After an unimaginable, upside-down year, we’re well aware that we can’t predict the future. But there are still several issues we’re keeping our eye on that we expect will be significant in 2021. While we can’t say how it will all shake out, here are 21 of the people and things (listed here in no particular order) we expect to define 2021—or at least show up in our news coverage this year.
1. Downtown South Advances
The Raleigh City Council’s last move of 2020 was one of its most controversial: pushing through an ambitious rezoning request from developer John Kane to create a new mixed-use hub in a barren pocket south of downtown. The plans call for a soccer stadium, high-rise apartments, and retail.
The NIMBYs absolutely hated it. The planning commission unanimously voted against it.
Yet the council granted the rezoning request seven to one, with only David Cox dissenting.
It will be interesting to see how plans for the project materialize this year, and what tax benefits the city will offer Kane in exchange for an affordable component to the project. Contrary to popular opinion, a rezoning is typically the first step in a project, not the last, and Kane has a long way to go before shovels hit the ground. —Leigh Tauss
2. A Return to the Classroom
The majority of school in 2020 took place on the internet. While online learning has its obvious pros—limiting exposure to COVID-19, being able to see your classmates’ pets—lawmakers seem hell-bent on sending everyone from elementary to grad school back to classrooms. Some have already taken a stance: In December, Wake County’s school board voted unanimously to start the spring semester online. Teachers in Orange County have expressed their frustration with being forced back into classrooms, although only a few students are there in-person. And the University of North Carolina System, after a disastrous start in the fall, administrators seem intent on trying in-person learning again. With the vaccine in sight, COVID numbers still booming, and diagnoses skewing younger, we’ll be watching and reporting how it all goes down. —Sara Pequeño
3. Raleigh’s Municipal Election
We backed Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin in 2019, hoping she’d be the bold leader to pull off a progressive agenda. While she has succeeded in pushing through many common-sense reforms during her tenure, she’s also gained the scorn of many progressives for her mishandling of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Her re-election isn’t a given by any means. On Tueday, Baldwin told the INDY she would seek a second term. It will be interesting to see who the NIMBY camp prop up to oppose her.
With the GOP all but extinct in Raleigh, the political fault line has been pro-development Democrat versus anti-development Democrat (with the exception of the independent-in-name-only Nancy McFarlane).
Running two-time loser attorney Charles Francis again would easily hand Baldwin another two years in the castle. If the NIMBYs are smart, they’ll pick a younger person of color to challenge Baldwin on police reform—her obvious weak spot. No matter how the ballot shakes out, we’ll be watching closely to see if Baldwin and the rest of her voting bloc are able to maintain power. —LT
4. Changes on Chapel Hill’s Town Council
The Chapel Hill Town Council has had an empty seat since January 2020, when member Rachel Schaevitz moved to New Zealand before the end of her term. Although the town followed procedure and accepted applications for a replacement, they never selected a new member. The seat would have been up for election in 2021.
In October, the council provided an update on why that seat was still empty: The nine-person council is considering reducing its numbers to seven, meaning the seat in question would disappear this election cycle. It will be interesting to see the final decision and how it’ll affect the competition, considering that someone won their seat in 2019 by just 24 votes. —SP
5. Hope for Venues, and the Arts
Some good news came this week for small venue owners: Congress (finally) reached a deal to pass the $900 billion stimulus bill, with the Save Our Stages Act bundled into the relief package. This means a much-needed $15 billion for independent music venues and movie theaters and is very good news for many Triangle small businesses, which have essentially been hung out to dry since March. It’s not time to pop champagne, though—even if some venues are able to hang on until vaccines are widely distributed, it’s unclear what the long-term effects of 2020 will be on the local arts ecosystem. —Sarah Edwards
6. Finally, a Vaccine
It’s actually happening: People across North Carolina are starting to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. With healthcare workers getting vaccinated and the Moderna vaccine expected to roll out shortly, there’s finally hope for the end of this pandemic. It can’t come soon enough, with coronavirus cases mounting rapidly. What remains to be seen is how efficiently the majority of us will be able to line up and receive one of the vaccines. A pecking order based on exposure and risk is already emerging, but the hope is that by late spring, younger and healthier adults who aren’t essential workers will be able to get vaccinated en masse as well.
There’s serious concern about whether the historic abuse of Black patients (forced sterilization, for example) and growing conservative conspiracies will hamper a vaccine rollout. Plus, will mask use, expanded remote work, and other precautions persist in some form? We’ll see. —Eric Ginsburg
7. A Booming Housing Market
The Triangle was already facing an affordable housing crisis, with rents and housing prices increasing year-over-year as the region gained a reputation as a nascent tech hub. The pandemic lit the haystack on fire, so to speak, spurring an exodus from major metros to midsized cities. This year, the Triangle surpassed the Charlotte metro area as the most populous in the state, and growth is only expected to continue. Adding to that, interest rates are historically low and the supply of modest homes is limited. If you are on the market, expect to go high or get outbid several times on a coveted three-bedroom under $300,000.
