2020 Was a Drag. But Here’s My (Incomplete) List of the Cardinal & Pine Stories That Soared.

Protesters face Charlotte police after George Floyd's killing in May 2020. (Photo by Grant Baldwin for Cardinal & Pine)

By Billy Ball

December 30, 2020

Brave leaders, magical Santas, earth-moving candidates, crushing photos, a president in free fall, and a North Carolina man who waited 44 years for truth and justice. These are the stories of 2020. 

Just be ok.

That’s the thing I keep saying to myself as 2020 winds down. 

This year was a dumpster fire wrapped in a dirty diaper trapped in a black hole in a blender. If you feel that way, you are 100% right. You are not being pessimistic or ungrateful. You are being accurate. The sighs of a hundred million other exhausted souls this season should be the ultimate validation. 

Presidential administrations and pandemics end. And 2020 will end too in a matter of hours.

Which is why if you can’t feel this holiday as if you are having the time of your life, just focus on being ok. That’s the best advice I can give as we sort through the stories that made us and moved us in 2020. 

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I dreaded the idea of wading through all the old copy to find the best stories of 2020 at Cardinal & Pine. Not because there was a shortage. In our first year, I’m extraordinarily proud of what we did, often on a breaking news deadline and often while trying to assemble a staff and a core of readers. 

It’s because so many of these stories felt like trudging through knee-deep sludge even while writing them. I couldn’t imagine re-reading them for posterity. As my father used to say when the time for an uncomfortable task arrived, “Get your galoshes. It’s going to be deep.” 

But a funny thing happened along the way. 

What I found in reading these stories was not a black pit of despair. 

I found the people who rode out unprecedented times with care and compassion and kindness. I found the leaders who, in the midst of oblivion, traded in partisanship to be a beachhead. (Not everything was perfect, of course not, but you must admire the stolid leadership of Gov. Roy Cooper and NC Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen). 

And I found also the work that inspired me as a journalist to go farther and deeper. 

A few of these pieces are mine. Most are not. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m rarely satisfied, much less inspired, by my own work. 

This isn’t comprehensive, not by a long shot. But I hope if anything this list can be a timepiece. I hope it helps you remember not just the bad times, but the people and the places and the stories that made it bearable. I hope it drives you most of all to get engaged in 2021, a year that really, truly, honestly, has to be better.

Happy reading and happy holidays. Get your galoshes.

Wrongfully Imprisoned for 44 Years, Ronnie Long Waits on Roy Cooper to Pardon Him

One of the true highlights of the year, Cardinal & Pine Associate Editor Sarah Ovaska spent hours with Ronnie Long, a NC man wrongfully convicted 44 years ago.

Long was released from prison in summer 2020 when a federal appeals court found evidence that local police had withheld evidence that would have proven his innocence.

Yet Gov. Roy Cooper stalled for weeks on issuing a formal pardon for Long, a pardon that not only cleared his name but allowed Long to access state funds set aside for the wrongfully convicted.

A Black man convicted by an all-white jury and all-white prosecutors in 1976, Long’s case has been a rallying cry for criminal justice reform in the state.

Within hours of Sarah’s series, word of Gov. Cooper’s pardon came down. We can’t ask for better results. 

Police Pepper Spray Crowd with Children, Elderly Attending NC Voter Turnout Rally

The Rev Greg Drumwright leads a 1000 person march to the polls on Election Day in Graham NC Photo by Alvin Jacobs Jr for Cardinal Pine

Sarah Ovaska was in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time depending on who you ask.

In the midst of a get-out-the-vote march in rural Alamance County on the last day of early voting, local police inexplicably began pepper spraying a peaceful crowd following a moment of silence for George Floyd.

Alamance has long been a center for controversy in NC, with a checkered past as far as law enforcement goes. Although a judge ruled that the federal Justice Department didn’t successfully make its case, the local sheriff was once sued by the federal government over very credible allegations of racial profiling.

