North Carolina voters largely supported Republican candidates in the 2020 elections, from President Trump to Senator Thom Tillis. But Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican challenger in the gubernatorial race, was a notable exception. He lost to Gov. Roy Cooper 51.5% to 47%.
In a purple state made up of a relatively moderate electorate, Forest proved to be too conservative and strident for many voters. And he was facing an uphill battle: Forest lacked the power of the incumbency, and Cooper had been prominently in the public’s eye since March due to the pandemic.
Ultimately, Forest lost because of the issues he chose to emphasize. He often took an inflammatory stance on North Carolina’s coronavirus response, a central topic in the race, by questioning the efficacy of safety measures like face masks and social distancing. While claiming “unity” as one of his platform’s pillars, Forest was a divisive candidate who fired up his base but lacked broad appeal.
“Forest just wasn’t the right kind of Republican for this race,” said Rob Christensen, an author and political reporter who studied North Carolina politics for 45 years. “His position was in line with the most conservative wing of his party, and that was not a very popular position to take.”
Forest aligned himself closely with Trump, and even shared a stage with the president at a rally in Gastonia. But Trump won in North Carolina and Forest did not.
North Carolina has a long history of electing Democratic governors, Christensen said, while simultaneously choosing Republican presidents and senators. This is because gubernatorial elections often deal with a different set of issues than do races for a federal office.
“North Carolina governor races tend to be less ideological and more focused on things like running the schools and building roads,” Christensen said. “When North Carolina does elect a Republican governor, and it does from time to time, they tend to be moderately conservative.”
Those who did support Forest were primarily Republicans looking for a change in leadership or tired of Cooper’s cautious, measured reopening of the state. Forest offered a more libertarian approach, promising to lift the face mask mandate and reopen schools.
Cooper’s win showed that many voters remain concerned about the pandemic and prioritize public health over individual freedoms. Forest often cast doubt on guidance from public health experts, and undermined their advice by holding in person campaign events without masks or social distancing.
The election “ended up being a referendum on science and medical expertise,” said Nathan Boucher, a professor of public policy at Duke University.
Still, it was far from a landslide.
“Forest had a message that resonated with a lot of folks, which was ‘they’re not going to tell us what to do and we’re going to protect our freedoms,’” Boucher said, “and you have these huge, loud factions of the state that detest Cooper.”
Yet relying on the polarization of North Carolina voters wasn’t a successful strategy for Forest.
“The United States and our state require a moderate leader,” Boucher said. “It needs someone who can walk down the middle.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Nathan Boucher’s title. He is a professor of public policy at Duke, not political science.
Four years ago, the number of absentee and in-person early voting ballots cast in North Carolina crushed records. But those records didn’t stand a chance against this year’s stunning numbers.
Absentee ballots, which include mail-in and in-person early voting, have revealed the intense interest in the 2020 election. A surge of mail-in voting could be expected during a global pandemic, but the numbers suggest COVID-19 is not the sole reason behind the state’s record-shattering count.
The tally is so staggering that Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections, said he “absolutely believe[s] that this will be the largest turnout in the history of North Carolina.”
What the numbers tell us
With two days of early voting still to go, more than 4 million North Carolina voters have already cast their ballots. For perspective, 2.5 million people had voted at this point in 2016, and the early voting period ended with 3.1 million total ballots cast.
According to data from the State Board of Elections, more Democrats have voted (1,556,483) than Republicans (1,286,508) so far.
Democratic ballots account for 38.1% of total ballots cast, compared with 31.5% for Republicans. Unaffiliated voters account for another 29.9% of ballots cast.
There’s a larger discrepancy between parties when it comes to the number of absentee mail-in ballots requested. The deadline to ask for a mail-in ballot was Oct. 27, and requests from Democrats were over double the number of requests from Republicans.
Unaffiliated voters also requested more mail-in ballots than did Republicans – a little under twice as many. In total, only 287,552 Republican voters chose to request a mail-in ballot, making up 19% of all requests.
The most revealing aspect of this year’s vote is the amount of early voting that has been done in person.
Compared with 2016, nearly 1 million more voters cast their ballot at in-person early voting sites. This is often referred to as one-stop voting, because you can register and cast your ballot at the same time.
Even with the threat of the coronavirus, in-person early voters account for about 78% of all absentee ballots cast.
The massive jump in the number of mail-in ballots compared to 2016 – more than a sixfold increase, to 883,964 – can partly be explained by the pandemic. Voters who would normally head to the polls are now sending in their vote from a safe distance. But the overall growth of early voting suggests a bigger force at work.
Mac McCorkle, a Duke University public policy professor and longtime Democratic consultant, said the pandemic has actually opened up new avenues of voting, because mail-in ballots are now more widely accessible than ever before.
Strong feelings about the race are also likely playing a role, he said. There’s passionate voters on both sides, and that increases overall turnout. “The realistic view is that each side’s turnout enthusiasm magnifies and expands the other’s,” McCorkle said.
Circosta, chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections, said he also sees more energy and enthusiasm from voters. “This year, everybody is talking about [the election],” he said. “It’s not just in the media and not just on the news, it’s a topic of constant conversation.”
The influx of early voters is a relatively new phenomenon, Circosta said. The rhythms of election years have gradually changed as the state has allowed more early voting. The trend began in 2008, when North Carolina first established one-stop voting.
