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Blog post: Impeachment articles have been filed against Joe Biden. What happened in 2016 with Hunter Biden and the Ukrainian prosecutor who was fired?

One day after Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, he is getting impeached.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman Congresswoman from Georgia, announced Thursday afternoon she had filed the impeachment articles against Biden, making good on a promise she had made on social media.

Greene said in her announcement that the action is being taken because of Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine, specifically having to do with possibly getting Ukraine’s top prosecutor Viktor Shokin fired in 2016 because he had an active investigation into Burisma, the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden was serving.

“President Joe Biden is unfit to hold the office of the Presidency. His pattern of abuse of power as President Obama’s Vice President is lengthy and disturbing. President Biden has demonstrated that he will do whatever it takes to bail out his son, Hunter, and line his family’s pockets with cash from corrupt foreign energy companies,” the news release stated.

“President Biden is even on tape admitting to a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government threatening to withhold $1 billion in foreign aid if they did not do his bidding. President Biden residing in the White House is a threat to national security and he must be immediately impeached.”

What has been triggering the outcries of corruption and investigations into Biden and Hunter Biden’s involvement in Ukraine has been a clip of Biden apparently boasting of getting Shokin fired.  

Shokin was fired as Ukraine’s chief prosecutor in March 2016, a brief tenure since he had just been promoted to the position in February 2015.

That clip of Biden is from a January 2018 talk he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “Joe Biden on Defending Democracy.”

His remarks start at the 52-minute mark:

I’ll give you one concrete example. I was, not I, that just happened to be the assignment I got. I get all the good ones. So I got Ukraine. And I remember going over convincing our team, or to convincing that we should be providing for loan guarantees. I went over 12th, 13th time to Kyiv and I was supposed to announce that there was another $1 billion loan guarantee. And I had gotten a commitment from Poroshenko and from Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor, and they didn’t. So they walked out of the press conference and I said, “No, I’m not — We’re not going to give you the $1 billion.” They said, “You have no authority. You’re not the president. The president said –.” I said, “Call him.” I said, “I’m telling you. You’re not getting the $1 billion.” I said, “You’re not getting the $1 billion. I’m going to be leaving here,” I think it was what, six hours. I said, “We’re leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.” Well, son of a b—- got fired.

“Poroshenko” was Petro Poroshenko, then-president of Ukraine. “Yatsenyuk” was Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the prime minister of Ukraine.

This chatter is framed by Biden talking about this incident as if it was an anti-corruption effort. “I’m desperately concerned about the backsliding on the part of Kyiv in terms of corruption,” he said.

In February 2020, Shokin filed a criminal complaint, forcing Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation to reopen an investigation into Biden’s possible role in getting Shokin fired. According to Voice of America in Ukraine, Shokin’s attorney Oleksandr Teleshetsky said the name “Biden” is present in the complaint, but the criminal case would refer to an unnamed “U.S. citizen.”

“The lawyer said that based on public statements made by Biden, his client had good reason to believe that the former vice president ordered and instigated Shokin`s removal as prosecutor general,” VOA reported.

In November, Ukrainian authorities closed that investigation.

During an interview with political commentor Dinesh D’Souza on Thursday, D’Souza suggested that the impeachment process in this case be more transparent so the public can see the evidence.

“Is this something that you would be willing to take to the mat?” D’Souza asked. “I say bring in the Ukrainian prosecutor. Bring in the evidence. One of the advantages you have as a Congresswoman is you have a public stage. Are you willing to use this stage? Let the American people see it.”

“It’s really about the people, so I’m 100 percent for a public trial, so to speak, for President Joe Biden where we can bring out the evidence and let the people be involved,” Greene responded.

The Joe and Hunter Biden-Viktor Shokin scandal is one of those scandals that feels like an obvious attention-seeker. It’s so obvious and seems to be such a familiar Cold War-esque drama fit for the tabloids that you scratch the surface and think it’s going to be fake.

But it doesn’t take long before you get deeper and immediately see that it’s a real scandal. A thorough investigation, with Shokin testifying, in Congress, in public like D’Souza suggests, could lead to bombshell revelations of the kind that will propel this country into a new political awareness.

This would be the real impeachment.

The music of the Ciompi Quartet

On a recent bright winter day, the members of the Ciompi Quartet gathered at Duke University to play.

Inside the airy concert hall space of Baldwin Auditorium, the quartet started, stopped, and tweaked the way they played. An audio technician sat to the side with a laptop and recording equipment for the session.

Negotiations abounded. Because of coronavirus restrictions, the group played with their masks on. And then there were the discussions with the composers, both in person and over Zoom, on how to best approach their pieces.

The four pieces were by students in Duke’s Music Department. The music was challenging, abstract, moody, with discordant melodies, full of feelings of disconnection and isolation.

The music uncomfortably heightened what was going on in the world. One of the pieces was even called, “Disconnected.”

After one successful “take,” viola player Jonathan Bagg asked, “How did that sound to you, James?” The composer, himself taken aback by the beauty of the quartet’s playing, had to snap back to reality before responding, “That was great. Thank you.”

