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‘He’ll push back’: T. Greg Doucette’s crusade against hypocrisy, police violence, and big government

It was five days after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and T. Greg Doucette was mad. 

Doucette, a criminal defense and small business attorney in Durham, was angry with the way police were treating protesters: beating them, pepper-spraying them, and, in one case, even trampling them with a horse. And so, around noon on May 30, Doucette did what he often does when he wants to gripe: he tweeted, creating a thread of 10 videos showing instances of police brutality toward protesters. 

His thread went viral, retweeted by Trevor Noah and John Cusack and scores of others. Twitter analytics showed it reached millions of users. Suddenly people started sending him thousands of videos of police violence, and Doucette kept adding to the thread, with a counter so people could keep track. He gained 100,000 followers (on top of his previous 30,000). Soon, the “Police Brutality Mega-Thread” had ballooned to hundreds of clips. 

“It was like, holy shit, this has gone beyond what I expected,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And I got to figure out how to manage it.” 

Doucette’s sudden Twitter fame was partly a reflection of the moment — a nation waking up to the pervasive problem of police violence — and partly a product of his Twitter addiction (he’ll often tweet 100 times a day). 

But though the 100,000 Twitter followers were new, the blistering honesty of the thread was not. 

Whether he’s insulting Jeff Sessions (“human gutter trash”) or skewering the UNC Board of Governors, Doucette will give you his unvarnished opinion. Since 2017, he has hosted a podcast called “#Fsck ‘Em All,” in which he rails against corruption and abuse in the justice system as well as what he calls “political f*ckery.”  

Recently, he’s taken to YouTube to challenge Van Jones, a news commentator who gave a TED Talk titled “What if a U.S. presidential candidate refuses to concede after an election?” In the video, Van Jones explains how a president could exploit “legal loopholes” in the Constitution to stay in office. 

“Van Jones is WRONG,” Doucette contends in his 50-minute YouTube video. It is quintessential Doucette — funny, thorough, nerdy and crass. 

“There is no profanity in the presentation, but I do tend to cuss a lot,” he says, hovering at the bottom left of the screen and wearing a t-shirt from North Carolina Central University School of Law. Thirty seconds later, he calls his video “boring as shit.” 

The video has attracted over 130,000 views — and some controversy. When someone in the comments section disputed one of his claims, Doucette weighed in: “Basically every comment and reply you’ve made here is wrong, it’s actually impressive! Enjoy the Biden administration.” 

He’s a rascal and a reformer, a crusader for justice, or — if you’re on the receiving end of his Twitter onslaught — a pain in the neck. 

“If you’re being a dick, he’ll push back,” said Kahran Myers-Davis, a former attorney at Doucette’s firm. “He’ll push back on you on Twitter, he’ll push back on you in public. He’ll push back on people in his real life who aren’t living their values or who are being unethical or condescending or rude. That’s just who he is.” 

* * *

Both times I interviewed Doucette, he appeared on my screen wearing black headphones and a gray shirt that said “NCCU Trial Advocacy Board” (does he only wear NCCU shirts?). Bald and 39 years old, he’s a self-described “full-time curmudgeon, part-time Twitter celebrity, occasional attorney.”

Doucette talks like he tweets: non-stop, unfiltered, his words laced with zingers and occasional f-bombs, his face lit with an impish smile. 

Unlike most advocates for criminal justice reform, who come from the left, he’s a conservative, though he abandoned the Republican party after President Trump’s election in 2016 (he’s now registered as unaffiliated). His watchdog mentality reflects his skepticism about the state. 

“I don’t trust the government,” he said. “If you allow the government to steamroll people that don’t have power, they’re gonna steamroll the people that do, the first chance they get.” 

His strategy is simple. “You have to keep the government in its little box. And if it ever steps out of the box, you smack it in the face and you put it back in the box.” 

Doucette grew up in Virginia Beach in a home where his mother and stepfather fought a lot. 

 I grew up in the type of home many would consider ‘white trash,’” Doucette wrote on the website for his state Senate campaign in 2016. “Poor, frequent substance abuse, more frequent domestic violence (something so ‘normal’ in my life I didn’t even know it was called ‘domestic violence’ until law school).

In high school, he was recruited by Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its computer engineering program, but he decided on attending North Carolina State University because tuition was cheaper.

Then, a setback: his parents refused to provide him with tax information, so Doucette couldn’t qualify for financial aid. He dropped out, worked odd jobs, lived out of his truck and used his girlfriend’s dorm room to shower. 

When he finally got enough money to enroll, he became president of the UNC Association of Student Governments, a group that includes student representatives from schools across North Carolina, including NC State. He eventually graduated with a degree in computer science. 

Doucette was fun but in a “nerdy” kind of way, said Ashley Yopp, who met him through the Association of Student Governments. At parties, instead of playing beer pong, Doucette would be deep in conversation with someone about a new idea. 

“He talks big, but he doesn’t put on airs,” Yopp said. “He is who he is.”

In August 2009, Doucette enrolled in NCCU’s School of Law, a historically Black college in Durham. He picked NCCU because it was cheaper than UNC. After graduating, he wanted to start a nonprofit called “NC SPICE” that would be an incubator for other attorneys trying to set up their practices. 

“The logo was a pepper grinder with the scales of justice, really slick, man,” he said, rummaging through his computer for a picture. 

But Doucette hit a speed bump when the IRS stopped processing applications for nonprofit groups. So Doucette started his own firm “kind of by accident.” He chose Durham because of the resources and connections at NCCU. He was sworn in as an attorney in 2012. (He eventually founded the nonprofit and now works as its executive director.) 

He started out focusing on business litigation and higher education law. He fell into criminal law by happenstance. 