“There used to be an Election Day,” Circosta said, “and now Election Day is like the last call for voting.”
Election Day will still be busy, but Circosta says counting all the votes won’t be the problem. The state is well suited for the high numbers of early ballots it’s receiving this year.
“North Carolina is lucky to have laws in place that have let us begin the preparation for counting all of the absentee ballots, both for early voting and absentee vote by mail,” Circosta said. “I anticipate us being able to achieve that task quicker than most other states.”
Voters lined up on the first day of early voting – and kept coming. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal
On the eve of North Carolina’s first day of early voting, Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest debated issues from health care to taxes to hurricanes. But much of the debate centered on their most contentious disagreement: how to handle the coronavirus.
Although Cooper is leading in the polls, he attacked Forest from the outset. The majority of polls show Cooper leading by at least 10 points, and a WRAL survey released Wednesday had him up by 13 points.
Face to face for the first time, they debated face masks and schools. Cooper defended his mask mandate against Forest’s claims that they are not proven to be effective. Forest argued that children should return to classrooms, and Cooper defended his phased reopening.
During the hour-long debate, which was sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, they also clashed on how fast Cooper was reopening the state’s economy.
“Talking about masks is a great cover for what he really doesn’t want to talk about, the over million and a half people that he has left unemployed,” Forest said.
“You’re not just ignoring science, you’re ignoring common sense,” Cooper replied. “You cannot wish the pandemic away.”
Forest acknowledged the threat of COVID-19 for older people and those with underlying health conditions. He emphasized the danger the pandemic poses to people in nursing homes and the state’s most vulnerable residents. “That’s where we should be spending all of our time and attention,” he said. “We should allow healthy people to get back [to] life.”
He said children are 17 times more likely to be impacted by the flu than coronavirus, a claim PolitiFact has rated mostly false.
Cooper countered that protecting the most vulnerable people requires cooperation from everyone. “The problem is, Dan, you treat nursing homes like an island,” he said.
“When you have people out there discouraging masks, when you have people out there trying to prove that there’s not a pandemic, then you end up having more people who are infected. It could be a nursing home staff member [or] a visitor,” he said.
Above: Plexiglas wasn’t the only thing that separated Roy Cooper from Dan Forest in the gubernatorial debate. (Screenshot from WRAL broadcast.)
Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted an attack ad dramatically depicting a quote from his opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest: “I would lift the mask mandate for the state.” Forest would set North Carolina back in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Cooper wrote in his caption.
52 minutes later, Forest tweeted the exact same graphic. He didn’t need a caption to make his point.
In a governor’s race dominated by the pandemic, face masks are a divisive symbol. Cooper has criticized Forest for ignoring the guidance of experts on masks, but Forest is not shy about his opinions.
On the campaign trail, the Republican challenger has said that masks are not effective and shouldn’t be required in the classroom.
His comments often focus on individual freedom and an alleged lack of a scientific consensus. And some of his remarks suggest he may not believe in scientific conclusions at all.
Individual freedom and responsibility
Cooper, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mandy Cohen, the state secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, would all say the responsible decision is the same for everyone: wear a mask. But Forest said he believes masks are only important for some.
“I would lift the mask mandate for the state and allow individual freedom to decide whether [North Carolinians] wear a mask.” Forest said in a Sept. 16 press conference. “There are people that have pre-existing conditions … and they need to protect themselves.”
Health experts say that masks are not as much for the wearer’s protection as they are for others. “COVID-19 can be spread by people who do not have symptoms and do not know that they are infected,” the CDC states on its website. “That’s why it’s important for everyone to wear masks in public settings,” the website reads.
Forest also said he doesn’t think masks are necessary in schools, but added that they should be worn “ if that is what the parent determines is best for their student.”
During a virtual forum on education, Cooper criticized Forest’s comments. “It was stunning to hear my opponent, the lieutenant governor, say last week that as governor he would fill up every classroom immediately with no safety guidelines and no mask requirement,” Cooper said. “Not only is that wrong, it’s dangerous.”
Forest called Cooper’s attack against him “character assassination.”
Despite the statewide mandate, many of Forest’s supporters have accepted his invitation to make their own decisions. Pictures and videos from Forest’s in-person campaign events rarely show masks.
During an Aug. 4 campaign stop in Lexington, WXII News asked him about the lack of face masks in the crowd.
“When we have events we have masks at the door, anybody that wants one can put one on,” Forest said. “A lot of people don’t show up with masks.”
Masks and social distancing also work against his method of campaigning, Forest said. “We shake as many hands as we can and we meet as many people as possible. It’s just the way we’ve always run a campaign,” he said. “If I’m talking to the crowd, I don’t wear a mask. Can’t talk with a mask on.”
Scientific uncertainty and public confusion
As Forest encourages all North Carolinians to make their own choice about face masks, he laments a perceived lack of conclusive scientific data that might aid them in their decision. The public is confused, Forest said. There are too many mixed messages about the efficacy of masks.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, this was true. Anthony Fauci and the CDC said that masks were not necessary for healthy individuals back in March.
But public guidance has since shifted. The CDC and other public health experts are now clear in recommending face masks for everyone in public spaces.
“I think there’s just a lot of confusion out there with people,” Forest said. “That’s why you see some people wearing them and some people not.”
In a commentPolitiFact rated false, Forest said that masks are not effective with viruses and have never been used with a coronavirus.
