What issues did Xpress readers feel passionate enough about to write letters to the editor or commentaries during a year that promises to go down in history? A review of the 313 opinion pieces we published in 2020 through mid-December reveals that politics and government led the list of topics, followed by COVID-19 and race.
Politics and government
At the beginning of the year, readers extolled the virtues of local candidates running in the primary election. Supporters of Terri Wells, District 1 candidate for Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, proved to be a notably dedicated bunch, penning 19 letters throughout the year, the most for any candidate. Letters promoting Wells surpassed even the perennial favorite topic of the environment, which had a depressed year comparatively, sparking only a baker’s dozen of published opinion pieces.
Though Wells won the numbers game (and a seat on the board), the liveliest Xpress political letters were sparked by the most hotly contested race in the region — the District 11 congressional contest between Republican political newcomer Madison Cawthorn and Democrat Morris “Moe” Davis, a retired Air Force colonel and onetime chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay.
With the backdrop of local and national news coverage about issues including Cawthorn’s trip to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat and his treatment of women — along with his speaking turn at the Republican National Convention — readers penned a bevy of critical letters, including the Sept. 16 “We Don’t Need Cawthorn’s Nonsense.” In the letter, John H. Fisher of Hendersonville wrote, “So now the Republicans are stuck with Cawthorn, a 25-year-old, giggly, hormonal, poorly educated, inexperienced young man.”
But that point of view was countered on the Xpress website by commenter Christy Fryar Ingle, who replied, “We aren’t ‘stuck’ with anyone. We CHOSE him. And we don’t need your blessing or approval. Here’s how these things work: You vote. I vote. Other people vote. Whoever gets the most votes EARNS their place in Congress. The VOTERS decide. You don’t decide what we need. You get one vote like everyone else.”
In the end, more WNC voters ultimately did choose Cawthorn. He received 54.5% of the vote to Davis’ 42.3% and will take his seat in Congress in January.
COVID-19: Masks and more
An Aug. 5 commentary by Aiden Carson straddled the topical lines of government, politics and COVID-19 as voters considered how they would participate in the November election. In “What’s Your Plan? Now’s the Time to Start Thinking About How You’ll Vote,” Carson, a member of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, detailed the options for voting by mail or in person. “But whatever you decide, please don’t let anything stop you from voting!” she wrote.
Throughout the year, readers shared their thoughts on preventing transmission of the virus, the attitudes of others in the community, the government’s handling of the pandemic and the economic fallout from those measures.
An April 14 letter, “A Plea From the Owners of an Asheville Restaurant,” published on the Xpress website, struck a nerve, garnering more than 46,000 views, the most for any letter in 2020. In it, Jeff and Stephanie Barcelona of Bonfire BBQ in West Asheville eloquently laid out the effects of the governor’s mandatory closure of sit-down service at restaurants and bars on March 17, the logistics of trying to keep their business afloat amid the pandemic and their dwindling resources. “And right now, we are watching all of our hard work, sacrifices and resources slip right through our hands, helpless to do anything about it,” they wrote.
Multiple letter writers took on the topic of government restrictions and mask wearing as the pandemic wore on. In a June 10 letter, Asheville reader Gardner Hathaway wrote: “Those who are elderly or with compromised immune systems should certainly take precautions. But for people to live in fear, isolation and under lockdown because the ‘experts’ order us to is no way to live in the land of the free.”
But others felt differently. In a July 1 letter, reader Chuck Fink of Weaverville expressed frustration that a grocery store manager said he couldn’t enforce a mask mandate for customers. “Freedom must be accompanied by responsibility if we are to be truly free,” he offered.
By November, however, with Buncombe County announcing local plans to enforce the face covering mandate and commercial capacity limits, a writer offered encouragement rather than admonishment. “So please join me in putting on a jacket and a mask and going outside to support our local businesses and community at a safe distance!” wrote Mary Ellen M. Kustin of Hendersonville.
Race: Protests and the Vance Monument
The country’s collective horror over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May rippled through the Asheville area and the Opinion pages. While only four letters about race were published January-April, the topic became top of mind for readers after the tragedy, which prompted protests, calls to defund the police and local government action to reevaluate having the Vance Monument dominate downtown.
In one of 45 letters and commentaries related to race published in 2020, reader Avram Friedman of Sylva referenced the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga. Wrote Friedman: “It’s time to stand against those who take the law into their own hands through acts of racial hatred, intimidation and domestic terrorism.”
Several letters took on the Asheville Police Department’s response to the protests this summer, including one from an Asheville father (whose name was withheld upon request). “As a community, we deserve better, and as a community, we can reimagine what public safety looks like,” he wrote. “In this vision, Black and brown people are not targeted and attacked. In this vision, people are provided the support they need, not punitive punishment. This vision is rooted in compassion instead of racism. We can do better, and our voices will be heard.”
And discussion percolated throughout the year about what to do with the Vance Monument, built to honor Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s governor during the Civil War.
Readers offered multiple ideas, including suggestions about how it could be renamed to honor other people. Others took on the idea of renaming itself, including Asheville reader John Ross in an Aug. 19 letter: “While they are at it, why not change the name of the city? After all, the city’s namesake is slaveholding Samuel Ashe.”
But local leaders seem undeterred from their intent to reimagine what deserves to be honored in the public arena. Both City Council and the Board of Commissioners voted in December to accept the recommendation of the Vance Monument Task Force to remove the obelisk.
Readers, we can expect the discussion to continue in 2021.