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Best of 2020: Reporting

Reporters with The 9th Street Journal had plenty to cover this year and all rose to the occasion.

They published more than 140 articles on the pandemic, demands for racial justice, high-stakes elections and more.

Some articles stood out due to the heft of the subject matter and the depth of the reporting. As 2020 draws to a close, here is some of our best reporting of the year:

Hospital bill collectors

Six months after an intruder raped a Duke University student in her campus apartment, bill collectors started calling her about unpaid Duke University Hospital charges. Victims are not supposed to be charged for sexual assault exams. But rules have loopholes, Cameron Beach reported.

A Durham crisis

Hundreds of people were evacuated from Durham’s oldest public housing community due to unsafe conditions last winter. Housing authorities in other North Carolina cities take better care of their properties, Caroline Petrow-Cohen explained.

Tracking COVID-19

After the pandemic struck, the world learned how important contract tracers are. These public health sleuths encounter suffering that is hidden from most of us, Bella Caracta described.

Once a homicide

After a judge discredited police evidence in the case against a Durham teenager, prosecutors dropped charges accusing him of killing his father. Months later, a medical examiner revised the cause of the man’s death, Ben Leonard disclosed.

Families in the dark

When the new coronavirus started spreading, federal officials banned visitors from nursing homes. Intended to protect the vulnerable, the move isolated residents from family members at a time of great danger, Victoria Eavis documented.

Follow the money

Durham officials boasted of giving aid to small businesses this summer. But for weeks, they did not know who received the funding, Ben Leonard revealed.

What is Swing NC?

Trying to track the origin of a $53,000 donation to a congressional candidate shows how the campaign finance system is a messy tangle, Michaela Towfighi found.

COVID-19 in jail

Darrell Kersey’s death was the second COVID-19 fatality linked to the Durham jail that was not disclosed to the public, Dryden Quigley exposed.

Repairs gone wrong

For months, public housing residents were forced to live with a rodent infestation where their children play outdoors, Charlie Zong reported.

At top: 9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Torrence interviews a Durham resident during early voting at Duke University’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. Photo by Henry Haggart

Best of 2020: Photography

Ashley Canady, resident council president at McDougald Terrace, and other tenants marched in the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Unity March and Rally in January. They demanded help for tenants moved from unsafe public housing. Photo by Corey Pilson | The 9th Street Journal

None of us will forget the year 2020. How could we?

This is the year global pandemic struck, followed by a national racial-justice reckoning and high-stakes political campaigns. In Durham, a crisis in the city’s largest public housing community swelled too.

Two 9th Street Journal student photojournalists — Corey Pilson in the spring and Henry Haggart in summer and fall — documented all that and more this year.

Here is some of their good work that we love best from 2020.

After unsafe conditions chased hundreds of residents from McDougald Terrace, Shimey Harvey regularly checked on the apartment where she and her son lived. Photo by Corey Pilson | The 9th Street Journal
Durham Public Schools closed classrooms suddenly in March to protect teachers, students and staff from the new coronavirus. In April, volunteers worked to get food to students and families who rely on free and reduced-price meals at Glenn Elementary School. Photo by Corey Pilson I The 9th Street Journal
After George Floyd was killed by police in May, protests swept the country. Downtown Durham businesses boarded up their storefronts in case violence swelled during marches here. In June, artists transformed blocks of plywood with art. Jaguar Perry called his work “Sambo in Wonderland”. Photo by Henry Haggart I The 9th Street Journal
A patient held an umbrella for Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi while she administered a coronavirus test in July. Martinez-Bianchi co-founded Latin-19, a group of clinicians that stepped up to respond to a high rate of COVID-19 among Durham’s Latinx residents. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal
After Durham police drew guns on a teenager and two children at Rochelle Manor Apartments in August, their families and supporters demanded that city officials release police body-camera footage. After a rally at Durham City Hall, a child examined a sign left behind. Photo by Henry Haggart I The 9th Street Journal
Duke University’s Catholic Center held Mass in a campus parking garage after the pandemic made indoor worship unsafe. A masked participant kneeled on a cement floor during a September service. Photo by Henry Haggart I The 9th Street Journal
Durham public schools offered online instruction only this fall, with most students signing in from home. Several learning centers have popped up since then. Angela Caraway worked with a student at one, Kate’s Korner, in November. Photo by Henry Haggart I The 9th Street Journal
At a September event intended to strengthen ties between city residents and police,  Sgt. Daryl Macaluso throws a football to a kid at the Hoover Road community. Photo by Henry Haggart I The 9th Street Journal
The pandemic brought countless challenges to poll workers during voting this fall. One worker wore double protection while manning a vote tabulator at South Durham Regional Library. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal
Hundreds of people marched in Durham on Nov. 5, demanding that all ballots cast in that week’s elections be counted. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

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.

Welcome to The 9th Street Journal

Photo by Katie Nelson

Welcome to The 9th Street Journal, a new website that will bring you the news of Durham.

The news and feature articles on our site are produced by five of the best journalism students at Duke. (How good are they? When I write to them, my emails begin “Dream Team!”) They’ve each taken one of our intro courses in newswriting or broadcast journalism and they have had internships at impressive places that include NBC News, Bloomberg, the News & Observer, the fact-checking websites PolitiFact and Chequeado, and the Charlotte Observer.

The 9th Street Journal is part classroom, part news organization. The students get class credit, but they’re also providing you with important news about what’s happening in the city. The mission of our organization is similar to the role of our DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, to empower democracy and hold power accountable.   

Our reporters each have a beat. Daniela Flamini, Ben Leonard and Julianna Rennie cover city and county government; Hank Tucker is our public safety reporter; and Bill McCarthy reports on the Durham schools. Our staff photographer is Katie Nelson.

Our stories will supplement the coverage you see from other local news organizations such as the Durham Herald-Sun, WRAL, the Indy Week and other outlets. We will freely share our reporting with their newsrooms.

We chose the name because 9th Street represents the many faces of Durham. Walk the two blocks from Main Street to Markham Avenue you see much of what makes Durham fascinating. Locals mix with transplants on a street that manages to be historic – and new. There are still locally owned businesses such as The Regulator bookstore, while chains such as Subway and Panera are sprouting up.

Please email me with feedback on our coverage. And if you hear from a member of the dream team, I hope you’ll take the call.

– Bill Adair, Editor, Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism & Public Policy