“There have been multiple comprehensive studies at the deepest level, held to scientific standards, under controlled circumstances in controlled environments, that have all said for decades masks do not work with viruses,” he said in a July 4 interview.
Forest has cast doubt on the science of closing schools, too. “There is no solid science or data anywhere that suggests that our kids should not be in the classroom right now,” he said. Across the country, outbreaks have appeared in schools that prematurely resumed in-person instruction.
Franklin High School in Macon County, North Carolina was forced to suspend in-person instruction after a staff member tested positive for coronavirus. Students or staff members at six of the 11 schools in Macon County School District have tested positive, The Charlotte Observer reported.
But if there’s science that suggests schools and businesses can reopen safely, Forest is quick to rely on it. “The fear and panic campaign continues to go on in North Carolina and that’s unfortunate,” he said in an interview with conservative YouTuber John Woodard, “because there’s plenty of data out there that would suggest that we as a state can live with this virus and can get peoples’ livelihoods back.”
Forest’s stance on face masks may be rooted in his opinion on science itself. Science isn’t about reaching a consensus, he said, it’s about skepticism.
“Science is not a one size fits all,” Forest said in a recent press conference. “All science is based on skepticism, and you need to have skeptics.”
The “fear and panic campaign” is threatening that foundation, according to Forest. “If anybody is ever skeptical of anything that goes on that doesn’t meet the narrative of the left right now, then they are shut down,” he said.
Forest said that hundreds of doctors have called to say that their thoughts and findings on face masks are being ignored. He said he’s trying to find accurate, reliable information.
“I’m not a scientist nor a doctor, I just try to do my best to filter through it,” he said. “Just like everybody else.”
At top: Forest poses with employees outside Parker’s, a popular restaurant recently criticized for allegedly not enforcing mask use among workers. Via Dan Forest’s Facebook page.
North Carolina’s governor and lieutenant governor don’t seem to agree on anything.
As candidates for governor, Roy Cooper, the Democratic incumbent, and Dan Forest, the Republican challenger, have sparred most bitterly over the response to the coronavirus. And they don’t see eye to eye on another group of issues that are important in this year’s election: systemic racism and police brutality.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers prompted countless protests across North Carolina and lots of discussion about what government can do on the issues of racism, protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Cooper and Forest have emphasized drastically different messages.
Cooper has spoken out against systemic racism and excessive use of police force. In a press briefing in late May, he proclaimed that “Black lives matter” and urged North Carolinians not to let people who destroy property undermine the message of peaceful protesters.
Forest has focused more on the threat of violence from the protests. He has said relatively little about racial inequality and instead emphasized the importance of law and order. He said he stands proudly with the police.
Forest: ‘We don’t put up with anarchy’
Forest says he will protect North Carolinians when “anarchists” take to the streets. Gov. Cooper failed to do so, he said.
In an interview with John Woodard, a North Carolina YouTube user and podcast maker, Forest said the mainstream media didn’t tell the full story about the disorder in downtown Raleigh in May, when protesters smashed windows and destroyed storefronts. He said the coverage, or lack thereof, essentially gave Cooper a “free pass” to avoid action.
“Not only did he not do a good job, he didn’t do anything,” Forest said.
“[People] shouldn’t have to wonder, when the violence comes to my town, what’s the governor going to do?” Forest said.
In the interview, Forest didn’t spend much time discussing why the protesters were there. While he acknowledged that “there will always be a racism problem,” he cited the nation’s success in eradicating slavery more quickly than other parts of the world.
“I do not believe that the vast majority of Americans think that we have a systemic racism problem,” Forest said.
He said he finds it unfair that a handful of cases of police misconduct around the country have led some to believe that there is a systemic problem.
Police officers put their lives on the line everyday to protect citizens, Forest said in the interview.
“We don’t put up with anarchy,” he said, “We don’t want to see our cities destroyed, we don’t want to see our police defunded.”
Restoring law and order is a central part of his platform. “Here in North Carolina, we Back the Blue!!!” says one Facebook ad.
Cooper: ‘People are more important than property’
After the violence in Raleigh, Cooper spoke at an emergency briefing. While he thanked police for working to keep the peace, he emphasized the importance of the protests.
“Today the headlines are not about those protestors and their calls for serious, meaningful change,” Cooper said, “They are more about riots, and tear gas, and broken windows and stolen property. I fear the cry of the people is being drowned out.”
When the mayors of Raleigh, Charlotte, Fayetteville and Greensboro requested state highway patrol and National Guard soldiers to maintain order during protests, Cooper complied.
But he focused on the issues that caused the unrest.
“We cannot focus so much on the property damage that we forget why people are in the streets” he said.
“Let me be clear,” he said, “People are more important than property. Black lives do matter.”
In June, Cooper formed a task force to address racial inequity in North Carolina’s criminal justice system. He also criticized Forest for failing to speak out against racism.
He accused Forest of failing to denounce a racist incident that occurred at 311 Speedway, a race track in Stokes County. Mike Fulp, the owner of the track, posted a Facebook ad for a “Bubba rope” for sale, shortly after a rope fashioned into a noose was found in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s garage.
Cooper launched an ad campaign against Forest for not speaking out against Fulp, a Forest supporter.
Defending the police and promoting law and order is a smart strategy for Forest, who is still behind in the polls, said Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic strategist who is now a public policy professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
But McCorkle said he thinks Cooper has played it wisely. He hasn’t supported defunding the police, which has made it difficult for Forest to label him an extremist.
