoed a charge Cawthorn leveled in his 2020 election campaign falsely claiming that thousands of American children were being kidnapped by South American drug cartels and forced into sex slavery, a trope of far-right conspiracy theorists despite being debunked by the FBI, Homeland Security and other agencies.
Whether Cawthorn will evade consequences for all of this may be determined by District 11 voters in the state’s May 17 primary elections. He faces seven challengers for the GOP nomination.
Among them is Michele Woodhouse. Until recently, she was the Republican Party’s District 11 chairwoman and was among Cawthorn’s strongest backers. When he announced plans to abandon District 11 to seek reelection in a friendlier adjoining district, he anointed Woodhouse to be his successor and promised to deliver her the endorsement of Trump.
Based on that pledge, she jumped into the Republican race positioning herself as the Cawthorn surrogate. But in February the state Supreme Court ordered congressional district lines to be redrawn, and Cawthorn reversed course, filing to seek reelection in his original western North Carolina home district. Woodhouse has refused to back out. She has joined the Cawthorn critics in calling him “immature” and an embarrassment to western North Carolina.
Through much of this, Cawthorn publicly appears unfazed, even embracing the controversies he fans.
“I don’t mind being hated,” he told students at Western Carolina University last fall. “Because if I’m hated in Washington, DC but loved at home in North Carolina and loved around the rest of the country, that means I’m doing my job.”
[This article was updated to include additional web links.]
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. He lives in Asheville. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.