Despite the challenges of the lockdowns and other pressures, the Ciompi Quartet has a fluidity and consistency that many classical musicians have found difficult to maintain.

When asked after their recording session at Baldwin Auditorium how they are able to maintain this, the group did not have an answer.

But a short documentary from 2013 shows a foundation of intelligence, experience, and artistry.

“We have different backgrounds, we have different personalities, we have different understandings of everything, from Earth to the heaven,” said Hsiao-Mei Ku, second violinist, in the documentary.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re lawyers in a courtroom, making your case as best as you can to convince the other two, against the person who is maybe disagreeing with you,” Bagg said in the documentary.

The current members of the group bring a wide range of experience and interests and skills. Lead violinist Eric Pritchard has been with the group since 1995. Second violinist Ku has been with the group since 1990. Bagg, the most senior member, has been with the quartet since 1986. The newest member is Caroline Stinson, on cello, who joined in 2018 from Julliard School.

Ku gave her first live performance on national television on China when she was 11 years old, and teaches both at Duke and at Guangzhou Xinghai Conservatory. Pritchard has won first prizes at numerous competitions, including the London International String Quartet Competition. Bagg was previously director of Chamber Music at Duke and became chair of the Music Department in 2019, and is Professor of the Practice. Stinson taught at Juilliard School before coming to Duke, and has an interest in premiering works by composers who have never been played. In 2019, Stinson became director of Chamber Music at Duke.

“What ends up happening is usually the best ideas. The ones that work best are the ones that prevail,” Bagg said.

The Ciompi Quartet was launched at Duke by Italian violinist Giorgio Ciompi in 1965, who had been brought to Duke by Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans to grow the area’s burgeoning artistic talent. After Ciompi died in 1983, the quartet continued, with various renowned musicians vacating and stepping in to the four positions.

In between teaching and playing in other ensembles, members of the quartet come together to practice, put on recitals, tour and also from time to time, record albums.

To celebrate the quartet’s 50th anniversary in 2015, they performed with jazz musician Nnenna Freelon and held a concert of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 for former students, who joined them both as audience members and on the stage.

As a result of the coronavirus, the group has been holding virtual performances along with the rest of Duke. The Ciompi Quartet had a performance on on Nov. 15 of pieces by Mozart, Anton von Webern, and a piece commissioned by the quartet by Duke professor Stephen Jaffe.

The quartet will hold another performance in February.

Watch the documentary on the Ciompi Quartet from 2013, and their performance of Debussy in 2019.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Jonathan Bagg is director of Chamber Music. He is currently chair of the Music Department. Caroline Stinson is director of Chamber Music.

Blog post: A look back at Bush-Gore

It’s hard to say who Americans wanted in the White House in the year 2000, Bush or Gore?

On the morning of Nov. 8, when everyone woke up to the news the presidential race had not been called, there was an air of chagrin, shock, a little humor. But then everyone went about their business.

Over the following month, the nation would be treated to the spectacle of the Florida recount, “hanging chads,” court decisions at every level, teams of lawyers and a complete media frenzy.

In the end, on Dec. 13, Gore, clearly disappointed but not defeated, conceded to George W. Bush.

The race had been won by just 537 votes in Florida.

In 2020, the situation is much more desperate. The nation is more divided. Both sides are more angry. There is more at stake.

Here are some ways 2000 differed from 2020:

Florida did a statewide machine recount immediately the day after the election and it was completed Nov. 10. Apparently this can be done. So why hasn’t it been done in Pennsylvania and other contested states?

Gore actually called Bush on the night of the election to concede and then retracted it. Yes, you can do that without triggering the ire of the entire media calling you a “sore loser.”

Both sides got attorneys to lead their legal teams immediately and the challenges were organized. Bush hired Roger Stone and Gore got Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Gore’s team actually said they would not concede until the election results in Florida are certified. Again, without triggering the ire of the media or other politicians calling on them to concede — because that’s perfectly normal and legal.

The media was less biased. First, the Associated Press called the race for Gore. Then, they moved it to “too close to call” and followed what happened with recounts, “hanging chads,” legal challenges, court decisions with daily updates.

There were issues of fairness in elections brought up in 2000 that are not being discussed now. One Salon Magazine article ( looked into felons being expunged from the voter registration by Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris. The “voter cleansing” program might have unfairly targeted minorities.

Related to that, the media also worked more confidently. There was a sense of this being another story — a big story — to cover. And the media was fine with doing its job.

You have to wonder what Gore and Bush are thinking looking on at the 2020 election. Bush has already congratulated Joe Biden, saying the 2020 election was “fundamentally fair.” That’s a bit jumping the gun considering Bush himself held out for more than a month. It’s also a telling statement, considering that history will likely judge that key aspects of the 2000 election and outcome were unfair.

In 2000, that election gave us one of the best magazine covers of the past few decades, the peak of late ’90s-early 2000’s journalism.

And it made perfect sense.

Nowadays, you can’t imagine any magazine having the resources or the imagination to put together this cover. And sadly too, the cover would not be a good reflection of reality, and both Donald Trump and Biden would hate to be associated with each other in such a close way.

Election Day 2020

On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 3, this year, people quietly, wearily went about their business, too exhausted to be excited about the election.