The unrest has eased since the summer, so the issue has less urgency.
“He needs a specific bill of indictment against Cooper,” McCorkle said, “He needs to be able to really concretely say something that makes people think that Cooper has failed on the job.”
Unless he finds that, Forest faces an uphill battle.
“The race seems very static, very stable,” McCorkle said, “and if it stays that way, Forest is in trouble.”
When Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted out his plan to move North Carolina into Phase 2.5, his post garnered dozens of replies for and against the guarded decision.
“I want to say some unkind words,” one Twitter user wrote, “but I will hold it for the polls.”
The tweet’s poster won’t be the only Carolinian carrying coronavirus opinions into the voting booth.
Cooper’s announcement comes during a governor’s race that has been dominated by COVID-19. The governor and his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, fall on nearly opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to handling the pandemic. Cooper describes his approach to reopening as cautious and data driven. Thoughts and face unmasked, Forest has criticized him every step of the way.
Forest, 52, has served as North Carolina’s lieutenant governor since 2013, following a successful career in architecture. In the role, he acts as president of the North Carolina Senate and a voting member of the State Board of Education. Forest is also a member of the North Carolina Advisory Commission on Military Affairs, and serves as the chair of the Energy Policy Council and the Board of Postsecondary Education Credentials.
Cooper, the 63-year-old Democratic incumbent, won his office in 2016, narrowly defeating Republican candidate Pat McCrory. He served as North Carolina’s attorney general for 16 years prior.
The race could be tight. North Carolina is a swing state, and the Cook Political Report classified the governor’s seat as lean Democrat. The outcome may be determined by the success of Cooper’s continued coronavirus response.
Epidemiologists and public health experts say Cooper is making the right decisions. Ahmed Arif, an epidemiologist at UNC Charlotte, said Cooper’s incremental approach is what the state needs to avoid another spike in COVID-19 cases. But it’s not so simple, he added.
“It’s a difficult job for public health professionals to make a case when you’re fighting against an unseen enemy,” Arif said. “People can’t see in front of them how many deaths and infections they’re preventing when they follow the guidelines.”
Tomi Akinyemiju, an epidemiologist and professor of population health sciences at Duke University, is also wary of a new spike in cases as the state continues to reopen. She said she’s thankful for Cooper’s reliance on data-driven benchmarks as he leads the charge against the pandemic.
“We have to guide our decisions with data. Not with emotions, not with money, because at the end of the day we’re talking about human life here,” Akinyemiju said.
With scientists and public health officials in his corner, Cooper continues to slowly lift restrictions. “Governor Cooper is laser-focused on making sure we emerge from the pandemic even stronger than before,” wrote Liz Doherty, Cooper’s director of communications, in an email to The 9th Street Journal. “He’s relied on science and data to make difficult decisions,” she said.
And as he makes these decisions, Cooper is under the spotlight.
For months, the incumbent has given eagerly awaited press conferences as he manages the state’s pandemic response. Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican political consultant in North Carolina, said that Cooper’s leadership role presents a challenge for Forest.
“The whole election is going to be a referendum on Cooper’s handling of coronavirus,” Wrenn told The Atlantic in May. “He’s got a big advantage in that he’s got a microphone. Forest has nothing compared to that,” he said.
Donald Taylor, a professor of public policy at Duke University with a focus in health policy, said that Forest is likely desperate for coverage. It makes sense for Forest to so vocally oppose Cooper’s handling of the pandemic, he said, because he doesn’t have many other options.
“I don’t think Lieutenant Governor Forest has any other case for press,” Taylor said. “There’s so much noise, there’s no way to break through. And he’s losing, so he’s probably doing the only thing he can.”
Despite all the attention on Cooper, Forest has been making waves on the campaign trail, drawing both support and harsh criticism for his in person campaigning. He’s held multiple events with crowds that exceed the limits outlined in Cooper’s executive order, and footage of the events show the vast majority of attendees not wearing face masks or social distancing.
The challenger poses for pictures with supporters, ignoring the CDC’s suggestion of maintaining six feet of distance. “We shake as many hands as we can,” Forest said in an interview with WXII news, at the site of an in person campaign event he held in August.
Nathan Boucher, a Duke University professor of population health sciences and public policy, said he thinks Forest’s extreme anti-Cooper messaging is the basis of his entire campaign.
“Forest has no platform other than being pro-Trump and anti-governor Cooper,” Boucher said. “Nothing that he says is intelligent. There’s nothing evidence based, there’s no plan.”
Forest’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In contrast, Cooper is not campaigning in person at all. “I think the Department of Health and Human Services would tell anyone that if you’re having these kinds of gatherings, that you risk the spread of the virus,” he previously told reporters, referring to Forest’s in person events.
Republican Governors Association spokesperson Amelia Chassé Alcivar criticized Cooper for his remote method of campaigning, calling it “undemocratic,” The Charlotte Observer reported.
Forest’s often flagrant violations of public health recommendations resonate with voters who feel the threat of the virus has been over exaggerated, like the supporters of ReOpen NC, a group that has organized multiple protests against the state’s shut down orders and called for the impeachment of Cooper in July.
Cooper’s evidence based approach to reopening is likely garnering support for him in progressive areas of the state, Boucher said, such as the triangle area, Asheville and Charlotte. But “there are different North Carolinas within North Carolina,” Boucher said, and Cooper’s pandemic response is ruffling some feathers, especially in more rural communities.
