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Posts published by “Caroline Petrow-Cohen”

Nonpartisan school board candidates downplay partisan ties

At first glance, a group of candidates in the upcoming Durham Public Schools Board of Education election appears to be pretty typical. On its joint website, the “Better Board, Better Schools” slate mentions a passion for education and the goal of preparing students properly for college or the workforce. 

Yet when Durham County resident Bill Busa took a closer look, he noticed some unusual things. 

Busa, director of the Democratic campaign data analytics firm EQV Analytics, first saw that the group of five candidates had all filed to run on the same day. They share the same campaign treasurer, Donald Stanger, a precinct chair for the Durham County GOP. Stanger’s home address is listed as the campaign headquarters for each candidate. Each candidate is also a registered Republican.

None of this would be strange, except for the fact that the candidates’ party affiliation is not mentioned in any campaign materials or on their website. Durham school board elections are, in theory, nonpartisan. This means that candidates’ political affiliations are not listed on the ballot. 

In Durham, one of the most heavily Democratic counties in the state, Republicans rarely win public office. 

Busa believes “they do not want people to know they’re Republicans,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “They can only win through the ignorance of the electorate.” 

Busa shared his concerns in a recent article posted online, hoping to draw attention to the group ahead of the May 17 election. The article has since been shared widely over email and on local neighborhood listservs. 

Unlike other races on the ballot in May, the Durham school board race is not a primary but a final election; the results will decide the composition of the school board. 

‘A Highly Organized Campaign’

Members of the “Better Board, Better Schools” group are not breaking any regulations by not listing their party affiliation in their campaign materials. Candidates in nonpartisan races are permitted to reveal and publicize their affiliation if they choose, but are not obligated to do so. 

Each of the five candidates listed their affiliation as nonpartisan in their campaign filings

Busa and others are troubled by the omission. Busa describes the “Better Board, Better Schools” group as “a highly organized campaign… launched and supported by the Durham County GOP, in hopes of slipping a bloc of Republicans under the voters’ radar.” 

The 9th Street Journal reached out to all five members of the slate for comment. One candidate, Curtis Hrischuk, responded by email.

“I think this is meant to distract from the fact that the current school board is failing the students and has failed them for years,” Hrischuk wrote in response to the accusations in Busa’s article.

“I certainly wasn’t recruited… Were there a bunch of people who connected us? Yes, but I think that was because we all talked about how bad the situation is and somehow found each other,” he wrote.

Along with Hrischuk, who is running for the District One seat, the “Better Board, Better Schools” slate includes Christopher Burns of District Two, Gayathri Rajaraman of District Three, Valarie Jarvis of District Four and Joetta MacMiller of Consolidated District B. 

Some members have leadership positions in the local Republican Party. 

MacMiller serves on the leadership board of the Durham GOP and is listed as a precinct chair on the Durham GOP website. Jarvis, who is married to the Durham Republican Party chairman, is also listed as a party precinct chair. 

The slate also recently held a meet and greet fundraiser at 800 N. Mangum St., the official headquarters for the Durham GOP. Flyers advertising the fundraiser listed the street address, but did not mention that the building is the GOP headquarters.

In partisan elections, Durham voters lean heavily Democratic. But the nonpartisan format of the school board election offers Durham Republicans a significant advantage, said longtime political consultant and Duke University public policy professor Mac McCorkle.

School board races also don’t draw much attention, McCorkle said. “These are low information races,” he said. “Somebody might just be able to sneak in.” 

The Candidates’ Views

Busa’s recent article criticizes the slate’s “radically conservative” views, describing Hrischuk as an “anti-semitic, climate-denying, anti-vaxx creationist.” 

In an email response, Hrischuk termed those charges “a load of nonsense.” He said he believes human-caused climate change exists, but that there are also other causes of global warming, such as sunspots and volcanic activity. 

However, in a pair of Facebook posts from 2011, Hrischuk accuses the “green pseudoscience” industry of manipulating the public for profit. “Man-made global warming is a hoax,” he wrote at the time. 