Prices are skyrocketing for renters, too—this fall, we reported that rent in Durham went up more during the pandemic than anywhere else in the country. Yikes. —LT
8. A More Conservative State Supreme Court
If you even casually consume the news (including reading our 2020 roundup in this issue), you know that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing rocked the federal legal system. But for many North Carolinians, the North Carolina Supreme Court is merely a down-ballot afterthought, driven by the “R” or “D” next to a candidate’s name more than their record. That’s arguably why Republicans swept the state Supreme Court this year, riding Trump’s coattails to capture all three open seats (and all statewide judicial races, too). That includes Paul Newby defeating incumbent Chief Justice Cheri Beasley by just 401 votes, which is a pretty narrow victory considering that Trump beat Biden by almost 75,000 votes in North Carolina. Democrats still hold the majority on the state’s highest court, but we’ll be watching closely to see what their slimmed four-to-three margin means for our state’s future. —EG
9. Republican Redistricting
When the Tea Party swept Republicans to power in our state legislature 10 years ago, it spelled disaster for redistricting. The GOP carved up North Carolina in its favor, effectively rigging elections for the North Carolina General Assembly and Congress and disenfranchising millions of voters in the process. Despite a relatively even split among voters, Republicans wield outsized political power in this state, and that’s largely thanks to redistricting. This election, Democrats had a rare chance for a reset, as this process unfolds once a decade. And they totally whiffed. Not only did Republicans retain control of the state House and state Senate—they actually netted several seats this year. That puts them in the driver’s seat once again when it comes to drawing their own state districts and putting their hand on the scales for upcoming Congressional races. There’s a good chance their maps will be thrown out in court (again and again), but we’re still not filled with hope. Don’t you just love democracy? —EG
10. Efland Station
Efland, to some, is no more than an exit on I-40/85. To about 700 people, the unincorporated community is home. Its main attractions are its silence and its scenery, but that could change in January; that’s when the Orange County Board of Commissioners will hold a vote on rezoning about 100 acres of land off the interstate so that Buc-ee’s, a Texas gas station, can move in.
Orange County residents mostly dislike the idea. It could be noisy. There could be light pollution. Traffic could be permanently terrible. But the biggest cause for concern is the development’s placement, which could end up overlapping with part of the Eno River’s protected watershed. Still, the idea has some support, and the commissioners will have the final say early next year. —SP
11. White Supremacy on the March
Remember the dude who walked into a Subway in Raleigh with a rocket launcher? This year, we’ve witnessed a grab-bag of fundamentalists and white supremacists on the move in North Carolina, from epithet-spewing thugs in Durham and Alamance County to members of the street gang known as the Proud Boys in Raleigh. Chapel Hill is no stranger to neo-Confederates, and even with Trump out of power next year, we’re bound to see more than a few anti-mask conspiracy theorists, Boogaloo provocateurs, avowed fascists, and other reactionaries inciting confrontations and possibly violence across the Triangle and state. After all, Trump may have emboldened far-right extremists in America, but he didn’t create this country’s white supremacy problem. —EG
12. New City Managers in Raleigh and Durham
Ruffin Hall and Tom Bonfield weren’t exactly household names, but as Raleigh and Durham’s top bureaucrats respectively, they were an invisible hand guiding city hall—and immensely powerful. While Ruffin prioritized padding Raleigh’s coffers and securing its credit rating, Bonfield gained respect as a stabilizing force through a period of immense change for Durham.
Raleigh has chosen former assistant city manager Marchell Adams-David as Ruffin’s replacement, while Wanda Page is serving as Durham’s interim city manager until a new manager is selected. It’s too early to tell what Adams-David’s management style will be, but we’ll be watching both of these positions closely given their tremendous potential impact. —LT
13. Will Sports Come Back?
I have a beloved family member who usually has something nice to say about everyone except for Donald Trump and Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. College basketball is like a religion for some in the Triangle, and in many ways, its cancellation back in March signaled the beginning of the pandemic and social distancing in earnest.
With an eye toward public health, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s Board of Directors recently canceled the men’s and women’s basketball season, along with the conference’s big-ticket, nationally recognized tournament. Meanwhile, Coach K recently made national news when he announced that his team would be canceling their remaining non-conference games, partly because of rising infection rates. Good for the CIAA, and good for Duke. It’s hard to imagine empty stands during the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
If 2020 was a basketball, someone ought to kick it out of the gym forever. Will basketball and other sports return in earnest sometime in 2021? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. —Thomasi McDonald
14. Marijuana’s Legal Hurdles
Will 2021 be the year North Carolina finally legalizes marijuana? Considering that municipalities across the state are hurting for revenue thanks to the disastrous federal response to the pandemic, the prospects may be brighter than before. In this fall’s election, Arizona, South Dakota, New Jersey, and Montana legalized recreational weed, and even Deep South states like Mississippi and Louisiana allow for medical marijuana. (So do other historically red states, like Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, West Virginia, Florida, Utah, and Ohio.) As the CBD industry grows here, keeping cannabis illegal seems increasingly untenable. Then again, proponents of legalization like commissioner of agriculture candidate Jenna Wadsworth lost their races this year, so it’s not exactly on the state’s front burner. —EG
15. Alamance County Sheriff’s Department
We freely admit that Alamance County isn’t part of our normal coverage area. As a small team with limited resources, we need to pick our stories carefully so that we don’t stretch ourselves too thin. But what’s unfolded in Alamance this year—largely, but not exclusively, thanks to the notorious and authoritarian Sheriff Terry Johnson—is so egregious that it would be journalistic malpractice to look away. As we said in a recent editorial, law enforcement in Alamance County seems intent on trampling on the First Amendment, instead opting to cuddle up with Graham, N.C.’s Confederate statue and the good old boys (read: white supremacists) intent on defending it. The coming year promises continued flare-ups in Alamance, and we’ll be watching. —EG
16. Return of the NIMBYs
Will 2021 be the year the NIMBYs strike back? After a devastating defeat that completely shifted the balance of power on the Raleigh City Council in 2019, the anti-development Dems have been mounting a rebuttal with a series of vague online platforms with monikers like “Livable Raleigh” and “The Wake County Housing Justice Coalition.” Their meme-making abilities aside, it’s not hard to see why some buy into their spiel in the age of disinformation. Instead of framing themselves as neighborhood protectionists in their fight against change, they are now claiming the progressive mantle of social justice warriors fighting gentrification (because opposing the affordable housing bond was so woke).