Those opposed to Cooper’s handling of the pandemic appear to be in the minority for now. The vast majority of polls show Cooper leading Forest by at least 10 points. An August 11 poll conducted by Emerson College, however, has Cooper leading by just six.
The incumbent also comfortably leads the money race, easily outraising his opponent according to the latest campaign finance reports. The Committee to Elect Dan Forest reported it raised $2.4 million over nearly five months months ending June 30 and had close to $2 million in cash on hand then.
But the Roy Cooper for North Carolina committee announced in early July that it had raised about $6 million, and had $14 million in cash on hand on July 1.
In Cooper’s latest coronavirus press conference, he emphasized that taking the pandemic seriously will help get the economy back on track faster.
“Every time you wear your mask or social distance, you’re helping our statewide numbers so we can ease restrictions,” he said. “We help our economy by slowing the spread.”
Cooper also took a subtle jab at the North Carolinians who are not adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. “Most of you are showing you know how to fight this disease,” he said. “And most of you should be proud of yourselves.”
Taylor said he thinks North Carolinians have difficulty grasping what he believes it takes to reopen the economy safely. “North Carolina has been one of the epicenters of a false dichotomy, which is that you can deal with the pandemic or you can reopen the economy,” Taylor said. “The actual answer has always been that you reopen the economy by dealing with the pandemic.”
Forest and Cooper have been clashing over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic since it reached North Carolina in March. When Cooper first announced a ban on indoor seating for restaurants and bars, Forest responded with a press release, writing that the governor’s decision would “devastate our economy, shutter many small businesses, and leave many people unemployed.”
Forest sued Cooper in July over coronavirus related executive orders, claiming that the governor did not have the authority to issue the orders. Forest has since dropped the lawsuit, but their disagreement remains alive and well. In many ways, the North Carolina governor’s race embodies the economic health versus public health debate that has been simmering for months.
“I think everything should be open,” Forest told The Atlantic. “I don’t care about getting a virus.”. He said he supports issuing recommendations rather than mandates and believes businesses should be left to make their own decisions.
“I don’t think the government should lead with a stick,” Forest said. “It should lead with a carrot and allow these industries to have some personal responsibility and freedom.”
Boucher said he wishes Cooper and Forest could work together on leading North Carolina through this crisis. That might have made it easier for people to accept the tough realities of reopening, he said.
“Cooper has had to make some difficult decisions in the face of a lot of opposition, including his own lieutenant governor,” Boucher said. “I think he’s made the right ones for the people of North Carolina, but everybody gets hurt with every decision.”
In the era of COVID-19, North Carolinians are desperate for a leader they can trust. Those who support Cooper’s “dimmer switch” approach to easing restrictions will almost certainly not be voting for Forest come November.
But others fed up with economic hardship and pandemic fatigue may blame Cooper. For them, Forest represents the hope of reopening the state once again.
Health threats from carbon monoxide leaks plunged hundreds of McDougald Terrace residents into a crisis last winter. After Durham County EMS Assistant Chief Lee VanVleet noticed an unusual number of EMS calls linked to the hazardous gas, nearly 900 residents were evacuated from Durham’s oldest and largest public housing complex.
Beginning in late December, inspectors found stoves, furnaces, and water heaters emitting excess amounts of the invisible, odorless gas, which can be lethal.
These substandard conditions didn’t come out of the blue. McDougald Terrace failed federal inspections in 2019, scoring a dismal 31 out of 100. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development marks scores lower than 60 as failing grades.
Exposed electrical wires and ventilation problems, including misaligned chimneys and faulty ventilation systems in water heaters, were among 153 health and safety deficiencies detailed in the federal Housing and Urban Development inspection report. Inspectors also found mold and roaches in apartments at McDougald, which was built to house black tenants in 1954, when racial segregation was still sanctioned across Durham.
Total costs for putting residents up in hotels, providing them with stipends and completing emergency repairs at McDougald Terrace are expected to reach at least $9 million, the Durham Housing Authority announced this month.
After news broke that parts of McDougald Terrace were unsafe, Durham Housing Authority and city officials immediately blamed inadequate funding from HUD. They claimed that the federal government failed to give the authority the money needed to keep Durham’s public housing communities in good repair.
Federal funding for the Durham Housing Authority has actually been on the rise in recent years. In 2017, the authority received a total of approximately $32 million in federal awards. In 2018, awards totaled about $34.5 million, and this funding rose to over $35 million in 2019.
While federal funding has technically increased each year for the past three years, the authority has not been receiving enough funds relative to their needs, a DHA spokesman said.
Researchers and HUD officials have confirmed that federal grants across the country have not been enough for housing authorities to keep traditional public housing well maintained. In 2011, HUD estimated that the deferred capital needs in public housing amounted to nearly $26 billion and that number has only continued to grow.
Despite that, housing authorities in other North Carolina cities operating in the same challenging funding environment manage to keep their properties in better shape than Durham does.
Public housing in Durham has failed significantly more HUD inspections than has public housing in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro. Since 2015, Charlotte has failed only one property inspection and Durham has failed 13. Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro failed no HUD inspections in the past five years, according to available data.