Later that night, voters would see the results of this contentious, overly partisan fight between President Donald Trump and the former Vice President Joe Biden for the White House, in this historic election that has been much referred to as a fight for the soul of this country.

For more than a year, there have been protests, bumper stickers, yard signs, a screaming, shouting Democratic Party primary, followed by the fears, anxiety and exhaustion resulting from the lockdowns from the coronavirus.

Woman leaves polling site after voting in Historic Oakwood in Raleigh. Photo by Karen Tam

But in the end, many people still went about the voting process like normal, rushing to cast their votes before polls closed at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

At Hope Valley Baptist Church in Durham, toward the end of the day, voters were still rolling into the parking lot, bringing their kids with them after work.

Erin Durkin, a volunteer with Democracy NC, a Morrisville-based nonprofit advocating for voter’s rights, had been there since the morning and said the traffic had been steady, but small.

“It’s been a small trickle,” Durkin said. “There has not been a line here.”

“There’s been a little excitement in general,” she added. “People are exercising their right to vote. And I think people have really turned out despite the pandemic.”

Anibal Crishola was also at the polling site, passing out election flyers for the nonprofit Durham Rescue Mission.

Crishola said he had voted for the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“I think he would help people in my work bracket,” he said. “Trump is more for the rich.”

Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh is boarded up for whatever may happen in days ahead. Photo by Karen Tam

But whoever wins the presidential election, Crishola added, he hoped they will follow through on their promises.

“I hope Trump does what he says he’s going to do,” he said, “if he gets elected, whoever gets elected. That’s what makes America great, right?”

Trump and Biden both have made multiple trips to North Carolina to get people out to vote, campaign to supporters and, maybe more importantly in this intense election year, try to secure the state’s 15 electoral votes. Trump and his campaign have made more than a dozen trips to the state since July, with Trump himself holding one last rally in Fayetteville on Monday, the day before the election.

At the end of the night, Trump won North Carolina with 2,732,084 votes, or 49.9 percent. Trump had also carried North Carolina in 2016.

Biden took 2,655,383 votes, or 48.6 percent.

According to the N.C. Board of Elections, 7.4 million North Carolinians registered to vote this year. Of that total, 5.5 million people had voted by election day, taking voter turnout to 74.5 percent this year, up significantly from 69 percent in 2016.

Additionally, 3.6 million people did early voting this year, of whom 977,186 voted by mail because of the coronavirus. Early voting, overseas and military votes, and mail-in are all counted as absentee votes.

As of Tuesday, there were still 117,000 mail-in votes to be counted in North Carolina. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a move by the Board of Elections to extend the mail-in count to Nov. 12 from Nov. 6. All ballots postmarked on or before election day and received before Nov. 12 will be counted.

Protests broke out in downtown Raleigh as the nation awaited the election results. Earlier in the day, store owners on Fayetteville Street had boarded up their windows.

In the presidential race, Triangle residents mostly voted for Biden, former vice president under Barack Obama. In Durham, Biden took 142,770 votes to Trump’s 31,827. In Orange County, 63,097 for Biden, 19,993 for Trump. In Wake County, Trump took a bigger share, with 223,466 votes for Trump, and 388,686 votes for Biden.

Election results statewide and locally

Governor: Gov. Roy Cooper won his re-election bid in the governor’s race against Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, with 2,803,782 votes to Forest’s 2,563,258 votes.

Lt. Governor: Republican Mark Robinson won the lieutenant governor race against Democrat Yvonne Holley, 2,773,751 votes to Holley’s 2,595,868.

U.S. Senate: Republican Thom Tillis won against Democrat Cal Cunningham for the Senate seat. Tillis received 2,640,379 votes to Cunningham’s 2,543,672.

U.S. House of Representatives, N.C. District 1: G.K. Butterfield, Democrat, held his seat against Republican Sandy Smith, 187,125 to 158,530.

U.S. House of Representatives, N.C. District 2: Deborah Ross, Democrat, won District 2 with 308,458 votes. Alan Swain, Republican, and Jeff Matemu, Libertarian, took 170,376 votes and 10,568 votes, respectively.

U.S. House of Representatives, N.C. District 4: David Price, Democrat, won re-election with 328,933 votes. Republican candidate Robert Thomas received 159,509 votes.

Attorney general: Josh Stein

N.C. Secretary of State: Elaine Marshall

State Auditor: Beth Wood

Commissioner of Insurance: Mike Causey

Commissioner of Labor: Josh Dobson

Commissioner of Agriculture: Steve Troxler

State Superintendent of Public Instruction: Catherine Truitt

State Treasurer: Dale Folwell


N.C. Senate, District 14 (Wake): Dan Blue

N.C. Senate, District 15 (Wake): Jay Chaudhuri

N.C. Senate, District 16 (Wake): Wiley Nickel

N.C. Senate, District 17 (Wake): Sam Searcy

N.C. Senate, District 18 (Wake, Franklin): Sarah Crawford

N.C. House of Representatives:

Allison Dahle (District 11)

Rosa Gill (District 33)

Grier Martin (District 34)

Wake County Board of Commissioners: Sig Hutchison, Matt Calabria, Maria Cervania, Susan Evans