“For whatever reason,” he said, “I still had this old-school Republican notion that criminal defense lawyers are just icky creatures.” 

* * *

In November 2013, Doucette took on a client who was a student at NCCU and had been caught selling weed. It became a turning point in his legal career.  

During their first conversation, according to Doucette, the student said he wanted to be “Durham’s weed man.” The student had brought a business plan on how to sell weed, complete with marketing projections and a color-coded map of everywhere in the country it was legal. 

“You know how you watch movies, and you hear the record-scratch moment, and everyone freezes? That’s how it was during the client interview,” Doucette recalled.  

Though he thought it would be impossible to help the student receive a lenient sentence, Doucette took on the case.

In February 2014, Doucette defended the student in court by arguing that the evidence for the case be suppressed. To his surprise, the court accepted his argument and dismissed the case. 

Later, in the hallway of the Durham courthouse, the client grabbed Doucette’s arm. 

“Bro, you are a white Jesus,” Doucette remembers him saying. “That was a miracle. Give me your business cards. I’m going to send all of my customers to you.” 

Sure enough, Doucette soon got a call. “[The student] said you’re a miracle worker. I caught a charge. I need your help,” the caller told him. The next day, Doucette got two more calls. Then, in March, on his birthday, Doucette received an email announcing someone had bought him a domain: www.durhamweedlawyer.com. The client had put his marketing skills to work. 

“So it ended up, by the middle of 2015, most of the people in Durham who were selling weed in a given part of town, I was their defense attorney,” Doucette said. 

To this day, many of his clients are still charged with drug-related crimes. He also represents protesters, whether from Moral Monday or Black Lives Matter — a part of his practice he describes as his “ministry.” 

“I do stuff on Twitter, but I also like being in the courtroom and being able to defend people who are being oppressed by their government,” he said. 

At its peak, his law firm, which is located on 311 East Main Street, had multiple attorneys, interns and a receptionist. Then, in 2016, he made a longshot bid for state Senate in a district that includes Durham County. Though he won more votes than any Republican to run for the seat and got an endorsement from INDY Week, he still lost badly to incumbent Mike Woodard. 

It was an “incredibly stupid” decision, he said — and it almost bankrupted his firm. 

Immersing himself in his campaign meant less time for marketing and finding new clients. His business crumpled. His attorneys left. The next year was dreadful for Doucette. 

“I’ve fallen into this rat race of churning through cases at the law firm to make rent each month,” he wrote in a blog post in April 2017. “But don’t really feel like I’m moving forward toward any given objective beyond rent-paying (which is a fantastically low goal in life). It’s terribly frustrating, especially for someone who’s climbed up from how far down I was back in 2000. And the way forward is a complete mystery to me.” 

Today, Doucette is the only employee at his firm. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, he works most days from home, where he lives with his wife, Jeanne Chen, an optometrist he married in October, and with his “kids”: a dog (Chance) and two cats (Biscuit and Oliver). When he goes into the office two times a week, it’s very quiet, and he keeps iTunes playing in the background. 

Beneath the cocky exterior, Doucette feels for others. Since 2015, he has organized an annual fundraiser to provide groceries for underprivileged elementary school kids in Durham. This year, he raised over $55,000. Lowes lent him an 18-wheeler to transport the 3,642 bags of groceries. 

“He had that truly human ability to put himself into people’s situations and to care for them as individuals,” recalled Myers-Davis, Doucette’s former attorney. “Many of his clients of the firm, even folks that I’ve worked with, have come back and said, ‘You know, I’m doing this and this because Greg gave me advice, not as my attorney, but as a person who really cared about me.’”

* * *

His strong feelings against police violence aren’t new. He says he has been sharing videos of police misconduct for the past 13 years.

Select your membership level and you can be part of Doucette’s #FSCK community.

“Do I hate police?” he wrote in one of his tweets. “No. I hate raging incompetent cowboys w/ badges financed by my tax money who clearly haven’t had an eye exam recently.”

Doucette has also been ranting about police misconduct on his “#Fsck ‘Em All” podcast. Like its creator, the podcast is a little geeky. “Fsck” is the name of a computer software tool for checking the consistency of a file system; Doucette describes his podcast as “your weekly consistency check on America’s political and legal filesystems.” It’s also a source of income: for $3 to $25 per month, fans can gain exclusive access to bonus episodes and “Become part of the #Fsck community!”

In his slight southern drawl, Doucette calls out cops from across the country: a North Carolina sex crimes detective who committed sex crimes, a Florida deputy who framed motorists for drug offenses, Texas cops who beat a domestic violence victim. 

“He is showing that you don’t have to be Black to call out social injustice,” said Deyaska Sweatman, one of Doucette’s law school classmates. “His megaphone is loud, not just because he’s really good in the Twitterverse. But his megaphone is loud because he really, really cares. He really has been fighting this fight from the beginning.”

In photo above, Doucette in front of the Durham County courthouse. Photo courtesy of T. Greg Doucette. 

Analysis: In Senate race, text messages made the difference

Update: This story has been updated to note that Cunningham conceded on Nov. 10.

The texts were far from salacious — they sounded like messages from a nerdy college kid — but they probably cost Cal Cunningham a Senate seat. 

Heading into Tuesday, most polls showed him with a single-digit edge over Republican incumbent Thom Tillis, just like they had for the entire campaign. Even Republican strategists thought Cunningham would win, said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for The Cook Political Report. 

But the messages and their ripple effect shifted the dynamic in the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history. According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections tally on Nov. 9, Tillis won 2,641,979 votes to 2,546,241 for Cunningham. The Democrat conceded on Nov. 10.

There surely were other factors that contributed to Cunningham’s defeat, including high turnout among Republicans and a boost for Tillis by Trump. And the polls that consistently showed a Cunningham lead may have been wrong all along. 