Asked if he believes in creationism, the notion that life was created by divine forces rather than through evolution, Hrischuk wrote that he supports teaching evolution in schools. “It isn’t clear to me what ‘creationist’ is supposed to mean,” he added. “But it is something that must be bad?”

Hrischuk’s signature appears on a statement entitled “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism,” whose authors say they are “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” 

The statement was published by a subgroup of the Discovery Institute, an organization that promotes the creationist concept of intelligent design.  

Hrischuk said he decided to run for the school board after learning of an incident in Loudoun County, Va., in which a non-binary individual allowed to use the women’s restroom was convicted of assaulting another student. He did not respond directly when asked if he supported or opposed transgender-affirming policies in schools.

MacMiller, meanwhile, appears on a list of members of the New Group of Patriots, a self-described “growing populist movement” that seeks “to destroy the socialist takeover of our lives and the American dream.” 

She is also listed as a participant in the NC Values Coalition’s Mama Bear Workshop. The workshop aims to educate parents on protecting children “from harmful curriculum and indoctrination in school.” The coalition’s website calls for combatting “progressive activists [who] have targeted schools as a primary conduit of social change.” 

Issues such as support for transgender students and the teaching of critical race theory have become hot button topics in other school board races across the country. MacMiller did not respond to questions regarding her stance on those issues. The “Better Board, Better Schools” platform website states that the group is against “curriculum deviations” in Durham schools. 

North Carolina’s Increasingly Partisan School Board Elections

McCorkle said the emergence of the “Better Board, Better Schools” slate fits with a larger national trend.

“This is an area that the right wing, as articulated by Steve Bannon and others, think of as a good national strategy: to focus on school boards,” McCorkle said. Bannon, a political strategist who served in the Trump administration, has spoken publicly about the conservative campaign to target school boards. 

In North Carolina, state law is helping to facilitate that campaign, McCorkle said. State regulations make school board elections nonpartisan by default, but the North Carolina General Assembly has the authority to adjust that rule on a county-by-county basis. 

According to McCorkle, the Republican-controlled state legislature has seized advantages for Republicans by making school board elections partisan in North Carolina’s red counties. Out of 115 school districts, the number of N.C. school boards elected on a partisan basis grew from 16 in 2015 to 41 in 2022, according to data provided by the North Carolina School Board Association. Two additional districts are set to become partisan in 2024. 

About two-thirds of the school boards that are now elected on a partisan basis fall within counties with a Republican majority, according to state voter registration data

Meanwhile, the legislature has left nonpartisan school board elections in place in blue counties like Durham. In those counties, the lack of a partisan label helps Republican candidates, McCorkle said. 

“I don’t think it’s that shocking that Republicans are maximizing their advantages,” McCorkle said. “They know that these races are sometimes kind of imponderable and low interest, and in Republican areas it pays to have that partisan label.”

Because Durham is so heavily Democratic, Busa says he believes it’s a prime target for the GOP.  

“In Durham, this is clearly not a struggle for more or better representation,” he said. “This is an attempt at a takeover of a liberal county’s school board by radical conservatives.”

Above: A flyer advertising a joint fundraiser for the “Better Board, Better Schools” slate was featured recently on the group’s Twitter feed. 

Charlie Reece bids adieu to Durham City Council

After nearly seven years of public service, Charlie Reece will join his last Durham City Council meeting in less than a week. The city clerk will present Reece’s letter of resignation to the rest of the council at its next meeting on Monday, March 7. 

Reece, who was first elected as an at-large council member in 2015, is resigning in order to move to Paris with his family. He announced his resignation on Feb. 21. 

Reece’s wife Laura Helms Reece is the CEO of their Durham-based clinical research company Rho, which recently acquired a European business. The family will relocate for Laura’s job with their two children, Gwyn, 10, and Rose, 13, at the end of this school year. 