$80 million Affordable Housing Bond: Yes


N.C. Senate District 20 (Durham): Natalie Murdock

N.C. Senate District 22 (Durham, Granville, Person): Mike Woodard

N.C. House of Representatives:

Vernetta Alston (District 29)

Marcia Morey (District 30)

Zack Hawkins (District 31)

Robert Reives (District 54)

Durham County Board of Commissioners: Nida Allam, Nimasheena Burns, Wendy Jacobs, Brenda Howerton, Heidi Carter

Register of Deeds: Sharon Davis

Durham Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor: Anjali Boyd


N.C. Senate District 23 (Orange, Chatham): Valerie Foushee

N.C. House of Representatives:

Graig Meyer (District 50)

Verla Insko (District 56)

Orange County Board of Commissioners: Amy Fowler (at-large), Mark Dorian (1), Renee Price (2)

Orange Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor: Gail Hughes

This article has been updated from its previous version on Wednesday.

Election 2020: Biden in Durham

By Karen Tam

Former Vice President Joe Biden made a mysterious trip to Durham on Sunday where few people heard or saw him. Biden had a virtual meeting with African-American faith leaders and he spoke inside the Riverside High School campus to a selected few. As he spoke at Riverside, Redouane and Kim Hafidi of Durham wore their “VOTE” masks as they stood outside the fenced area. Redouane Hafidi, originally from Morocco, said he thought Biden would be a better president who will be more supportive of the immigrant population.

Eight-year-old Owen Weinard of Durham, along with his mother, Ashley Weinard, also waited outside Riverside, hoping to get a glimpse of Biden. Owen said he is also counting the years till he can vote.

Later in the afternoon, the Latino part of the Biden campaign, Todos con Biden, organized a car parade. Cars gathered at the Compare Foods shopping center on University Drive, lining up for what would become a horn-honking caravan to the South Regional Library for early voting.

Biden did not make an appearance at the Todos con Biden caravan or South Regional. He stopped by Cook Out after his speech at Riverside.

Election 2020: Trump holds rally in Greenville; some supporters ready to hear more about policy

President Donald Trump made his seventh campaign visit to North Carolina this election year to Greenville on Thursday, where he told about 1,000 supporters at Pitt-Greenville Airport to get out and vote, boasted of the number of votes he got during the 2016 election, and touted Republican plans for the country.

“For years, you had a president who apologized for America. Now, you have a president who is standing up for America and standing up for the great people of North Carolina,” Trump said toward the end of his speech.

“So again, this is the most important election of our lives, maybe in the history of our country. So get your friends, get your family, get your neighbors, get out and vote! The red wave is coming. The red wave is coming,” Trump said to cheers.  

Supporters from Greenville and around the state began filing into the event stage on the tarmac of the airport early Thursday morning, bringing their families and friends, donning MAGA hats and outfits made out of the American flag, and wearing face masks saying, “Trump Pence.” They waited in the sun and got refreshments from food trucks parked on site.

As the crowd waited for Trump’s arrival, the music started and the Trump campaign blasted hits like “YMCA,” Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye.” The energy kept up and the rally almost felt like an old style rock concert, or a state fair.

Catherine Truitt, Republican candidate for North Carolina State Superintendent, spoke ahead of Trump’s arrival.

“Do you believe parents should have control over where kids go to school? Do you agree with President Trump that students belong in schools and it’s time to open schools safely?” Truitt said. “We do not need more one size fits none mandates from Roy Cooper.”

Trump was scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. At about 1:30 p.m., the crowd finally glimpsed Air Force One, still so far away in the sky that it was barely visible. The crowd turned and all attention focused, people watched as Air Force One slowly became bigger and descended into the airport. Loud cheers erupted when it landed and made its way toward the event stage.

The plane parked right behind the podium and the flags set up for Trump’s speech. Trump finally came out of the plane and walked down to the podium, and the crowd chanted, “USA! USA!”

“It’s fantastic to be back in North Carolina with thousands of loyal, hardworking Americans,” Trump started his speech. “Nineteen days from now, we’re going to win the state of North Carolina and we’re going to win four more years in the White House. The choice is very simple. If Biden wins, China wins.” At this, the crowd boo’ed. “And if we win, North Carolina wins and America wins.”  

Trump touched on the major talking points he has had throughout this election year: Jobs, China, building a wall, rebuilding the economy.

Like at other rallies in North Carolina, one of the biggest cheers he received was when he criticized Gov. Roy Cooper for the state’s lockdowns from the coronavirus.

“In 2016, North Carolina voted out the corrupt political establishment and you elected an outsider as president of the United States,” he said. “I don’t sound like a typical Washington politicians. It’s because I’m not a politician.” At this, the crowd cheered.

“By the way, North Carolina, tell your governor, ‘Open up your state! Open up your schools!’” The cheers grew more louder.

Chants of “USA!” “Four more years,” and “We love you,” rang out and blended from one to the next from the crowd.

Trump’s visit to Greenville marked a turning point in the perceptions and needs of voters in North Carolina. Supporters at the rally were ready to hear more about policy.