What explains this disparity? Behind other cities North Carolina affordable housing experts say some cities were quicker to embrace a private-public-housing hybrid called Rental Assistance Demonstration, frequently called RAD conversion. RAD allows housing authorities to use non-federal public funding and private investment to improve their properties. Most Durham Housing Authority properties depend on federal grants. Rents paid by tenants with incomes low enough to qualify to live in public housing don’t cover operating costs and upkeep. Before the coronavirus outbreak, DHA reported its residents had average annual incomes of $13,000 a year and average rent paid was $238 a month.
When a housing authority pursues a RAD conversion project, it can use public money besides HUD funding and private investment to improve authority-owned property. A share of the housing can be rented at market rates.
Durham has converted only three out of its 17 properties to this model. Last fall, Durham voters passed a $95 million housing bond that will help DHA convert four more public housing communities and the DHA office building. Some of these plans call for tearing down what’s there now and building new housing.
The Greensboro Housing Authority, on the other hand, has converted all but one of its public housing communities to RAD properties. This allowed the authority to leverage more private capital to maintain these properties.
RAD conversion does offer housing authorities new sources of funds. But housing authorities in North Carolina that have not transitioned entirely to the RAD model still keep their rental housing in better shape than Durham does, according to HUD inspection reports.
Even without the extra cash that RAD conversion provides, Raleigh and Winston-Salem had no properties that failed their most recent HUD inspections. Durham had seven in 2019.
The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem takes steps Durham does not. It hired a company called United States Inspection Group to conduct property inspections that mirror the federal HUD inspections, said Kevin Cheshire, the authority’s executive director and general counsel. The company specializes in inspecting and mitigating issues prior to HUD’s evaluations. This helps the authority keep up with needed repairs and earn high scores when HUD inspectors arrive, Cheshire said.
The Raleigh Housing Authority also takes extra steps to maintain their public housing despite funding challenges. Over the last few decades, that authority demolished and rebuilt its three largest properties, usingHope VIgrant funds for two of the projects. “The redevelopment of these properties has helped keep repair costs lower for the agency in the long run,” Raleigh Housing Authority special assistant Laura McCann explained during an email correspondence.
The Durham Housing Authority, which is expected to receive more than $34 million in federal funding this year, has no such success story. And there’s no one place to pin the blame, according to observers inside and outside the organization. “We’re seeing in Durham the consequences of years of problems,” said Samuel Gunter, Executive Director of theNorth Carolina Housing Coalition.
Carl Newman, general counsel for the Durham Housing Authority, says that RAD conversion is Durham’s best hope for improving its public housing. RAD conversion has already been completed at Morreene Road, Damar Court, and Laurel Oaks, but much more work is needed.
No McDougald makeover RAD conversion is at the heart of DHA’s planned redevelopment of five of its properties in downtown Durham. With a share of a $95 million affordable housing bond that Durham voters approved last fall, and other additional funds, DHA plans to invest more than $58 million in redevelopment.
The focus is on five properties in and near downtown, including J.J. Henderson, Oldham Towers, Liberty Street, Forest Hill Heights, and DHA’s office building on East Main Street. DHA aims to create a mix of subsidized housing reserved for low-income residents and market-rate rentals at each site. McDougald Terrace is notably missing from this redevelopment list. At first glance this appears puzzling, as McDougald is arguably the DHA property most in need of redevelopment.
But Mayor Steve Schewel shortly after the housing bond passed last fall said there are economic reasons to wait on rebuilding McDougald. The city’s largest public housing property is over 65 years old, making it a challenge to renovate. “It’s good to get experience creating these mixed income communities on a smaller scale first,” the mayor said.
In order to complete these redevelopments, DHA is relying not only on funds from the affordable housing bond but also on private investment. And private investors need to be convinced they’re putting their money into something worthwhile.
“You have to give confidence to people that you’re going to succeed,” Schewel said, “and the best place in Durham to gain that confidence is Main Street, and downtown. We know that private investors will come there, and we know that market rate renters in these communities will want to live there.”
After finding success on Main Street, city and DHA officials can then move on to more challenging projects like McDougald, Schewel said. “We’re going to do RAD conversion, because actually that’s the only solution. It just isn’t a quick one. Had we started this project 10 years ago…,” said Newman, his voice trailing off for a few seconds. “But, here we are.”
There has been significant turnover in management at the Durham Housing Authority in recent years, Newman said. CEO Anthony Scott started with the authority in 2016. “The people who could have made a different decision 10 years ago, most of them don’t work here anymore,” Newman said.
Living with the legacy
Gunter, at the statewide affordable housing organization, said the federal government’s history of underinvestment in public housing shoulders some of the blame for conditions at McDougald Terrace. “This is what it costs when you have spent decades under-investing,” Gunter said, “This is the bill coming due. It really is a no-win situation. And the folks that get screwed are the residents”
During the evacuation of McDougald, the mostly women and children residents were relocated to 16 hotels throughout Durham County, displaced from their kitchens, school bus stops, neighbors and, sometimes, practical transportation to jobs. McDougald resident Shimey Harvey and her son had lived in her apartment for about two years before the evacuations began. She lived with frequent headaches before the evacuation, she said.
When Harvey was relocated to Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road, her headaches stopped, she said. She was safe from carbon monoxide leaks, but her world had been turned upside down. As a result of the disruption, she was forced to quit her job, she said.
In a scramble to get people back to their homes, work at McDougald was exempted from Durham’s stay-at-home order intended to decrease the spread of coronavirus in March. Residents, including Harvey, returned to the sprawling brick complex near North Carolina Central University in May.