The Reeces plan to return to North Carolina eventually. “Even while we’re living far away for a little bit, Durham will always be our home,” Reece said in a statement last week.

“I’ll miss it like you wouldn’t believe,” Reece said of leaving his position on council. “It was the hardest decision I’ll ever make as a politician. But at the same time, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made as a husband and father.”

Reece’s resignation will allow him to support his wife and their business while keeping their family together, he said. His alternative option – to remain in Durham with his children while Laura works in Europe – didn’t line up with his priorities. 

“That’s just not the family life we all signed up for,” Reece said. 

Reece was re-elected as an at-large council member in 2019, and his current term was set to end on Dec. 4, 2023. 

In his statement to city council and constituents, Reece expressed appreciation for his colleagues and his time serving Durham. Announcing his resignation was “emotionally challenging,” Reece said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. But he said he’s leaving Durham in capable hands. 

“I am confident that this council is moving our city in the right direction,” Reece said. “I know that they will appoint someone who loves Durham as much as I do, and that’s what matters.” 

Once Reece officially resigns next week, city council will have 60 days to appoint his successor, as required by Durham’s city charter. The council will choose a replacement from a pool of applicants. Any adult living within city limits and registered to vote in Durham is eligible to apply. 

The process of appointing Reece’s successor will be quite similar to previous years’, according to Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton, who will oversee the procedure. The council had to fill a vacancy in 2018 when Mayor Bill Bell retired, and again in 2020 following council member Vernetta Alston’s resignation.

Council will post an application online shortly after Reece’s last day, Middleton said. The list of applicants will be made available to the public, he added.

Durham citizens will have the opportunity to voice their opinions on candidates for Reece’s seat, Middleton said. Finalists selected by city council will be invited to an interview with current council members, he said, and each finalists’ interview will be broadcast online.

After the interviews are complete, citizens will be able to submit comments as in past years, Middleton said. In 2018, the council held an in-person public comment session. In 2020, due to the pandemic, Durhamites were instead invited to call in or email their comments regarding the finalists. 

After receiving public comment, council members will vote to select Reece’s successor. A finalist needs four votes from the six council members in order to be appointed.

“I think it’s a really strong process,” Reece said. “It provides transparency and allows anybody who wants to to apply, and it allows the public to weigh in with us about their thoughts and concerns about the various applicants, especially at the finalist stage.”   

Reece said he chose to announce his resignation now so that his successor will have ample time to get acclimated to the role ahead of city budget decisions this June. 

“I want the appointee to have enough time to dig into what is a pretty dense process,” he said. 

While his wife conducts business with their company’s new partners, Reece does not plan to work when his family arrives in Europe. He will miss serving Durham immensely, he said, but he’s ready for the change. 

“I’m going to be a stay-at-home dad for the next little while,” Reece said. “There are pleasures and rewards for that life as well, and I look forward to discovering them.” 

Above: Durham City Council member Charlie Reece, who won reelection in 2019, will depart the Bull City later this spring. Photo by Cameron Beach – 9th Street Journal

Council approves pay raises for police, firefighters

City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve pay raises for police officers and firefighters of every rank, in an effort to counter staff shortages in Durham’s police and fire departments.

The raises, which take effect immediately, are intended to bring Durham’s public safety salaries up to competitive levels, after years of falling behind. Police officers and firefighters will begin receiving increased pay as soon as their next paycheck, on Jan. 28. 

“Durham will be where I believe it belongs, right at the top of the list of our peer cities in terms of compensating our first responders,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton. 

Before the raises, pay for Durham’s police and firefighters trailed behind market levels. Market research conducted by the city in August across 13 municipalities in North Carolina and Virginia found that Durham Police Department salaries lagged behind that of other cities by 12.4%, while fire department salaries lagged by 10.4%. 

Police recruits will receive a 10.6% raise, increasing their annual pay from $38,511 to $42,593. Firefighter recruits will receive a 14.3% raise, from $35,592 to $40,682 annually. Employees of higher ranks will receive proportionately equal increases in pay. The raises will cost the city a total of just over $4 million for the remainder of the fiscal year. 