“I am planning to vote. I’m just weighing my options right now,” said Angelene Mitchell, 60, a businesswoman in Greenville, who came to rally because she wanted to hear what Trump has to say.

“I like that he’s about minorities being on board with a lot of things, not just where you want them to be at,” Mitchell said, and added that she was particularly concerned about jobs.

“[Trump] says, ‘A lot of jobs,’ but a lot of them were factory,” she said. “There are a lot of degree-holding, young African-Americans without jobs.”

“I’m not knocking him. He’s bringing jobs back. I don’t believe that we should be exporting all of our benefits to other countries,” Mitchell said, referring to Trump’s trade deal moves to bring jobs back to the U.S.

“He knows how to go after people and win people,” Mitchell said, and added, “But he is a little pompous.”

Maria Johnson, 39, came to the rally from Smithfield with her family. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “This is a president who is doing something.” When asked if she was voting for Trump, she replied, “Absolutely.”

“I believe he has the country in his best interests,” Johnson said. “I like how he includes himself in public conversation.”

Johnson said she liked that Trump supports the military, and she was also concerned about the economy. “We keep shutting things down. I don’t know about swiftly opening up, but we’ve got to do something,” she said.

Zac Lanto, 21, came to Greenville from Emerald Isle. “He’s for America and for the military,” Lanto said. He said he liked Trump’s stance on immigration, and didn’t like Biden or his running mate Kamala Harris.

Ray “Rayzor” Reynolds, a photographer who has followed the Trump campaign to every rally since 2015, said the Greenville event would be his 74th.

Reynolds, who is from South Carolina, said what drew him to Trump was when he lost his parents. He didn’t feel his mother was taken care of under the Affordable Care system, or Obamacare. In 2017, he wrote a book, “The Trump Movement: My Plan, My Purpose,” about his experiences.

“I think it’s going to be a landslide,” Reynolds said. “For every 100 people I see, there’s 10 Democrats. New Jersey about five months ago, that was the biggest rally I had been to.”

Reynolds said he will turn 60 years old next year. “I need insurance. A third of my income goes to health care.”

A 36-year-old man who only wanted to go by the name, J.C., said of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, “It’s kind of disappointing that’s the Democratic national opponent.”

“I don’t know what he stands for. The ’94 crime bill, that really hurt the black community,” J.C. said. “And many times, I’ve seen him say, ‘I don’t work for you.’ And as an elected official, he should be working for the public, for us.”

“I don’t know if he can be trusted,” he said.

Trump’s visit to Greenville on Thursday was more relaxed and a clear contrast to the last time he came to the city. In July 2019, to kick off his campaign for re-election, Trump held a rally at East Carolina University’s Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum. The crowd reacted vehemently when he blasted the freshmen congresswomen referred to as, “the Squad,” in particular Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota.

The crowd chanted, “Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!”

The moment made headlines around the world.

This time, Trump’s visit did not have the same intensity. It was a different crowd, one that treated the rally as a more casual gathering. As Trump’s speech went on, people also listened more intently and waited for policy points, and began filing out when they grew tired.

Trump also laid into Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, embroiled in a scandal this week over his business deals in Ukraine. “Facebook can try to shut us down, but you know what? Everybody knows it,” he said. “How does this kid of the vice president walk into countries and walk away with deals with no talent, no skill and no expertise – and the press doesn’t want to cover it?”   

Trump boasted of his election results in 2016 and how he and his campaign watched the results come in from various states. “Then we won a place called North Carolina! So it went from 25 to 32 percent. You remember that evening? That was a great evening,” he reminisced.

As the event wound down and Trump returned to Air Force One, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played over the speakers and the departing crowd turned toward the plane, gathering at the barriers and waving. Just as the song was ending, Air Force One took off. Trump was heading toward the NBC-hosted Town Hall in Florida scheduled for Thursday evening.

The Trump administration’s $4 billion Farmers to Families program. What is it? How does it work?

When the lockdowns from the coronavirus started happening this year, Gaye Walker and her husband, Dave Walker, who own Walker Farm in Hillsborough, immediately lost the ability to sell to restaurants.

And what made the first months even more panic-inducing, the farmers’ markets they participated in also closed, leaving the Walkers with just the produce stand at their farm as their only reliable source of income.

“We had a new business – a new farm that opened up around the corner of us. We were real concerned that between the pandemic and them, it was going to really affect us business-wise,” Walker said.

These are the kinds of problems that the $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box program, launched in April, seeks to alleviate. In August, President Donald Trump and advisor Ivanka Trump also announced during a visit to distributors in Mills River that it would get $1 billion more in funding, for a total of $4 billion. Ivanka Trump, along with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, also made a surprise visit to speak on the program at the State Farmers Market earlier this month.

The Walkers participated in donation drives to feed the hungry in Orange County. But six months later, their income still has not stabilized.

“We have one restaurant that’s now purchasing from us, but he’s purchasing a third, or maybe a fourth of what he purchased last year,” Gaye Walker said. “The restaurants, I’m really concerned about with this pandemic.”

Farmers to Families has gone through two rounds. The first round purchased $1.2 billion from May to June, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The second round, which began in July, purchased $1.5 billion. In July, USDA also announced the third round, with distributions planned to occur September to October.