Back at home in McDougald, carbon monoxide leaks are no longer a threat, Harvey said, but her living space is still in poor condition. “I still have mold in my apartment. All they fixed was the appliances,” she said.
Harvey blames Durham Housing Authority for the mess at McDougald. “All these years, if certain things had been updated sooner, these problems wouldn’t have gotten so bad,” she said, “My heater looks like it’s from the beginning of time.”
Although Harvey would like to move with her son to a safer home, this is not the right time.
She hasn’t been able to search for another job while coping with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, including public schools closing. Home-schooling her son without a laptop or teaching experience have been among the hardships, she said.
She won’t be turning to the Durham Housing Authority for help of any kind. “What are they gonna do for me?” she said, “They have a lot of problems to deal with, I’m just a small nut.”
At top: After a months-long evacuation, McDougald Terrace residents have returned to their aged public housing community. Photo by Corey Pilson
On Tuesday, March 17, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all bars and restaurant dining rooms to shut their doors. While this order was definitive, its consequences were far from simple. Josh DeCarolis, chef and owner of Mothers & Sons Trattoria in downtown Durham, had decisions to make and options to weigh.
DeCarolis faced the only two choices restaurants had then: Remain open with drastic limitations, or shut down until further notice. Neither was desirable and both would have far reaching consequences for owners, employees, and the local economy.
Restaurants were permitted to offer takeout and delivery orders, but DeCarolis concluded that wasn’t viable for Mothers & Sons. It would be impossible to do enough business with takeout orders alone to sustain the restaurant and its staff, he said.
Even if running on takeout and delivery orders made economic sense, the risk would likely not be worth the reward. “We thought that the decision to try and completely pivot our business model was just going to make things difficult, and put people in danger unnecessarily. Our biggest concern as business owners and citizens is to be safe,” he said.
In late 2015, DeCarolis spent four months in Italy learning pasta making techniques. He opened Mothers & Sons in 2016. The restaurant became a staple for customers who crowded inside to order homemade pasta and other Italian dishes.
Before it closed, Mothers & Sons had a staff of around 40 people that DeCarolis described as a huge, close family. He was forced to lay off everyone. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” DeCarolis said, “but there’s just not much we can do about it. Certainly, once the door is closed, there’s no way we can pay anybody.”
DeCarolis has worked in restaurants his whole adult life. Before opening Mothers & Sons, he was the head chef at Mateo Bar de Tapas next door. With years of experience dealing with food safety and food borne illnesses, he understands what protocols to follow if a chef or a staff member becomes sick.
But the outbreak of COVID-19 was an unprecedented challenge for DeCarolis. “This is way above my pay grade,” he said, “I’m listening to what the experts say.”
Closing Mothers & Sons affected more than the chefs and servers who found themselves filing for unemployment. When a restaurant shuts down, a chain reaction reaches farms and suppliers large and small.
Mothers & Sons relied on some larger distributors for kitchen staples, but it also bought fresh ingredients from many local farms. “It’s really a shame,” DeCarolis said, “These small farms rely on our business and we rely on them, and we’ve been forced to put everything on hold.”
In addition to Mothers & Sons, DeCarolis is an owner at the Alimentari at Left Bank butchery in Raleigh. The shop is a partnership with the Left Bank Butchery in Saxapahaw, a village west of town with a vibrant food scene. The Raleigh shop is open part time and does business largely through pre-orders and curb side pick up.
Although Alimentari is a smaller venture than DeCarolis’ primary restaurant, these days he’s been putting more energy into keeping it open and running. To try and support his smaller suppliers, DeCarolis has been purchasing ingredients that he’d normally buy for Mothers & Sons to use at Alimentari instead.
Like formerly full-service restaurants braving the storm with takeout and delivery services, Alimentari has changed. The butcher shop is open only four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday. Only one customer is admitted at a time.
Alimentari’s staff was not spared from layoffs either. Initially staff was trimmed to just one essential employee. Since then, they were able to hire back four more employees, DeCarolis said.
Some unexpected good has come out of this difficult situation, DeCarolis said. Some staff previously employed at Mothers & Sons are now making school lunches for Durham public schools as part of FEAST, the charity program organized to feed children in need throughout Durham County.
Mothers & Sons supplies food and kitchen space to prepare the lunches. Former Mothers & Sons employees receive some compensation for their work, but DeCarolis has not been able to rehire them.
The COVID-19 era has also brought an unexpected expansion for Alimentari. A pop up shop called Alimentari at Mothers & Sons opened May 7 in the place of another next-door neighbor: Lucky’s Delicatessen on West Chapel Hill Street. The pop up is open Thursdays through Saturdays and sells fresh produce and Italian goods.
“We’ve only been open a week, but it’s been pretty encouraging,” DeCarolis said, “A lot of people from the community have come out.”
DeCarolis says he finds a silver lining in being able to be there for his Alimentari customers and continuing to build trust and goodwill. “People are really thankful and grateful to be able to get quality meat and fresh pasta, without having to go out to a crowded, big box grocery store,” he said.
Trust and goodwill may be a saving grace after Gov. Roy Cooper allows dining rooms, with new limitations, to reopen on or after May 22. Almost all restaurants will be in a difficult position after having to shut down or downscale for so long. Support from customers now and in coming months is vital, said DeCarolis, who intends to reopen Mothers & Sons.