Many Durham community activists have advocated for reforming or defunding the police, and reform efforts are underway, including the city’s new Community Safety Department. However, advocates for police reform did not comment during Tuesday’s meeting. 

Instead, Durham community members voiced their support for the raises in the public chat alongside the meeting’s livestream. The commenters included numerous police officers and firefighters. 

“Hoping to see the right thing done for Durham’s firefighters tonight,” wrote one firefighter ahead of the vote. 

The new compensation plans were developed collaboratively by the Durham Human Resources Department and the city’s public safety staff. 

Under the newly approved pay plan, Durham’s police and fire departments now offer the highest or second-highest salaries among a group of peer cities including Fayetteville, Greensboro, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. City officials said they hope the increase in pay will help attract and retain new recruits to fill vacancies in both departments.

Turnover rates among police recruits have increased from 43.3% to 55.6% over a 12-month period as of November 2021. To make up for the lack of personnel, Police Chief Patrice Andrews announced in December that high-ranking officers and detectives would temporarily join patrol units.

The pay raises also come during a spike in crime and gun violence in Durham. A recent rash of shootings has taken the lives of many community members, while the city recorded its highest number of homicides ever committed in one year in 2021. 

Durham’s police and fire departments were overdue for a boost in salaries, based upon previously announced city goals.

A city pay plan adopted in 2017 calls for regular market adjustments to police and firefighters’ pay scales, along with merit raises for employees based on effective job performance. In recent years, however, both market adjustments and annual performance-based raises have been lacking.   

In 2018 and 2019, pay rates for police and fire department staff went unchanged. In 2020, due to pandemic-related budget constraints, there was again no market adjustment, and employees also failed to receive annual merit raises. In 2021, the city once again did not offer annual performance-based raises.

The new compensation plans approved on Tuesday will help the city recover ground lost in the past two years. 

“It’s not a final destination, but it’s an incredibly important step towards closing disparities in compensation for our workers here in Durham,” Middleton said.

One political mailer sheds light on Durham election dynamics

The flyer that arrived in Durham voters’ mailboxes had an urgent message: “Don’t defund the police!” it said in capital red letters. “Law enforcement is under assault.” 

The mailer, distributed in September by the Friends of Durham political action committee, endorses Elaine O’Neal for mayor, incumbents DeDreana Freeman and Mark-Anthony Middleton for City Council Wards I and II, and Leonardo Williams for Ward III. 

Friends of Durham supports the slate of candidates for one specific reason, the mailer says: “These City Council candidates will keep our police funded.”

In reality, it’s not that simple. Many of Durham’s candidates hold nuanced views on police funding that the mailer’s definitive language doesn’t capture. But the mailer itself and the candidates’ reactions to its pointed messaging offer a revealing window into the world of Durham politics. 

How do O’Neal and Caballero compare on policing?

Since Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in May 2020, the nation has wrestled with violence and racism pervasive in law enforcement. In Durham, large swaths of the community called to defund or abolish the police. 

Throughout the summer following Floyd’s death, Durhamites took to the streets to protest traditional policing and racial injustice. In June 2020, during the public comment period of a City Council meeting regarding the city budget, activists urged Durham’s leaders to decrease police funding.

The city launched a new Community Safety Department in response last May. The department will run pilot programs aimed to determine effective alternatives to policing, including responding to 911 calls with unarmed mental health professionals. Still, despite public pressure to do so, the current City Council has never decreased the police budget. 

Friends of Durham chair Alice Sharpe said that her organization’s mailer was prompted by Javiera Caballero’s statements during a City Council meeting on June 15, 2020. Caballero, who is currently serving as an at-large City Council member, suspended her mayoral campaign on Oct. 11 after receiving far fewer votes than O’Neal in the primary.