Still, the biggest factor was the late-breaking scandal that zapped the Democrat’s momentum and shattered his carefully curated image. 

After the conservative site NationalFile.com broke the news on Oct. 2 and The Associated Press confirmed Cunningham had an affair, his campaign went dark. The candidate cancelled events and avoided exposure to the media, leaving a vacuum quickly filled by Republican attack ads and calls from Tillis for Cunningham to come clean. 

“Cunningham turned down the volume on his campaign, whereas Tillis kept it at a very high volume,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “He didn’t close very strong.” 

The slow-motion strategy continued to Election Day: Cunningham dodged reporters and held limited events while Tillis crisscrossed the state.

Case in point: Cunningham visited Jackson County, and didn’t publicize his visit or alert the media, Cooper said. 

“This is the middle of damn nowhere,” he said. “Cal Cunningham was across the street, and I didn’t even know it.” 

The scandal also undermined the Democrat’s image as a clean-cut Army veteran who would tackle corruption in Washington. Ads about his honorable character and Bronze Star Medal felt hollow after the Army Reserve began investigating his affair.   

This likely turned off some swing voters, particularly white suburban women, said Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina political consultant and columnist. 

Exit polls showed Tillis fared better than expected with white college-educated women, a sign that the scandal may have hurt Cunningham with a key voting bloc. 

“What was up at the end? There were swing voters, and I expect the scandal itself hurt him in the fact that it made him look phony,” Wrenn said.

“He ran as a Boy Scout, and it turned out he wasn’t one.” 

A wad of towels and a spray bottle to keep voters safe

Wearing a plastic face shield, a blue surgical mask, blue gloves and a white surgical gown that reaches down to her pink running shoes, Maria Quiros looks like many of the health workers battling the coronavirus in hospitals across the country. 

But this is no hospital. It’s the early voting site at Duke’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. And Quiros’s job isn’t to heal the sick — it’s to protect thousands of voters from the virus.

Her outfit is a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic has transformed voting, usually no more risky than visiting the county library, into an activity that is potentially life-threatening.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

“It makes everything feel very surreal,” said Emma DeRose, a Duke senior and volunteer poll worker who helped wipe down the voting stations with disinfectant. “Obviously, we know a pandemic is going on. But I think Duke is kind of in a bubble in a way. We’ve had a pretty low case count, and it doesn’t really feel that present. And then I think you get to the polling center, and you’re seeing these people, including myself, just all decked out, and it’s like ‘woah.’”

Voting, like going to the grocery store or to school, has become a stroll through a minefield. And, since early voting started in North Carolina on Oct. 15, Quiros, DeRose and others have kept voters safe with a wad of paper towels and a spray bottle of disinfectant. 

According to an Aug. 14 memo from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, workers at voting sites are required to perform “ongoing and routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas” with an EPA-approved disinfectant for COVID-19.

On a recent Friday, Quiros stood at the left side of the voting room in Karsh. She had her dark hair in a bun, and her eyes scanned the booths. As soon as a voter left a booth, Quiros scurried over and began cleaning. 

She started by wiping the bottom of the polling booth. Next, she cleaned one side, and then the other, finishing with a horizontal swipe along the front edge.  

While waiting, Quiros also directed voters to empty booths or helped them follow the blue arrows to the spot where they could scan their ballots — she’s both the cleanup crew and stage director. 

It’s tedious work, but Quiros is staying positive. She’s confident that the polling place is safe for voters.

“Because we are taking care of them,” she said.

Quiros said she has been working 12 hours a day since Oct. 15. She has help. There are 10 to 15 poll workers during each shift, and these workers rotate between various positions, from ballot tabulator to sanitation worker, said DeRose, who was greeting people and handing out pens. 

“I think just us being very thorough with the cleaning provides a sense of comfort,” DeRose said. 

This Friday afternoon, Quiros was accompanied by Kate Young, 72, who had started her cleaning duty at 1:30 p.m. 

“You get used to it,” she said, referring to the protective gear she was wearing. “This is what we have to do now.” 

She has volunteered as a poll worker for four years, and she said this voting site is far better run than the one at the Devil’s Den in 2016. 

“It was a madhouse,” she said, chuckling. 

Uncertainty looms over this election, but Young isn’t worried. She prefers to focus on helping in small ways, a lesson she has learned from her years with the Peace Corps, End Hunger in Durham, and other activist work.

“You do what you can,” she said.

At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street journal

Analysis: NC Senate race offers window into world of oppo research

They’re sleuths, professional scandal-hunters. They target senators, presidents, politicians of all stripes, unearthing past gaffes and present improprieties. If there’s dirt, they’ll find it. 

They are opposition researchers, people who assemble negative information, or “oppo,” about political candidates for their clients. If the oppo is spicy enough, it can dominate headlines and define a campaign. 

And lately, they appear to be all over the North Carolina Senate race, where everyone seems to be dumping oppo.

On Oct. 7, the website American Ledger released a story with divorce filings showing that the ex-wife of Republican incumbent Thom Tillis alleged “cruel and inhuman treatment” by Tillis and that living with him would be “unsafe and improper.” American Ledger is paid for by American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC often involved in oppo research. 

The oppo dump was likely an attempt to steer the race’s narrative away from Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham’s recently uncovered extra-marital affair. 

On Oct. 2, the conservative media outlet NationalFile.com posted screenshots of flirtatious text messages exchanged between Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations consultant in California. 

Later that night, Cunningham admitted to sending the texts. The Associated Press eventually confirmed that Cunningham had an in-person sexual encounter with Todd in July. 

Was this a juicy find by Republican oppo researchers? Patrick Howley, the reporter who broke the story, insists it wasn’t.

