Looking back on 2020, no one would disagree that COVID-19 was the biggest story of the year, but for much of the first quarter, it wasn’t a story at all. We began the year with President Trump being impeached for alleged abuse of power. Not surprisingly, the Republican controlled-Senate voted not to convict. Trump was emboldened by the verdict and looking to ride a strong economy into a second term. Ten months later, he was denied that prize by Joe Biden, then spent his lame-duck period trying to prove the election was rigged.
Speaking of politics, North Carolina was in the national spotlight as Democrat Cal Cunningham mounted a challenge to incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis in what would turn out to be the most expensive Senate race in history. Coming down the wire, Cal had the race all but won when his campaign was derailed by a sex scandal. Meanwhile, Congressional candidates were scrambling to figure out which newly gerrymandered district they might run in. GOP Rep. Mark Walker decided not to run for another term because his 6th district had been redrawn to favor a Democrat. That left the Triad with an open seat, and five Democratic challengers, including Greensboro attorney Kathy Manning, and former Guilford Commissioner Bruce Davis.
Over on the Republican side, local party chair Lee Haywood and data analyst Laura Picardo vied for the nomination. Manning would go on to trounce Haywood in the general election, and Walker would announce his intention to run for retiring Richard Burr’s Senate seat in 2022. Burr made headlines himself early on in 2020, as the FBI launched an investigation into his dubious stock trades based on alleged insider information that he had heard about a new disease called COVID-19. Ironically, as the pandemic grew, Burr’s scandal was all but forgotten. By all rights, the two stories should forever be linked because Burr’s silent greed and failure to share what he knew about the virus probably cost lives. So did Donald Trump’s endless delay in taking COVID seriously.
Meanwhile, other lives were being lost, not just by the virus, but by out of control cops and violent white supremacists. George Floyd’s death and the shooting of Breonna Taylor became rally cries for much-needed reforms in police and sheriff’s departments around the country. In that regard, at least those tragedies served to awaken a majority of Americans to the inequities of criminal justice. Unfortunately, though, racism is ingrained in other Americans, like the three Georgia rednecks who chased down and murdered a Black man just for jogging through their neighborhood. That kind of hate can’t be fixed systematically, but it might be less emboldened by new leadership in the White House.
Speaking of race, 2020 marked a year full of debate over Confederate statues and over buildings that were named after slave owners. One by one, many of those monuments were taken down, and objectionable names were removed from buildings. Confederate flags even disappeared from NASCAR, thanks to Richard Petty and his young driver, Bubba Wallace. Perhaps now, we can begin to erect long overdue monuments to African-American leaders, such as Larry Womble, a pioneering former State lawmaker who led the fight for compensating victims of forced sterilization. Larry passed away this year, but the legacy of his work survives.
Had my friend Larry lived a little longer, he would have been angered (but not surprised) by voter suppression efforts here in North Carolina and throughout the nation. Those included efforts by Greensboro’s own, Louis DeJoy, who, as Trump’s Postmaster General, removed mailboxes and high-speed sorting machines, in addition to cutting back on employee hours, all of which could have resulted in mail-in ballots arriving too late to be counted. When these and other actions were widely reported, DeJoy denied trying to suppress votes and quickly began to restore human and technical resources in local post offices.
All of this comes full circle with a record number of people voting by mail because they didn’t want to expose themselves to COVID. In fact, avoiding in-person gatherings became a way of life for most Americans. Gov. Cooper closed schools, put thousands of small businesses out of business, and threw tens of thousands of folks out of a job. Parents had to become at-home teachers, and students had to forfeit social interaction in favor of online learning.
As this column goes to press, over 300,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The good news is that vaccines are being shipped to our area, with a promise that we might really turn the corner on this deadly virus by late spring. In the meantime, Gov. Cooper has put new curfews and restrictions in place in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID until such time as vaccines are available to all who want them.
2020 left us with two unresolved pandemics, one clinical and one racial. It left us with a bad taste in our mouths about politics in general, and sycophant politicians in particular. And, it left us a divided nation with deep wounds that need to be healed. It also left us with hope that things can get better in 2021.