The program is administered by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and is part of the $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. To date, the USDA announced on Tuesday, Farmers to Families has distributed 100 million food boxes nationwide.

“I would say that the program has been extremely successful,” said William Kelley, director of the Henderson County Cooperative Extension with N.C. State University. “It has provided food to millions of people that needed it. And in the process, farmers who weren’t able to otherwise sell or distribute, or move their products had been able to move their products because of this program. It was a win-win situation.”

Kelley also praised how quickly the program was launched. “The farmer in Henderson County that’s doing this, he’s never seen a program get into place as quickly as this one did,” Kelley said. “He thought that by the time the paperwork was done, the pandemic would be done.”

Help for small farmers

The program allows distributors and nonprofits to distribute the boxes, and any nonprofit can sign up to be a recipient as long as they can show they have the ability to store and give out the perishable boxes.

Both producers and recipients are tied to the distributors, who are the ones to submit the applications. Most recipients have been school systems, food banks and churches.

Baptists on Mission, the Cary-based organization highlighted by Trump’s visit, is also distributing in the state in the third round. Other distributors serving North Carolina in this round are Greensboro-based Foster-Caviness Inc., Gargiulo, Frank M. & Son Inc., and Military Produce Group, among others.

Kelley said the program could be improved when it comes to helping more small farmers.

Farmers to Families requires participating farms to have GAP audits, which stands for Good Agricultural Practices. Those are voluntary but costly, and are more normally used by large farms selling products over long distances. Small farms selling at produce stands, farmers’ markets and participating in CSAs, or community-supported agriculture, usually do not have GAP audits.

Kelley said if the safety requirement could be adjusted to FSMA, it could open up the program to more small farmers. FSMA is the Food Safety Modernization Act, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration law passed in 2010.

“They required all the suppliers to be GAP-certified. That requires a lot of record-keeping and inspections and so forth,” Kelley said. “The reason was to make sure the products that were getting distributed met all the food safety requirements. But with FSMA, they could have included more people.”

On Aug. 24, President Donald Trump announced in Mills River $1 billion in additional funding to the Farmers to Families program. Baptists on Mission is a Cary-based organization that has been distributing the food boxes in North Carolina. Source: The White House

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition stated in June that the program had seven percent participation rate from small farmers. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which advocates for sustainable practices and organic growers said the USDA fell short of the 10 percent goal it had set.

Wes King, a senior policy specialist with NSAC who wrote the blog post, said he had arrived at the 7 percent figure by looking through the USDA’s contracts in the first round.

“I and a few others painstakingly researched every entity that received a contract in the first round and made what amounts to professional judgement calls as to whether or not we thought the contractor was a local and regional food systems entities,” King said in an e-mail on Tuesday. “For some it was obvious they were farms who normally engaged in sales to local schools, restaurants and to consumers through farmers markets and CSAs; for others it was less straightforward.”

The FSMA also notably has an amendment by the late North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who worked with Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, to give small farms exemption from the new federal rule. The amendment defines small farms simply as those farms selling less than $500,000 a year and who sell 50 percent of their goods within state or within a 400-mile radius.  

The Tester-Hagan amendment leaves small farms back under the oversight of local and state entities.

Orange County closed the Eno River Farmers’ Market in Hillsborough in March. The market stayed closed through North Carolina’s phase 2 reopening in May, and had customers do pre-orders and pick-ups only. It will not reopen until October. In its most recent newsletter in September, the market stated even that reopening will be “soft,” with fewer vendors.

The Hillsborough Farmers Market, a smaller market run by UNC Healthcare, remains closed.

Distributors’ enthusiasm

When the lockdowns began in March, the demand for produce at restaurants “absolutely collapsed,” said Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops with the N.C. Farm Bureau Federation in the Triangle.

And because of the way agriculture is run, producers could not go from selling to restaurants to selling directly to consumers.

“You buy them 25-30 pounds at a time. That supply chain that was set up to supply tomatoes now all of a sudden had no sales outlets. The demand shifted overnight,” Hamrick said. “We were at 52 or 53 percent, from the economic research at USDA – almost half of the meals for Americans were out of the house. All of a sudden, that was gone and Americans were eating at home.”

“The farmers in that production channel were just absolutely screaming,” she added. “And milk, cheese, meat. These products, you don’t just go from packing a bulk product to packaging for the consumer – from 50 pounds to half pound, wrapped, paper products like a butcher shop product – instantaneously. It was a massive disruption and the USDA wanted to do something.”

Like Kelley, Hamrick praised the USDA for putting the program together so fast.

“They got it out there and it was not perfect, but it’s been iterative and they’ve improved it,” she said. “We all get surprised when we hear government does something good. But there are some really good people. USDA, man, they got a bunch of money and had to put in a billion-dollar program that had never been done before. And somehow, it’s not perfect, but it has happened.”

Courtney Tellefsen, founder and CEO of The Produce Box, a Raleigh membership-based service that delivers weekly groceries, participated in the first two rounds of Farmers to Families by linking up with Baptists on Mission to build their boxes.