“I obtained these screenshots from a concerned citizen, NOT through opposition research,” Howley wrote in an email. 

But a veteran Washington journalist who wrote a novel about oppo says the episode has the hallmarks of dirt dug up by a shrewd investigator.

“You’ll never have proof because they’re not going to name their sources necessarily, but it certainly has all the classic footprints of oppo research,” said Tom Rosenstiel, author of “Oppo.” 

“If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he said. “An oppo duck.”

Making the sausage

For all its notoriety, oppo research begins with the mundane: combing through mounds of information to assemble a profile of a candidate.  

The oppo “checklist” includes tax records, voting histories, business ventures, personal details, divorce proceedings, lawsuits — anything that could be incriminating, said Alan Huffman, an investigative journalist turned oppo researcher who has delved into the lives of over 100 candidates. 

“Even though you’re a hired gun as an opposition researcher, your methods, if you’re doing it properly, are exactly the same as they would be if you were an investigative reporter,” Huffman said. 

In addition to targeting opposing candidates, Huffman also digs up dirt on his own clients, allowing them to anticipate attacks. 

“You look at them with basically the same sort of unjaundiced eye. [It] doesn’t really win you a lot of friends within your own campaign,” he chuckled. 

With the oppo assembled, the client — which could be a campaign, a PAC, a political party or any other independent group — decides the what, when and how of the release.  

Gary Pearce, who served as a senior advisor to former Gov. Jim Hunt, said that he would rely on four categories of information when consulting: the 10 best things about his client, the 10 worst things about his client, the 10 best things about the opposing candidate and the 10 worst things about that candidate. 

“And then I want to take those 40 things, and I want to test them all in some polls. And I want to find out what works,” he said. “And that’s what we’re gonna focus on in the campaign.” 

But after the release, the oppo doesn’t always work as intended.   

“You never know how it’s going to play … sometimes we’ll find something that seems like a total deal-breaker and nobody cares,” Huffman said. “And then sometimes something seems almost inconsequential, and then it gets a life of its own and develops this whole ecosystem and dominates the race.” 

In an era of heightened polarization and changing sexual mores, sexual scandals may not carry as much umph as before. The latest polls still show Cunningham with a slim lead over Tillis. 

And North Carolina voters may be less squeamish than most. 

“North Carolina voters are probably the world’s greatest experts in negative advertising,” Pearce said. “They have seen it for like 40 years. … It is really hard to penetrate their defenses. They have really got up bullshit shields.” 

The Wild West

Detecting oppo can be difficult, since media organizations will rarely admit that it was their source. Still, there are clues.

When a fringe news organization publishes information that would have required a high level of expertise to extract, that’s a sign, Rosenstiel said.

Other clues can be found in the way the information is released. Campaigns will often delay the release of oppo until a moment in the campaign cycle when it could have the most impact — a salacious October surprise. 

Campaigns also rarely publish oppo on their own sites, preferring to leak it to a sympathetic media organization. Think American Ledger, or NationalFile.com.  

“The goal of opposition research is to ultimately change the narrative of the race by distracting your opponent and making them have to respond to your opposition research,” Rosenstiel said. “And the best way to do that is to leak it to a friendly news operation that publishes it.” 

This process has accelerated with the partisan splintering of the media world and the proliferation of online outlets. As “quasi extensions of the party,” these media sites are perfect places to dump oppo, Rosenstiel said.  

“Our media ecosystem has become the Wild West. It’s filled with news organizations that are not really news organizations. It’s filled with partisan websites. It’s filled with places that are financed by political operatives.”

The Internet has changed oppo work in other ways, too. In a matter of minutes, false information about candidates can flit across Twitter and Facebook, feeding off likes, shares and retweets — “viral before it’s even vetted,” Huffman said.  

This complicates the work of oppo researchers. After all, who needs to hunt for evidence when a doctored video can suffice?

“I feel like that has, in some ways, made opposition research obsolete, because it’s a total work around,” Huffman said. “You don’t have to have the facts in order to undertake character assassination.”

At top, screenshots show flirtatious text messages exchanged between Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, shared by NationalFile.com. 

Supreme Court fight adds intensity to Senate race

The day after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis broke some news to a crowd of cheering supporters at a rally for President Trump in Fayetteville. 

“All the press tried to swarm me when I was coming up here, but I thought I would tell you all first,” he said, surrounded by a sea of red MAGA hats. 

“As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I’ve seen the list of justices. [The president] is going to nominate one of those justices, and I’m going to vote for their confirmation.” 

The crowd erupted in applause. 

On Saturday, Trump said he would nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett, setting off a fierce battle not just over the nominee, who is said to be staunchly against abortion, but also over the timing of the vote. 

With less than six weeks before Election Day — and with many North Carolinians already casting votes by mail — Ginsburg’s death intensifies a Senate race that had already attracted millions of dollars and strong interest from around the nation. 

“This is gonna take a race where the volume was already a 10 and crank it up to 11,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “It’s just going to make everything louder and more intense. … The partisanship, the intensity and the consequences—it draws into sharp detail the consequences of controlling the United States Senate.” 

Trump’s effort to speed ahead with a vote has put Tillis and other Republicans in a bind because they took the opposite position in 2016 after Justice Antonin Scalia died. They blocked hearings on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. 

In August 2016, Tillis wrote a USA Today op-ed that said “the Senate should not hold hearings or votes if a Supreme Court seat opened up during the [presidential] campaign.” 

But the morning after Ginsburg’s death, Tillis tweeted his support for filling the vacancy, distinguishing the situation from 2016 by saying that the latter involved a “divided government” and a “lame-duck president.” 