 “I wholeheartedly believe in defunding the police,” Caballero said at the meeting. “I know what I want in the future of Durham, and I want less police.”

Later in the meeting, Caballero still voted with the rest of City Council to unanimously approve a new city budget that included a routine increase in police funding. 

More than a year later, Sharpe and Friends of Durham have not forgotten Caballero’s statements. The organization sent out the mailer because it wanted voters to know which candidates would fight to keep the police funded, Sharpe said. 

But in contrast with the mailer’s black-and-white language, O’Neal’s position on policing isn’t very firm. And it might not be too different from Caballero’s own stance. 

Both Caballero and O’Neal have said they support community-driven alternatives to policing, like the ones that will be tested by the Community Safety Department. They also both want to keep the Durham Police Department sufficiently funded, at least until there are proper structures in place that would allow the department to function with less resources. 

“I do believe that it’s necessary for us to continue to support our police until we can build up community capacity,” O’Neal said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “We don’t have to choose between being supportive of our law enforcement agencies and also being innovative with public safety. We can do both in Durham.”

Caballero, whose current City Council term ends in 2023, said she ultimately wants the Community Safety Department to take over a significant portion of the police department’s responsibilities. She’d like police to focus exclusively on violent crime, while the Community Safety Department addresses Durham’s other needs, she said. 

If executed properly, this plan eventually would lead to defunding the Durham police, Caballero said. She clarified that defunding, in this case, doesn’t mean abolition or even slashing the police budget to shreds. It just means diverting resources away from the police once they are no longer needed. 

O’Neal has provided fewer details about her vision for the role of the new department. It’s not meant to replace the police, she said, but she can’t predict how things will unfold. When asked if she thought the Community Safety Department might eventually have the capacity to relieve police officers of some of their traditional duties, like responding to medical emergencies or domestic disputes, she declined to speculate.

“That’s like asking me if I have a crystal ball,” O’Neal said. “I would hope one day we could get to the place where we could manage without armed citizens … but that’s a hope. Whether that would actually become a reality, I’ll wait till we get there.”

A window into Durham politics

Technically, the Friends of Durham mailer is accurate: O’Neal has no plans to defund the police. Neither does City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who’s running for reelection and is also endorsed on the mailer. 

Like both Caballero and O’Neal, Middleton doesn’t think the Durham Police Department should be the city’s only approach to public safety. He wants a robust, fully-funded department, he said, but he understands the flaws in policing, too. 

“A fully-funded police department does not preclude us from having other tools in our toolbox that will help us keep Black and brown people and mentally distressed people alive,” Middleton said. “That’s my position. It’s not either or, it’s this and that.” 

In an interview before she withdrew from the mayoral race, Caballero said that the Friends of Durham mailer over-simplifies the question of police funding and fuels polarization. “Clearly, this is the issue that they’re creating a wedge with,” she said. “I think that folks are trying to create division, and that’s politics.” 

Marion T. Johnson, who’s challenging DeDreana Freeman in the Ward I City Council race, also found the mailer’s messaging unnecessarily divisive. “I was disappointed when I saw it because I don’t think that it really serves our communities at all to lean on that sort of politics of fear,” Johnson said. 

Johnson is “committed to no longer investing in a system that generally over polices and over criminalizes Black and brown folks.” But abolishing the police overnight will not make anyone safer either, she said. 

The challenge of community safety requires careful discussion and attention to detail, Johnson said, not an all-or-nothing approach. “All of us who are running for office are fully capable of — and really committed to — having nuanced conversations about what true community safety is and what our communities need,” she said.

The Friends of Durham mailer doesn’t encourage those nuanced conversations, but that probably wasn’t its intention, Caballero said. As a political action committee, Friends of Durham is entitled to frame its messaging however they please, she said. 

Sharpe acknowledged that the mailer was likely to antagonize some people. It takes a strong stance, she said. To influence Durham voters, that might be an effective strategy. 

“It may be pointed, I’ll grant you that,” Sharpe said of the mailer. “We were trying to make a point.” 