“They had a network of churches. … So they had an easy way to get the boxes from us to people who needed them. And they already had the logistics and trucking and everything,” Tellefsen.

Tellefsen said her company submitted its own application to be a distributor to the USDA for the third round, but was rejected.

Joey McNeill, vice president of Ward’s Produce in Raleigh, said his company delivered more than 634,000 boxes from May to September. The company had participated in the first two rounds to deliver produce boxes, but not for the third, which is asking for combination boxes of produce, dairy and meat.

McNeill said that as a result of the program, his company not only retained its workforce but even hired new workers this year.

“Given the quickness of the program rolling out, the mobilization on the USDA was nothing short of incredible,” McNeill said. “We were able to hire more people to help us with packing. There are so many food insecure families out there that it was a godsend. We worked with 90-plus unique nonprofits in terms of referring products to people, the end use recipients.”

“We went from 40 employees at the time of the shutdown and then we were operating with 55-60 employees while the program was in place,” he said.

Ward’s Produce delivered boxes to numerous organizations, including: the Food Banks of Central and Eastern North Carolina in Raleigh and Durham and other food banks in the state, Durham Rescue Mission, PORCH in Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill Public Housing, Orange County Social Services, school systems in Johnston, Person and Vance counties, the Inter-faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh, and churches across the state.

McNeill said he hopes the USDA will keep the program going.  

“I hope (the USDA) will do something similar to this because there will still be food insecure people in this country after COVID passes,” he said.  

Blog post: Pierce Freelon has been appointed to the Durham City Council. But is it legal?

Durham City Council voted on Aug. 31 to appoint Pierce Freelon to the Ward 3 seat.

The seat had been left vacant by Vernetta Alston in April when she left for the 29th district seat on the state House of Representatives. Freelon is a musician and son of the late architect Phil Freelon and jazz musician Nnenna Freelon. He had run unsuccessfully for the state senate this year and for Durham mayor in 2017.

In April, the city council was debating whether to appoint someone to the seat or to let the public decide on election day.

So why was the appointment of Freelon suddenly made some four months after Alston left? And was this action legal?

Both the city charter and the state statute are written in such a way that they require the appointment to be made soon after the vacancy occurs, and that the appointment should be in place only until when the public can elect a new representative.

That is, the law protects the public’s right to vote for their elected officials and to be represented.

The city charter’s Section 13.2 states the appointment shall be made within 60 days of the vacancy.

Here is the state statute:

A vacancy that occurs in an elective office of a city shall be filled by appointment of the city council. If the term of the office expires immediately following the next regular city election, or if the next regular city election will be held within 90 days after the vacancy occurs, the person appointed to fill the vacancy shall serve the remainder of the unexpired term. Otherwise, a successor shall be elected at the next regularly scheduled city election that is held more than 90 days after the vacancy occurs, and the person appointed to fill the vacancy shall serve only until the elected successor takes office. The elected successor shall then serve the remainder of the unexpired term.

By the state statute, if the vacancy occurs too close to an election — within 90 days — then the person appointed will serve the rest of the unexpired term.

Otherwise, if the election occurs 90 days after the vacancy, that gives the public enough time to make an informed decision and elect a new official.

By the city charter and state statute, Durham residents should have been able to vote for a new representative to serve on the Ward 3 seat.

So why did Freelon’s appointment happen? Is it legal?

Election 2020: Trump in Winston-Salem

President Donald Trump was in Winston-Salem on Tuesday for his fourth visit to North Carolina since July, where he drew thousands of supporters from around the state.

The campaign rally was held at the Smith Reynolds Regional Airport. Supporters donning Trump T-shirts, Keep America Great hats and holding up signs waited for hours for Air Force One to arrive.

Trump’s speech began shortly after 7 p.m. and focused on familiar themes of his campaign this election year: Bringing jobs back to America, tax cuts, and warning the crowd against mail-in ballots. Trump criticized Gov. Roy Cooper for North Carolina’s continued lockdown and gave Lt. Gov. Dan Forest a boost for his run for the state’s top office.

Trump was also in Florida on Tuesday. “I just left Florida. We’re going to win Florida,” he said to the North Carolina crowd to cheers.

Check out the photo gallery by Karen Tam.

Marc Dreyfors’ Eco-Innovations

Behind a small, nondescript building in Efland, a gravel driveway reveals an old textiles manufacturing warehouse, biodiesel production tanks and rows of vegetables at the Orange County Eco-Innovations Park.

A fleet of buses that run on biodiesel sit across from the warehouse. “This pink party bus runs green!” whimsical slogans on the front say. “We are a revolution in motion!”

Because of the coronavirus, the buses have been out of commission, and the Eco-Innovations Park’s founder and General Manager Marc Dreyfors is busy working to to keep his nonprofits and businesses afloat.

“That was a blow to us,” Dreyfors said of the buses.

Walking across the sun-baked grounds toward potted hemp plants and rows of vegetables, Dreyfors stops to examine the squashes and help a worker fix a stand of tomatoes that have drooped over.