That has prompted cries of hypocrisy and shameless opportunism. Tillis’s Democratic opponent, Cal Cunningham, has pushed for the seat to be filled after the election.   

But Tillis’s decision to support the nominee could be smart politics. It reflects the importance of court nominees to many evangelical Republicans. They are hopeful that a new justice could be the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

According to FiveThirtyEight, Tillis has consistently trailed Trump in polls, indicating that some Republican voters who are gung ho about the president may feel hesitant about the senator. By doubling down on his support for the court nominee, Tillis may win them back. 

“He is sort of going above and beyond to try to prove his fealty to Trump to make up for the last year when he very briefly bucked him on the border wall,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for The Cook Political Report. 

She referred to Tillis’s response to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency over illegal immigration across the Mexican-American border in 2019. Tillis initially said he would vote against the declaration but later backtracked and voted for it. 

Taylor said the Tillis campaign has probably done the math: Promising to confirm Barrett could alienate some moderate voters, but Tillis will win more support from his conservative base. 

“I think they’re just looking at it from a sheer numbers game of what’s my best path to try and move my numbers up,” she said. “And I think it is shoring up that Republican base.” 

The fight could also rouse voters on the left. As the de facto leader of the court’s left wing, Ginsburg championed gender equality and abortion rights, becoming a liberal icon and earning the nickname “Notorious R.B.G.” 

The possibility of this progressive ally being replaced by a conservative, anti-abortion justice could intensify turnout among young and female voters — who often vote Democratic.

“The big question is going to be unmarried women,” said Kristin Goss, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “The fact that whoever takes that seat could be a deciding vote on Roe vs. Wade could make a big difference for unmarried women, particularly younger, unmarried women.”

Goss said that this moment could also be a “flashpoint” for college students and millennials. That, too, could help Cunningham.  

The progressive organization NextGen America says Ginsburg’s death is providing new energy for young people to get involved in the campaign and vote. 

Immediately after the justice’s death, NextGen America debuted a new YouTube ad targeting young voters in North Carolina. 

“Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish was not to be replaced by Trump. But we can’t trust Thom Tillis to do the right thing,” the ad says. “He has ignored our needs and voted for Trump’s anti-choice, anti-equality judges. We need Cal Cunningham, not a Trump loyalist, in the Senate.” 

In a race that had been dominated by the coronavirus, healthcare and the economy, a new issue has emerged.

“This is not exactly an October surprise, but this is one of those things that happens in politics, where it’s an unforeseen event,” said John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation and president of the John William Pope Foundation.

“It sort of knocks all the preconceived notions for a loop.”

Senate debate surprise: Cunningham hesitant on vaccine

After his first question prompted a puzzling response from the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, the debate moderator asked a second time. Would Cal Cunningham take a coronavirus vaccine that was approved by the end of the year?

“I would be hesitant,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to ask a lot of questions.”

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis pounced. 

“We just had a candidate for the U.S. Senate look into the camera and tell 10 million North Carolinians he would be hesitant to take a vaccine,” he said, waving his hands up and down for emphasis.

It felt like a role reversal for the two parties. It’s typically the Republicans who are skeptical of scientific expertise and public health measures such as mask requirements. 

But on Monday night, it was Cunningham who said it was “incumbent on every American” to question the government and Tillis who responded, “I trust Dr. Fauci,” referring to Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease doctor.

If you didn’t see it live, you will surely see it and read about it again in ads and mailings. The exchange was the most memorable moment in the first televised debate between Tillis and Cunningham, two candidates in one of the most competitive and costly Senate contests in the country. 

In the hour-long debate, the candidates sparred on healthcare and systemic racism, while also repeating barbs from their campaign ads. 

Cunningham quoted the Gospel of Matthew. Tillis called Biden Cunningham’s “running mate” and zinged Cunningham for using a tax incentive to renovate his butler’s pantry. 

“I didn’t know what a butler’s pantry was because we didn’t have them in the trailers I grew up in,” Tillis said. 

From the outset, the pandemic dominated the debate.

Before either candidate spoke, the debate moderator, WRAL anchor David Crabtree, explained that the candidates had been spaced 12 feet apart and had worn masks until reaching their podiums. 

Asked to comment on the president’s handling of the pandemic, Tillis sidestepped. He praised the administration’s travel ban and then pivoted to boast about his efforts to increase testing and access to personal protective equipment. 

Cunningham put the blame on President Trump and the federal government.

“I think that we are exceeding and experiencing an unprecedented failure of leadership in this country,” he said. “We have tens of thousands of Americans who have lost their lives, often without being able to be with their loved ones in their final hours. We’ve had millions of people out of the workforce, tons of jobs lost, but it’s also the lost moments. It’s missing high school graduations. It’s grandparents who can’t be there for birthdays, weddings, funerals.”

Cunningham also accused Tillis of dilly-dallying after being briefed on the coronavirus in January.   

“It took him almost six months to come up with priorities,” he said. “Instead, I was listening to North Carolinians, talking about the priorities I hear.”

Following the pattern of the president, who has called the coronavirus the “China virus,” Tillis shifted blame overseas.

“Make no mistake about it. China’s responsible for this crisis,” he said. 

And then came the surprising exchange over the COVID-19 vaccine. Cunningham defended his position, describing skepticism of government as one of the “finest traditions of America.”

“I think that’s incumbent on all of us right now in this environment with the way we’ve seen politics intervening in Washington,” he said.

“Cal’s a trial lawyer. He’s not a doctor,” Tillis replied. “He’s not a scientist. He’s not an epidemiologist. What he’s saying is what he thinks will get him elected. Because that’s what (Kamala) Harris said.”

Tillis and Cunningham are scheduled for two more debates on Sept. 22 and Oct. 1. 