***

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: A political mailer sent by the Friends of Durham political action committee endorses a slate of candidates that it suggests won’t “defund the police.” 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk. 

Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero envisions a Durham for all

Until a few months ago, Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero had no plans to run for mayor. She was in the middle of serving her four-year term on the council when Mayor Steve Schewel unexpectedly announced he would not be running for reelection. After years of public service, Caballero decided to take her leadership to the next level.  

“It created an opportunity and an open seat that I felt compelled to at least try for,” Caballero said of Schewel’s retirement. She’s motivated to continue the mission she began on the City Council to make Durham more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. The city is on the cusp of unprecedented progress, she believes, and there’s important work to be done.

Durham’s most pressing challenge is still COVID-19, Caballero said. She and her fellow council members are working hard to vaccinate Durhamites and distribute resources to every neighborhood. 

Beyond the pandemic, Durham faces a web of interlocking issues that Caballero is determined to face head-on, from gun violence to affordable housing to the need for green infrastructure. 

Caballero moved from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children. The city has transformed since then, but some of the biggest changes are still to come, including the implementation of a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond and the development of a new community safety department that offers alternatives to policing. 

Caballero worked on both these initiatives as a city council member and is determined to see them through. “It’s so important that the things we’ve passed actually get implemented effectively,” she said. “I want to ensure that the work I have helped to start continues at the kind of expansive level I know it can.”

Caballero’s vision for Durham revolves around community engagement and collaboration. Both are necessary to confront challenges like public safety and affordable housing access, she said. If elected mayor, she promises to prioritize transparency and communication.

“Our systems are designed to be opaque, but we can be intentional about including folks,” Caballero said. “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate.”

Caballero’s ability to connect with all pockets of the Durham community is one of her greatest strengths, said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, who serves on the City Council with Caballero and has endorsed her in the mayoral race. “Javiera is able to reach out into communities that have been underserved and unheard in government for a long time,” Johnson said. “She really cares about everyone who lives here.”

Javiera Caballero became the Durham City Council’s first Latina member when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in Jan. 2018. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Caballero, whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was young, would be the first Latina mayor ever elected in North Carolina. That representation is important, especially in Durham, where Latinos make up nearly 14% of the population. On the City Council, Caballero has advocated for improved language access programs and legal aid for immigrants. 

Schewel, who endorsed Caballero for mayor last month, praised her deep knowledge of Durham and its people. “There’s no doubt at all that Javiera is deeply rooted in our community and knows the community inside and out,” he said. “She wants to make the city we love a city for all, and I think she knows exactly how to do that.”

Caballero has also been endorsed by the People’s Alliance, an influential Durham political action committee. Caballero is “policy centric and detail oriented,” the endorsement reads. Community organization Durham for All and the Durham Association of Educators have both endorsed Caballero as well. 

Both Schewel and Johnson describe Caballero as extremely hardworking and productive. She wants to get things done for Durham, they said, and that will remain true whether she’s elected mayor or not. 

If Caballero doesn’t win, she’ll continue to serve her current term on the City Council, which ends in 2023. She’s deeply invested in continuing the work she’s started, she said, and refuses to slow down. 

“Regardless of the outcome, there’s a lot to do,” Caballero said. “In either seat, I will keep on doing the work.”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero poses in her campaign t-shirt. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Analysis: Forest ran too far to the right for pandemic voters

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. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest won rural counties (shaded in red), but Gov. Roy Cooper prevailed in the most populous counties, including the urban centers.

“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.

North Carolina likely to shatter voter turnout record

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

In first (and only) debate, gubernatorial candidates clash on schools, economy and masks

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.)

Here’s what Dan Forest really says about face masks

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 comment PolitiFact 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.

How Cooper and Forest differ on police and protests

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. 

A Facebook ad from the state Republican Party highlights Forest’s position to “Defend Our Police”

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. 

Smart strategies?

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.”