This is just the latest question raised about basic inequalities in law enforcement in this North Carolina county. 

‘I’d Do It Again in a Heartbeat’: Two NC Republicans Talk Losing Their Elections After Spurning Trump

Two Transylvania County commissioners Page Lemel and Mike Hawkins were soundly defeated in this falls election after breaking rank with President Trump and the Republican Party Image via Lemel and Hawkins campaign page

C&P reporter Maxwell Millington landed a lot of great interviews for us this year, but I really enjoyed this one. It delved into two western NC Republicans (one of whom was featured in another Cardinal piece, more on that later) who broke with Trump in 2020.

Doing so clearly cost them re-election in their conservative county.

Regardless of your party (and Trump’s dishonesty transcends all parties and people if you ask me), you have to admire their bravery.

NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls: Black Woman VP Would Send ‘Incredibly Powerful Message’

This is one part of a four-part series (I recommend the entire thing) interviewing four prominent Black women in NC politics about the import of Joe Biden’s VP pick this year.

It arrived in the days before Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris, although it was clear that Biden intended to select a woman of color as his running mate.

Each of these interviews is remarkably personal, including this chat with NC Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls.

Max has a gift for getting people to be so candid. Of course, the selection was important, regardless of how you feel about Vice President-elect Harris, who will be the first woman of any race or ethnicity to hold the office.

Here’s hoping that my daughters grow up to find such an accomplishment rather rote. 

Methodists Banned Gay Marriage. But 12 of Their NC Pastors Defied the Church Together

You say protest and I assume someone is angry. 

But I didn’t see any anger at this protest wedding on Feb. 29 (on Leap Day no less!). COVID was weeks away from shutting us all down. But Caleb Parker and Thomas Phillips threw a wedding with all of their friends — and an armada of ministers — in Durham’s Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. 

It was a sweet wedding, but it was also historic because the ministers and the church defied the leadership of their mainline Protestant denomination, which had banned same-sex marriage and threatened to oust ministers who performed them. 

Caleb and Thomas held their wedding in one of Durham’s largest and best-known Methodist churches and did it with numerous brave NC ministers. Not because they’re particularly spiteful. Caleb, for instance, is a person of deep faith in the Methodist church. But because they believe in what’s right and they believe in their marriage.

Disclosure: Although I didn’t write or edit this piece, I had the fortune of attending. Caleb and I grew up in the same eastern NC city.  

This wedding didn’t feel like a protest at all. It felt like two people expressing their love for each other. Which is the point, isn’t it?  

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 ChapmanTwig Feather Photography

A real change of pace for us, I think it ended up being one of our more effective pieces. 

C&P reporter Michael McElroy took a simple, almost goofy, story about what in the world Santas are doing during a pandemic and turned it into an art piece and history lesson at the same time.

If you didn’t have fun reading this, you’re not putting enough bourbon in your eggnog. 

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

FAYETTEVILLE NC NOVEMBER 2 US President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a campaign rally at Fayetteville Regional Airport on November 2 2020 in Fayetteville North Carolina The state managed to swing to both President Trump and Democratic Gov Roy Cooper in the 2020 election Photo by Brian BlancoGetty Images

There’s a lot to like about this story. 

I take it for granted that NC is so complicated, that its voters are so confounding.

So it’s refreshing when a confessed Yankee-turned-Southerner like C&P’s Michael McElroy dives into the history of NC politics like this and comes up with something so refreshing and enlightening. 

To me, it was predictable that NC voters would go for Trump and Cooper at the same time, in a state that seems to relish throwing curves at either party. NC is a newly-crowned purple state, but it’s still a very conservative one too, as the 2020 election results showed. And it has the odd fact of often choosing a governor from one party and a lieutenant governor from the other.

At first, I questioned whether anybody would be interested in this quirk about NC politics, but Michael’s story — which is as much a history lesson as it is political analysis — is compulsively readable and key to understanding this often inscrutable state that I love so much. 