A vulnerable Republican incumbent. A changing state. A shot at capturing the Senate.

In a different year, the race might seem humdrum: a Republican boasting about jobs and the economy pitted against a Democrat promising better healthcare.  

But this is 2020, and few things are run-of-the-mill, including the tight, high-profile competition for a U.S. Senate seat between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. 

Congress doesn’t always hang in the balance. 

“I just think everybody recognizes that this is going to be the most expensive race, probably in the country, just because of the tightness of North Carolina in terms of its political dynamics” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College. “Certainly, I think the Senate hinges on how this particular race goes.” 

If party nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency, Democrats will need to net three seats to gain a Senate majority, since the vice president has a tie-breaking vote. If President Donald Trump wins, they’ll need four. In either scenario, the Democrats have their sights trained on North Carolina, where most polls aggregated by FiveThirtyEight show the two candidates tied or Cunningham with a single digit lead. 

Both candidates have stuck to the conventional party playbooks while targeting the sliver of swing voters that could decide the outcome of this election — and the future of the Senate. 

The Incumbent

Tillis, 60, was elected in 2014, ousting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. His campaign emphasizes humble beginnings: in one Youtube advertisement, Tillis describes how he moved throughout the South as a kid.

“Growing up in trailer parks and rental homes, Senator Tillis understands what so many are going through right now, which is why he’ll never stop fighting to revive our economy and get North Carolinians back to work,” Alex Nolley, Tillis’s campaign spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

According to The Charlotte Observer, Tillis left home at 17 before going on to work at the prestigious accounting and consulting firm Price Waterhouse and IBM.

From 2007 to 2015, he represented District 98 in the North Carolina House of Representatives. In the last four years of his tenure, he served as Speaker of the House.

As the state’s junior senator, Tillis has vacillated between opposing and supporting President Trump, said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for The Cook Political Report. 

Take Tillis’s response to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency over illegal immigration across the Mexican-American border in 2019. Initially, Tillis said he would vote against the declaration, but he later backtracked and voted for it — a “cautionary tale” for other Republican incumbents contemplating breaking with the president, Taylor said. 

“The damage was done,” she said. 

Now, Tillis faces the difficult balancing act of shoring up the Trump base while distancing himself from unpopular aspects of the president’s policies, particularly his response to the coronavirus crisis. During a recent Trump rally in Winston-Salem, Tillis stood out for wearing a mask. The president and many of his supporters went without. 

“Tillis is trying to walk the Donald Trump tightrope,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “Not distancing himself from Trump, but also not giving full-throated defense of the more radical parts of the Trump agenda.” 

Tillis has doubled down on his track record regarding the economy, including his support for the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program for small businesses — with the hope of portraying himself as a “common-sense fiscal conservative,” as his campaign website labels him. 

His campaign also paints Cunningham as a far-left candidate of the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York. 

“His radical liberal agenda of making it easier to sue police officers, enabling sanctuary cities, injecting the Green New Deal into COVID-19 legislation and increasing government control of our healthcare system, proves that Cunningham is nothing but a rubber-stamp for Chuck Schumer’s extreme liberal agenda,” Nolley wrote.  

On the left, Democrat Cal Cunningham, who is running for a North Carolina U.S. Senate seat, smiles outside while wearing a jacket and tie. On the right, Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican running to remain in the seat, smiles while outside in a button down shirt.
Democrat Cal Cunningham (left) and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis (right) are running for a North Carolina U.S. Senate seat.

The Challenger

Cunningham, 47, has worked to portray himself as the kind of moderate Democrat swing voters in North Carolina can trust, highlighting his small-town origins and his military service. 

He grew up in Lexington and earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law. After 9/11, Cunningham entered the Army Reserve and was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Deployed to Iraq, he oversaw the army’s largest court martial jurisdiction, earning a Bronze Star Medal and the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award, according to his campaign website. 

“He really kind of is a candidate from central casting,” said Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University. “He’s got the military background. He’s got his classic rural North Carolina accent. … I think people are able to project onto Cunningham what they want to.”  

Cunningham was elected to the State Senate in 2000. He later worked as an attorney at Wallace & Graham, a firm with practice areas that include workers’ compensation, personal injury and class action cases, and at Kilpatrick Stockton, where he focused on commercial litigation. He has also worked as vice president of a waste management company called Waste Zero, a role that has provoked negative Republican advertising

Healthcare is a common talking point for Cunningham: he wants to lower prescription drug costs, guarantee coverage for preexisting conditions and expand Medicaid. 

“One of the most frequent issues Cal hears about when he talks to North Carolinians is the need to improve access and bring down the cost of healthcare for families — made more urgent during the COVID-19 crisis as hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are out of work and uninsured,” Aaron Simpson, Cunningham’s press secretary, wrote in an email. 

Cunningham has criticized Tillis for cutting education funding and opposing Medicaid expansion. He’s also accused the incumbent of shady dealing.

“Instead of doing right by the people he should serve, [Tillis] has spent the past six years caving over and over to the corruption in Washington and the corporate special interests bankrolling him,” Simpson wrote.

Senate races are always expensive, but this one particularly so: outside spending groups, including PACs and SuperPACs, have already funnelled nearly $50 million into this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This race has attracted more outside spending than any other Congressional race; for context, outside groups have spent around $40 million on the Senate contest in Iowa, the next most expensive race in terms of outside spending.

Earlier this year, Cunningham had trailed Tillis in finances. But in the second quarter of 2020 his campaign nearly tripled Tillis’s fundraising, smashing a record for the amount of money raised by a North Carolina Senate candidate in a quarter, according to The News & Observer.  

As of June 30, Tillis’s campaign raised about $13.7 million and spent $7.3 million, while Cunningham raised roughly $14.8 million and spent about $8.2 million.

