My Favorite Stories of 2020: NC In All Its Complicated Splendor

In this Wednesday, June 24, 2015 photo, Rev. William Barber speaks at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By Michael McElroy

December 28, 2020

Politics and pandemics, here’s a look inside a bleak and confounding year of news in North Carolina. 

A few Thanksgivings ago my wife and I fixed a ham instead of a turkey. We had just bought our first house and it was our daughter’s first Thanksgiving, and we wanted something different to separate this holiday from all the others. My wife’s parents and brother drove from Virginia to New York to help us celebrate, and we sat together around a large table, filing our plates and glasses as our daughter beamed and cooed at all the faces around her. 

It was a lovely meal.

Then that night the family that had dined together began to throw up separately in our new toilets, sinks and garbage cans. 

The ham had been a terrible idea. 

But, before the ham made us sick, it tasted wonderful. 

Man, I’m a sucker for contradictions – and I feel right at home in North Carolina.

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My wife was born in Raleigh and we moved here in 2017. I had never been to NC before. It’s a bit of a habit of mine. Though my great grandparents came to New York from County Mayo, Ireland, and my mother was born in Brooklyn, I knew nothing of New York before I moved there beyond what I’d seen in movies. 

I lived there for more than 14 years and worked for The New York Times for all of it, marshaling stories about its living and dead, walking its streets, staring from its shores and towers, hunting its treasures and ghosts. I came to know the city in my bones and miss it every day. 

We are a complicated species and draw as much lovely messiness from where we live as we pour back into it. How much can you know about yourself unless you know the ground you walk on, the air you breathe, the people around you?

In my short time in North Carolina I’ve already seen how wonderful and maddening it can be. 

I started working for Cardinal & Pine in June, and have had the privilege of speaking with scores of North Carolinians about the things most important to them. I love writing about people. To me every story ever written, whether about war, economic policy or astronomy is about human beings and the chaos and wonder they are capable of. Here are some of the stories I found particularly revealing about this place I am so proud to now call home.

“NC Family’s DNC Story Shows Immigrants They Are Not Alone”

Jessica, Silvia, and Lucy Sanchez (from left to right) spoke at the DNC from their Charlotte home about their family’s struggles. (Photo via PBS News Hour)

Jessica Sanchez and her family spoke virtually at the Democratic National Convention in August. The family has mixed documentation statuses and shared their harrowing story to a national audience, but was one familiar to many immigrant families. 

“Their story is resonant of those of many other immigrant families in NC,” I wrote, “But it is also fundamentally American, reflecting a family that has worked hard, carved a community out of a new city, and, despite their hard work, struggles to pay high medical bills.”

“Pay Attention to the Poor, New Study Says” and “Inside the Push to Turn Out NC’s College Students”

A truck carrying an ad in Raleigh for NextGen, a national youth voter organization seeking to turn out college voters in North Carolina.

The 2020 general election shattered participation records across the country and in NC.

The efforts to get out the vote here were epic, concentrating on groups with historical low voting rates. I wrote about two of these groups, voters at or below the poverty line and college students.

A study commissioned by the Poor People’s Campaign, co-chaired by NC’s Rev. Dr. William Barber II, found that if low-income voters showed up at the polls at the same rates as the rest of the population they could turn the tides of elections for years to come.

Same with college students. Both demographics voted in far higher numbers this year, reflecting changing tides that could soon shift NC’s electoral margins if not its landscape. 

“Denied Federal Recognition for a Century, Biden and Trump Promise Change for NC’s Lumbee Tribe”

LUMBERTON, USA – OCTOBER 24: People attend President Trump’s event on Saturday in NC. In the closing days fo the 2020 election, both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been courting key votes from Lumbee residents of rural Robeson County. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina is one of the largest tribes east of the Mississippi, but it is not officially recognized by the federal government. The distinction denies the tribe sovereignty and aid in its home county, Robeson, where more than 24.5% of residents live in poverty.

But in the final weeks of the election, both Joe Biden and President Donald Trump said they would support federal recognition for the tribe.

NC’s congressional delegation backs bipartisan bills in both the Senate and House, but it has not been scheduled for a vote before this Congress expires. Still, the tribe is hopeful that after a century of pushing, lobbying and pleading, 2021 will be the year.

“Somebody Voted for Roy Cooper and Donald Trump. Who Are These Voters?”

MORRISVILLE, NC – OCTOBER 18: North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (L) greets Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden upon arrival at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on October 18, 2020 in Morrisville, North Carolina. Bucking the trend in most states, NC handed a victory to the Democratic governor but Biden fell short in the state in 2020. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

NC voted in significant numbers for both Donald Trump and Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, but it was not an aberration, it fit a pattern.

NC voted for Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democratic figurehead, the same year it voted for Ronald Reagan and Senator Jesse Helms, icons of the ultra-conservative movement. Talk about contradictions.

“In the 14 general elections since 1968, the state has voted for a Republican president 12 times and a Democratic governor 10. In only three of those elections did NC elect Republicans to both posts. An analysis of the 2020 results show a far more complex reality that highlights both NC’s unique history and the growing divisions of this rapidly changing state.”

NC Santas Can’t Do Normal Santa Things This Season. Here’s How They’re Handling the Change.

Santa Terry works in the Wilmington area. The trick to maintaining Christmas spirit amid a pandemic, he said, is being creative in socially distancing. (Mandy Watkins Chapman/Twig & Feather Photography)

I ended my year with a deep dive about Santa Claus. I don’t deserve such grace. 

Christmas 2020 has challenged the state’s performing Santa Clauses like never before, both in threats to the Christmas spirit and to the performers themselves.  

“In interviews with Cardinal & Pine, several NC Santas and Mrs. Clauses said they’ve had to make significant adjustments in order to ensure that their businesses survive, protect a fragile Christmas spirit and keep everyone safe from a virus that shows no signs of taking a holiday.”

There is so much more I hope to help Cardinal & Pine think about in 2021. The disparities between NC’s cities and rural areas, problems with healthcare and broadband access, its tangled racial history. NC is itself, a wonderful thing to be, and I can’t wait to keep listening and trying to capture both the lovely meal and the sometimes messy consequences that follow.

Have a very happy holiday, and I’ll see you again in 2021.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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