Riding With Kamala Harris: Inside the Biden Campaign’s Closing Arguments in Eastern NC

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen Kamala Harris D CA addresses members of the media in North Carolina in October Harris made the closing arguments for the BidenHarris campaign in eastern NC Sunday Nov 1 Photo by Brian BlancoGetty Images

Surely the highlight of the year for me as a writer and a reporter, I spent one of the closing days of the presidential campaign following now VP-elect Harris as she made a few stops in eastern NC.

Harris spent so many crucial hours in a once-in-a-generation election campaigning in the often overlooked part of NC where I was raised.

It struck me as remarkable then. Still does. 

I think it was one of my stronger pieces of the year, albeit a bit long. I still love the imagery of Harris’ jet soaring away into the night sky over the stage the Trump campaign was assembling for the next day. 

Disillusioned NC Republicans Call for a Future Without Trump

Page Lemel a Transylvania County commissioner is a lifelong Republican But she left the GOP in December and plans to vote for Biden because she cant support President Donald Trump Image for Cardinal Pine by Grant Baldwin

This was one of our better-read pieces and I’m grateful for that. I spent time talking with NC Republicans who were breaking rank with other Republicans to denounce President Trump. I’m pleased with the reporting in this one, but I think it works because it dives into NC’s political history as well and I’m a sucker for history. 

I’m still appreciative of the way Page Lemel opened up to tell a story about her family, and why it meant so much for her to file that paperwork ending her affiliation with the GOP. All of us owe our families so much, but we owe ourselves such honesty too. 

Coronavirus Is Trump’s Vietnam — And He’s Already Lost

Image via Shutterstock

Again, I’m not usually happy with my writing weeks after (I just see all the things I should have written), but this one works for me because it captures something that felt so inescapably true even in April. 

In those days, there was a lot we were still trying to figure out about this new world. But President Trump’s failure to prepare and manage the coronavirus was readily apparent. This is a blunt piece. But the president deserves such a blunt appraisal. 

PHOTOS: After George Floyd’s Death, A Day of Pain and Protest Turns Violent in Charlotte

A protester kneels in the street before continuing with those marching through uptown after George Floyds killing Floyds death sparked widespread outcry and in North Carolina a racial equity task force that assembled a lengthy list of recommendations for criminal justice reform Photo for Cardinal Pine by Grant Baldwin

Hands down, some of the best photography I saw during this summer’s racial justice protests was published on these pages.

C&P contributor Grant Baldwin put himself at risk in the midst of a pandemic to capture the pain of these demonstrators. His photos were searing.

They were impossible to look away from in a year of stories demanding our absolute attention. 

COVID-19 is a Threat. But North Carolinians Can’t Overlook Flu Season.

Lacie Fisher a 15 year old from Haywood County NC died in December 2019 from complications of the flu Her mother is urging people to get the flu vaccine to head off such a tragedy Image via Roz Fisher

Jennifer Bringle was such a joy to work with this year, and also such a MVP among our freelance contributors. This really heart-wrenching piece about why NC should take flu season seriously too is a winner.

‘A Really Powerful Witness’: How Nida Allam Became NC’s First Muslim Woman in Elected Office

Nida Allam center became the first Muslim woman elected to office in North Carolina Image via Facebook

We’re lucky to have had C&P stalwart Jesse James DeConto’s work in 2020.

This was one of my favorites of his, a stirring exploration of Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam’s groundbreaking election in 2020. Nida is a fascinating leader with big goals, and her story is fascinating too. 

From a Teacher: Don’t Let Lawmakers Fool You. The School Budget Shortfall Has Nothing To Do With Coronavirus.

We were fortunate at Cardinal to get so many sterling columns this year from North Carolina teacher Kim Mackey.

But this one stuck out to me for its spot-on appraisal of the COVID classroom. And as it explains, the shortchanging of those classrooms during the pandemic wasn’t anything new.

Teachers like Mackey have been accustomed to shortchanging for the better part of a decade. Essential reading.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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