“I think that there should be no surprise that Cal Cunningham would raise a great deal of money from North Carolina and beyond it. That was always in the cards,” said John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation and president of the John William Pope Foundation. 

“That was one of the explicit reasons why some Democrats endorsed him early, so he can raise the funds necessary to be competitive in this important race.” 

The race plays out in a state characterized by increasing polarization and a schism between rural and urban areas, characteristics that make North Carolina a microcosm of national politics.

Urban areas, like Mecklenburg County and Durham County, are strongholds for the Democrats, while rural counties remain solidly Republican, said Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina political consultant and columnist. Neither base will budge. 

“It would take a nuclear blast to fracture either one,” Wrenn said.

Then there are the suburbs, home to many of the state’s unaffiliated or independent voters. Coveted by both candidates, these swing voters could decide the outcome of this razor-thin election, Wrenn said. So could young people. 

“For the time being, we’re kind of still a center, lean-right state, but if voters under the age of 40 show up in relative political strength, we could be a pure toss-up, slightly lean Democratic state,” Bitzer said. 

One thing’s for sure: as a tumultuous year unfolds, this race — and the state — will continue to be in flux. 

“I think 2020 is kind of an inflection point for this state, for the country, as a whole,” Bitzer said.

“You have to let go,” says TROSA founder Kevin McDonald as he steps aside

When Kevin McDonald woke up the morning after his first round of electroshock therapy, he couldn’t remember how to make coffee. He used to drink it every morning – strong with some cream. That Saturday he stopped. 

But the shock therapy continued, and so did his memory lapses. Scrolling through Facebook, he found himself staring at unfamiliar names and faces. And when he drove into the complex of TROSA, the Durham organization he founded 26 years ago, he couldn’t remember the security guard’s name. 

Eventually, McDonald, who served as the President and CEO of TROSA since its inception, decided he had a choice to make: hold on to the organization, or allow someone more capable to take over.   

In the decades since McDonald started TROSA (the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers) with $18,000, an abandoned school building and a four-burner stove, the organization has helped hundreds of people recover from substance abuse and become a cornerstone of the Durham community. TROSA moving vans help Durhamites schlep their stuff to new homes, TROSA yard crews keep lawns trim and TROSA cleaning crews prepare Cameron Indoor Stadium before almost every Duke basketball game. 

But after 26 years running the organization, McDonald knew he needed to hand over the reins. On July 1, he stepped aside to a role as “founder” as Keith Artin, the organization’s longtime chief operating officer, became president and CEO.  

“I just knew in my heart of hearts that you have to let go,” McDonald said.  

***

When I called McDonald over Zoom recently, he appeared on my screen wearing a white button-down shirt that matched his large white beard. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, McDonald, who is 72 and has trouble breathing, has worked from home. Despite the isolation, he’s enjoying life. 

“I’m drinking Coca-Cola instead of Diet Coke,” he chuckled. “I’m splurging, man.” 

McDonald is no stranger to letting go. Because his dad was an officer in the Air Force, McDonald never got to settle down. He was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, but he grew up across the South – Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and Florida. 

As a Yankee with a Boston accent, McDonald struggled to fit in, and developed feelings of shyness and social anxiety. His mother was also physically and emotionally abusive, he said. 

In 1959, when McDonald was 12, his family moved to Germany, where his father served as commander at an air base. His anxiety and lack of confidence continued to fester. 

He escaped with alcohol, frequenting local bars as a young teenager. “I wasn’t shy there, after I had some drinks,” he said. By the time he left Germany in 1963, alcohol had become a major problem in his life, he said. 

The family moved to California, and he started partying and drinking more. Eventually, his drinking problem became so severe that his dad delivered an ultimatum. “My way or the highway,” his father told him. McDonald took the highway. He was 17. 

After high school, he enlisted in the Air National Guard, in the hope of making it into the Air Force Academy. He started carting drugs from Northern California to Los Angeles, but wore a short-haired wig during his military training so he’d look clean-cut. 

McDonald didn’t make the Academy and then started snorting heroin, which spiraled into more trouble. Soon he was robbing pharmacies to get drugs. But he got caught twice in three months. The first time, he was bailed out; the second time, he received a sentence of 20 years in prison. (A defense lawyer found a way to reduce that to three months.) 

Instead of spending years in prison, 32-year-old McDonald headed to Delancey Street, a substance recovery program that would become the model for TROSA. At Delancey, McDonald began to learn how to care for other people, and—even more difficult—to accept other people’s care for himself.  

“The hardest thing for me was to receive, to let people care about me, get close to me. That started happening too,” he said during an interview with Frank Stasio on “The State of Things.” 

During his 12 years of working at Delancey, McDonald visited Greensboro, North Carolina to help set up a substance recovery facility. There, he met many of the people who would later invite him to set up a similar program in Durham. 

Inspired by his own treatment, McDonald decided to start one when he moved to Durham. He told his wife Sue about his plans during their wedding dance. 

TROSA soon took off, earning large donations from the Chamber of Commerce and support from the community, including volunteer work from a Duke fraternity. Combining work-based training, counseling and education, the program helped hundreds of residents recover from substance abuse problems. TROSA’s lawn care, thrift store and moving company have each won readers’ awards from Indy Week. 

Even as the program grew into a big success, McDonald kept his eye on the day when he would have to move on. 

“It’s what’s important for the organization, not the founder, not individuals in the organization, and I really believe in that,” he said during his 2015 interview on “The State of Things.”   

***

Roughly the same time as that interview, McDonald began experiencing more severe bouts of depression, which had been a chronic problem. He had more trouble finishing tasks and getting out of bed. People who knew him well could tell that he was a little colder, a little harder.  