“We’re keeping a close eye on what the state government is saying, and we’re hoping to open back up safely as soon as possible,” he said, “I can’t predict when that will be.”
DeCarolis praised Durham for being a strong community, particularly among restaurant owners,workers, and customers.
“We’re all trying to navigate this together,” DeCarolis said, “We’re working as a community, but the long and short of it is that everybody, big and small, is going to need some help.”
At top: Not long ago Mothers & Sons was one of Durham’s most vibrant downtown restaurants. Photo by Corey Pilson
Durham’s city manager says it’s unlikely he will recommend sending Durham police officers to Charlotte to help with security during the 2020 Republican National Convention.
During the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, more than 2,800 officers from North Carolina and across the country helped the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department, including officers from Durham.
City Manager Tom Bonfield on Monday offered two reasons for likely recommending that Durham sit out this time. Durham police have plenty of demands that keep them busy at home, he said. And he suspects that policing the convention could be difficult for officers.
“I think there’s a high likelihood that the officers are going to be put in some pretty difficult exposures,” he said. “It’s just not worth it to us to have to do that.”
Bonfield has spoken generally with the Charlotte city manager regarding the convention, he said. But Durham has not yet received an official request from Charlotte asking for police.
Bonfield would consult further with Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis if Durham receives a request, he said. “I would want to hear from the chief,” Bonfield said. “We’ve talked generally about it, but I don’t think I would be recommending that we send anybody down.”
When asked if this would be violating a norm of nearby city police departments helping each other out, Bonfield said such decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis. This would not be the first time Durham opted not to send their officers to another community, he stressed.
When protests over the Silent Sam confederate statue on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill campus flared, Durham was asked to help out but declined to send officers, he said. “We didn’t want to put our officers in a problem,” Bonfield said. “Every situation is different and every circumstance is different depending on what’s going on.”
Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue has said that policing months of intense protests near that statute, which was removed in August 2018, took physical and emotional tolls on officers.
Like it did for the 2012 Democratic Convention, the Department of Homeland Security has classified next year’s Republican Convention a National Special Security Event. Such events, which include presidential inaugurations and the Super Bowl, are considered prime targets for multiple types of security threats, including terrorism and crime.
Some on the ground in Charlotte expect keeping the peace there next August may be tougher than it was in 2012, when Democrats nominated former President Barack Obama to run for a second term.
In a recent video report, longtime North Carolina political reporter Jim Morrill said street protests during the Republican National Convention could well be more intense than they were in 2012.
“The protests themselves were pretty subdued. I don’t think that would be the same thing in 2020, not with the Republican convention here and the likelihood that President Trump would be renominated,” he said.
Neither Chief Davis nor a spokeswoman for the Durham Police Department responded to multiple calls inquiring about this issue.
At top: Protesters block an intersection in Charlotte during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Photo from Voice of America
Tucked away between two brick walls at the Boricua Soul restaurant on an otherwise quiet and empty American Tobacco Campus, Joshua Gunn addresses his crowd of unwavering supporters seconds after votes from all Durham precincts were reported.
Gunn had notched 18,490 votes, putting him in fourth place just below Councilwoman Javiera Caballero, with 18,885 votes. Beer bottles and a stray bag of Joshua Gunn for City Council pins sat on a nearby wooden table, under strings of glowing yellow lights. Although all precinct votes were in and Gunn is still 395 votes shy of a council seat, he spoke with determination and a cool, calm confidence.
“We have provisional ballots and we have absentee ballots, that have not been counted,” Gunn said. “We can make up this margin with those votes.”
Applause erupts from the crowd as Gunn continues. “We are far from a night of concessions, to be clear,” he said.
Earlier in the night, Gunn had slipped for a bit into third place, pushing Caballero down to fourth with 63% of precincts reporting. The margin was razor thin, as Gunn was ahead by less than 50 votes.
“I’m excited,” he said then. “This is just exciting.”
As more votes were processed, however, Gunn fell behind Caballero once again. With 95% of precincts reporting, Gunn had notched 18,076 votes against Caballero’s 18,287.
With the race drawing to a close, nervous energy and excitement radiated from the small crowd. Supporters turned their heads away from their conversations with each other to fix them on a TV screen updating results.
When the screen read that 100% of the precinct votes had been counted, Gunn didn’t miss a beat. He grabbed a microphone and spoke to a crowd still filled with hope.
“We got 19,000 votes in the 2019 general election for city council,” he said. “In the primary, we got 6,700 votes. We tripled our votes.”
Applause momentarily drowned out Gunn’s voice. The 4% margin between Gunn and Caballero is well beyond the range of a recount, Gunn said. He tells his supporters that he’s not giving up yet.
Although the first-time candidate noted he is unfamiliar with the recount process, Gunn said he believes this election warrants a double check.
On Nov. 14, the board of elections will meet to tally up any outstanding ballots, including provisional and absentee ballots. They will determine then whether a recount is called for.
About 20 minutes after Gunn made his speech, the watch party began to thin out. Gunn, surrounded by an intimate group of supporters and his wife and two young children, looked tired, but not defeated.
“It’s hard right now to appreciate the fact that almost 20,000 people voted for a first-time candidate,” Gunn said. “I’m trying to remind myself of the scale of what we have accomplished, but ultimately, you want to win.”
“I’m going to go home tonight, lick my wounds, say a prayer, and hope we wake up in the morning to some good news,” he said.