It will be interesting to see if their movement is able to gain momentum this year outside of the blog-o-sphere. —LT
17. Changes to the ABC System and Alcohol Laws
The state legislature hotly debated privatizing our archaic ABC system this year, with lawmakers ultimately opting to make reforms to the Prohibition-era system instead of scraping it. It was a good year for distillers, who, in one of several common-sense wins, are finally allowed to sell mixed beverages on site. However, we’ll be closely watching what comes of the ABC’s request for proposals seeking a new warehouse manager, after a 2018 audit revealed that millions of public funds were being wasted through mismanagement. Any major change in that distribution system is likely to have trickle-down effects statewide, and we’ll be paying close attention.
Meaningful change may seem unlikely on this front to some, but given the governor’s 11th-hour order to allow to-go cocktails right before the end of this year, maybe reform is in the air after all. —LT
18. Criminal Justice Reform in Durham
Long before the alarming spread of COVID-19 among people behind bars, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry had deployed a series of measures that had reduced the county’s jail population by 12 percent during her first six months in office.
Those initiatives included a pre-trial release policy that looked askance at keeping people locked up before their trials, clearing an increased percentage of homicide cases, largely refusing to accept court referrals for school-based incidents, and ending the practice of threatening criminal charges against parents of students who miss school. And last month, Deberry’s office announced that thousands of county residents may be eligible for getting their driving privileges restored.
In the new year, Durham residents should expect the reform-minded district attorney to make good on her campaign promise to fundamentally change the way the county’s justice system operates by continuing to address mass incarceration, jail overcrowding, and racial disparities. —TM
19. Municipalities can enact LGBTQ protections
HB2 seems like lifetimes ago. The bill, passed in 2016 and signed by Republican Pat McCrory during his final year as governor, was enacted before Trump made it to the White House. You remember what happened next: the outrage, the embarrassment, the droves of musicians canceling tour stops in the state. Although a newly elected Governor Roy Cooper “repealed” it at the end of March 2017, it came at a price: No municipalities were allowed to pass LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws until December 1, 2020. Now that the gag rule is lifted, we’ll be waiting to see which towns and cities are first to put those protections in place—especially since it probably won’t be happening at the state level. —SP
20. Durham’s All-Women County Board of Commissioners
Durham voters made history this year when they elected the first all-female board of county commissioners in the commission’s 139-year-old history. Voters also made history by electing Nida Allam, who is the first Muslim woman to hold elected office in North Carolina. It will be interesting to see how the new body works together, but that observation has little to do with gender.
Early last year, the board was rocked when County Manager Wendell Davis’ accused Commissioner Heidi Carter of being racially biased against him and other people of color. Carter denied the allegations. Commissioner (and now Chair) Brenda Howerton’s support of Davis often left her at odds with then-chair Wendy Jacobs and Carter—the new board’s two white members—during meetings. This summer, officials with the International City/County Management Association determined that Davis did not violate the organization’s code of conduct in making his accusations.
Howerton and Jacobs appeared to extend olive branches this month, offering conciliatory remarks. We’ll see if it lasts. —TM
21. North Carolina’s New Extremists
Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old GOP darling, is taking over the western North Carolina seat vacated by Mark Meadows (who quit Congress to be Trump’s chief of staff). Allegations of sexual misconduct and his use of racist and antisemitic language didn’t derail his campaign, and we expect a whole lot more extremism from him going forward, including the dog whistles we’ve seen in his post-election attacks on Senate candidate Raphael Warnock.
But Mark Robinson, our incoming lieutenant governor, doesn’t bother to thinly veil his vitriol. His Facebook page is a cesspool of some of the most homophobic, xenophobic, and conspiracy-driven beliefs out there. Robinson managed to grab the number-two job in our state without scrubbing any of his explicitly anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and anti-trans diatribes from his social media. He makes outgoing Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest look rational, and as with Cawthorn, we’re really not looking forward to what he’s going to say or do in 2021. —EG
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