He went to a psychiatrist, who eventually recommended that he undergo electroshock therapy.

He ended up going through 19 rounds of the therapy before deciding to stop. He says the treatment left major gaps in his memory. He once had a knack for remembering names and faces. Now, when TROSA residents greeted him, he would have to say, “Hi, what’s your name?” – and he felt terrible about it. He used to be able to give speeches from memory, but now he had to write them down. 

Around that time, McDonald was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a brain disorder that can lead to physical decline and short-term memory loss.  

“It was scary,” he said. “It was like, I went inside myself. And, how am I going to adapt to this one? How am I going to beat this?” 

But as the memory lapses continued, McDonald realized that some things in life can’t be overcome – only endured. He decided it was time to step down at TROSA.

“Nobody realized but me where it was,” he said. “And so I just said, ‘July, I’m out.’ And it was the right thing to do.” 

McDonald’s voice cracks when he talks about the support he got from his staff, particularly after he announced he was stepping down. 

“I just was so emotionally blown away by people caring so much. I’ve cared a lot of about people in my life, and I’ve given everything I got for a lot of years, but I don’t expect people caring about me.” 

Does he regret stepping down? 

“Oh no,” he said. “I worked hard, man.” 

Actually, he’s quite happy. A person he trusts is in charge, and, as founder, he can still be involved. 

“I’m ain’t laying down, and I’m gonna help people.”

Of course, he’s had to adapt to his new role. With Artin in charge, he’s learning to follow orders instead of giving them.

“I don’t need to be a general,” he said. “Rank? I’m past rank. I’m Kevin.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Chris Kuo can be reached christopher.kuo@duke.edu

In photo at top: Kevin McDonald in his home. He now splurges and has a real Coca-Cola. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

COVID-19 by the numbers in Durham

Reporting by Chris Kuo, graphics by Henry Haggart

COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the nation, including in North Carolina. As of July 11, 83,793 cases and 1,499 deaths have been confirmed in this state. Drawing on Durham County and North Carolina data, The 9th Street Journal created a snapshot of the outbreak in Durham today.

Durham is the sixth most populated county in North Carolina, but it has the highest number of cases per 10,000 people among counties with the most residents. A large COVID-19 outbreak at a federal prison complex in Butner, part of which sits in northern Durham County, contributes to Durham’s rate. Graphic by Henry Haggart

The impact of the coronavirus on racial and ethnic groups is evolving but has hit three groups hardest in Durham. When Mayor Steve Schewel first instituted a stay-at-home order in March, white residents made up the largest percentage of coronavirus cases. In April, it was Black residents. By June, the percentage of white and Black residents had fallen, while the percentages of new cases among Latinx residents had skyrocketed. Graphic by Henry Haggart

Nursing homes and other residential care facilities are linked to a small fraction of COVID-19 cases in Durham County and across the state. But they account for the majority of COVID-19 related deaths. In Durham, the contrast is even more striking: over 73% of COVID-19 deaths in Durham are linked to nursing homes and residential care facilities such as adult care homes. Graphic by Henry Haggart

Age disparity: In Durham and statewide, people younger than 50 make up the majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Yet 95.5% of people who have died so far were age 50 or older. Graphics by Henry Haggart

9th Street Journal reporter Chris Kuo can be reached at christopher.kuo@duke.edu 

Outdoor fitness classes, real estate open houses allowed to resume

The city of Durham and Durham County are continuing to move forward with reopening plans during the coronavirus pandemic. An amendment to the “safer-at-home” order issued on May 28 will allow real estate open houses and outdoor fitness classes to resume starting Friday. 

Gyms can hold outdoor fitness classes of up to 25 people, with recommendations to keep 10 feet of distance between participants and make sure the areas are sanitized. Realtors can now hold open houses for up to 10 people, although officials said in a press release they “strongly discourage” this activity. 

“We appreciate the active engagement and participation of both our realtors and our fitness centers in our Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force Roundtables,” Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners, said in the release. “Like many of our business sectors, they are taking the lead to develop and implement industry best practices putting their clients and customers safety first.”

These changes come against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in Durham County. Data reported by the Durham County Public Health Department shows a clear upward trajectory in cases for the first week-and-a-half of June. As of June 12, Durham County has approximately 2,470 confirmed cases — up from 1,677 on the first of the month

A similar spike in cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus is taking place across the state. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human services reported 1,768 new cases in North Carolina on Friday, which surpassed the previous largest single-day increase of 1,370 cases on June 6. This brings the total number of confirmed cases in North Carolina to 41,249 cases. 

A social distancing sign in a Durham park. Photo by Lyndsey Gilpin

“As we continue to re-open activities in our community, it is more important than ever we all continue to practice the 3 W’s- Wearing face coverings, Waiting 6 feet and Washing our hands to keep ourselves, our loved ones and each other safe and healthy,” Jacobs said in the release. 

This amendment means it’s up to real estate companies and fitness center owners to decide if they want to host larger groups. 

Steven Squires, senior broker for Costello Real Estate and Investments, regularly conducts business in Durham County. He told 9th Street in an emailed statement that he recommends real estate professionals who plan to show homes or host open houses take a “one in, one out” approach so that no more than 10 people are in the home at a time, and that all parties should wear personal protective equipment and limit touching surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches and plumbing fixtures.

He also said that he is holding off for the time being on hosting open houses based on his “own comfort level with the pandemic.” 

“Considering there are so many other methods of advertising at our disposal, I just don’t feel like it’s necessary to host events where an increased level of exposure is possible,” he said. “I do plan to resume hosting open houses on my own listings in the near future, but only when I feel more comfortable doing so and my clients are on board with it as well.” 

Cameron Oglesby contributed reporting to this story.