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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. 

Fire at Stagville plantation was set

Last week’s early-morning fire at Historic Stagville state historic site was set, according to a fire department chief who was among the first on the scene. 

The site is located on part of what once was North Carolina’s largest pre-Civil War plantation, which covered more than 30,000 acres in northern Durham County. Approximately 900 enslaved people once lived there. 

Four exterior portions of the 18th century Bennehan family home were on fire when Chief Allen Needham and other members of the Bahama Volunteer Fire Department pulled up at about 6:45 am, Needham said. 

Because the building is so old, the wooden materials burned easily, like “a lighter box,” said Needham.

Fire, smoke and water used to extinguish flames on a front corner of the building damaged furnishings inside, including a rug, table, chairs and portraits hanging on the walls, Needham said. Fire on the back of the building damaged a porch and doors but firefighters put it out before the interior there was harmed, the fire chief said.

The Lebanon and Redwood volunteer fire departments also rushed to the scene, Needham said. Fires in two other spots on the building were small and easily extinguished, he said. 

The fact that fire was detected at multiple sites on the building indicated that someone set the fire, Needham said. “It was definitely some human hands involved,” Needham said. “It was definitely a set fire.” 

Needham said he found “other stuff” that indicated it was a case of arson, but was not authorized to disclose what that is. 

Programming at Stagville for years has focused on teaching visitors about the lives and work of enslaved people confined there by the Bennehan and Cameron families. In addition to a Bennehan family house, the site includes four buildings where enslaved people lived and a large barn

Investigators from the Sheriff’s Office and the county Fire Marshal’s Office are looking for leads on who set the fires. Anyone with information can contact the Sheriff’s Office criminal investigation division at 919-560-7151 or Durham Crimestoppers, which welcomes anonymous calls, at 919-683-1200.

If a tip leads to an arrest, a caller could be eligible for a cash reward.

At top: Fire damage is visible on the front of the Bennehan family home at Historic Stagville state historic site. Source: Durham County Sheriff’s Office.  

The mayor’s inbox: gripes, praise and lots of angst

A lawyer grouses about people who aren’t wearing masks at Harris Teeter. A music teacher pleads for help from a small business relief program. A woman who has read — and reread — Ron Chernow’s thousand-page biography of Ulysses Grant demands that her local library be reopened.  

These emails, part of a sampling of 21 that Mayor Steve Schewel provided The 9th Street Journal from his inbox, reveal the unsettled mood of the city. They show Durham residents grappling with a pandemic that has shuttered their stores, cloistered them in their homes and left them afraid that they’ll contract the virus the next time they shop for milk or toilet paper. 

Residents worry that the virus spells doom for city businesses. There’s angst about mask enforcement, frustration over stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Some people simply long for life as it was a few months ago. Others offer the mayor a few words of thanks. 

“I cannot contribute to the economy from the grave” 

One recent Tuesday afternoon, Linda Goswick, 73, went to the Durham Costco for the first time in months. When she noticed a woman without a mask behind her in the checkout line, Goswick spun around and told the woman she was breaking the law.  

Later that day, she wrote an email to the mayor pleading that the city more strictly enforce its mask policy. “I am a lifelong Durham resident,” she wrote. “I want life to get back to ‘normal.’”  

Hank Hankla said his wife had a similar mask experience at a Harris Teeter, where she encountered several young men who weren’t wearing masks. Hankla and his wife, who are both immune-compromised, have since decided to buy their groceries somewhere else.  

Hankla, a lawyer, said the decision “is not only a protest, it is self-preservation.” 

Some of Schewel’s email correspondents also used dark humor to make their points that the pain and inconvenience of the shutdown was necessary for public health.    

“I’m begging you to extend (the stay-at-home order) further,” wrote John Davis, a father of a young child. “While the economy *will* recover, we haven’t – to my knowledge – figured out how to bring people back from the dead.”  

Jules Odendahl-James, a spouse and parent of “individuals at high medical risk,” put it even more bluntly.

“I cannot contribute to the economy from the grave,” she wrote.

“Imagine a ghost town” 

Many people who wrote to Schewel are worried that the shutdown will destroy the city’s small businesses.

Russell Lacy wrote that he is worried about whether his music tutoring company can survive. 

“If businesses like mine can’t get the help they need Durham’s richness will not be the same post covid-19,” he wrote, and urged the mayor to approve a small business grant.

For Crystal Williams-Brown, downtown Durham had once been a lively place where she could speak with strangers and enjoy the noise and rush of a weekday afternoon. But the pandemic has left silent streets punctuated only by the wailing of sirens.  

“Imagine a ghost town with store fronts serving as a reminder of what once was a vibrant, bustling, comforting place,” she wrote, while urging the mayor to approve funds for small businesses.  

After reading Chernow’s 1,104-page Grant biography, Morgan Feldman was ready to browse the stacks at Durham’s public library for something new. Feldman’s May 1 email indicated she’d grown frustrated not just with the shutdown of the library but with, well, everything.

“The current closures are the equivalent of a 5 mph speed limit — so it’s safe — and wearing 3 inches of bubble wrap–so it’s safe,” she wrote. “It’s all non-sense and we deserve immediate restoration of services–and the economy in general.”  

Scott Gray II described the impact of the restrictions on his personal life: his friends unemployed, his family members stranded at home, his church unable to congregate together.  

“We can’t be Bull City strong if we keep hiding.”  

Moments of peace 

“Thank you,” said the subject line in an email to Schewel from George Stanziale Jr., the president and chief business development officer at Stewart, a construction company. The message itself was brief. “I just wanted to send you a note of thanks for all you’ve done in protecting the health and safety of our city during the Covit-19 [sic] pandemic.”  

In another email, Schewel was invited to address Durham’s children.

Margaret Anderson, who directs children’s services at the Durham County Library, sent an email to the mayor: would he read a picture book over video for the kids? It would be part of a weekly series of summer videos for the children.  

The reply arrived in her inbox the next evening. Yes, of course. The video would be made, the picture book read. Life would go on.