Dreyfors’ main enterprise is the nonprofit, The Forest Foundation, which he founded in 2001. It’s the umbrella organization for Carolina Biofuels, Greenway Transit, Green Tracks, Forests of the World, and the newest business, CannDo CBD Oil. After a grant application to Durham City fell through earlier this year and then the coronavirus, Dreyfors is focused on securing funding and revenue.

“We’ve been over the years so under-resourced,” Dreyfors said during a phone interview. “We’re very lean, and we can survive through the worst situations. 2008 was brutal and things slowed down pretty significantly. But we’ve been able to grow and make it.”

“But man, everything is hand-to-mouth. We want to go from, ‘That’s a cool thing you’re doing’ to, ‘Wow you’re really making a really cool impact.’ We’re tired of being the cool poster child. We want to make an impact,” he said.

The organization moved from East Durham to Efland a year ago, and Dreyfors has ventured into something new – growing hemp for the CBD business, and vegetables for a CSA, or community-supported agriculture.

The organization recently got back Duke University’s physician’s assistants program as a customer for the biodiesel buses.

Within the industrial space and office of the old textiles warehouse, Dreyfors talks about the possibilities of the site. There is compressed air in the warehouse, room for biodiesel production, and barrels of harvested hemp.

The center, at 2.8 acres, is bigger than his old site on Cross Street in East Durham, which means there is more room to grow and expand. However, it’s also removed from the urban environment in Durham, where Dreyfors had been based for more than a decade and built his eco-innovation philosophy.

East Durham was where he had converted a polluted brownfield site to producing biodiesel, worked with young people, and been involved in other environmental organizations. The pedicabs Dreyfors used to ride around Durham now sit unused in the warehouse.

But some things remain the same. There is his main work: converting restaurant grease into biodiesel. He is hiring. “We have a lot of work,” he said.

The draw of biodiesel is that it is – in the terminology of the green space – a “drop in” technology. That is, biodiesel, made from restaurant grease and vegetable oils, can be readily used in diesel-running vehicles without having to modify the engine.

Dreyfors’ Carolina Biofuels has three active pumps in the Triangle. At the Eco-Innovation Park, Larry’s Beans in Raleigh, and at Carrboro Public Works, where Dreyfors said they’ve had problems with the pump being shut off without notice.


Dreyfors at the biodiesel pump at the Eco-Innovation Park.

Biodiesel is also at the intersection of Dreyfors’ interests, which is summed up with The Forest Foundation’s “GOAL” model. “GOAL” stands for “Green Oil and Light.”

The “Green” stands for the work of shifting energy away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The “Light” is about “finding the light” in community and neighborhood-based redevelopment. “This provides a great stage for the work being done, in transformation, regeneration and renewal,” states the foundation’s web site.

Dreyfors counts among his supporters other organizations in the area that have succeeded in the green space.

Eric Henry, president of T.S. Designs, the organic cotton T-shirt maker in Burlington, also has been interested in biodiesel. “I was big into biodiesel,” Henry said.

“It’s a renewable resource and not a fossil fuel. Typically what we do personally is we blend it with regular petro diesel. The main thing is it adds better lubricity. It’s slicker,” Henry said. “With my Volkswagen Golf, we could run biodiesel or straight vegetable oil. You can run 100 percent biodiesel or 100 percent diesel or any combination.”

“Marc and I are very much on a similar journey. People, planet, profit,” Henry said, referring to the triple bottomline of the green space.

Stephen Hren, who works in sustainable building, used to work for Dreyfors in Green Tracks and praised him for his dedication. Green Tracks is the green jobs training program of The Forest Foundation.

“For a dozen years, Marc has kept his sustainable tour company going on the most shoestring of budgets, hardly paying himself anything,” Hren said in an e-mail. “Many of his employees have substance abuse or are ex-felons who most employers would not bother to deal with. But despite his mordant humor, Marc has a deep-rooted faith in humanity that is exceptionally inspiring.”

Throughout his work, Dreyfors displays an interest in community work and wanting to work with young people, combined with an instinctive desire to work with real materials — biodiesel, buses, pedicabs, hemp. He also has a thirst for the big thinking in the environmental space, connecting the macro to the local and making it relevant to real work.

The work of converting restaurant grease into biodiesel, for instance, puts Dreyfors into the community, going to restaurants and engaging with owners. And it’s hands-on work, which Dreyfors has been drawn to throughout his career.

A Wilmington native, Dreyfors graduated from UNC-Wilmington with a degree in environmental sciences in 1988. While a graduate student at the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, he and a classmate discussed biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. After graduating, the two classmates began what would become Dreyfors’ first business, Forests of the World, importing crafts from Costa Rica and creating educational materials about rain forests. 

Some of these wares are still in the office of the Eco-Innovation Park.

In 2001, he founded The Forest Foundation, the main umbrella organization over the other ventures. Its website proudly touts proudly the work they’ve done, from having a booth at the North Carolina State Fair to Green Tracks, its venture for green jobs training, founded in 2009.

Greenway Transit

Dreyfors on a pedicab with Greenway Transit, one of the ventures under The Forest Foundation. Photo courtesy of The Forest Foundation

One of his favorite projects is the buses. Dreyfors passionately talks about the benefits of running buses, especially school buses, on biodiesel.

“It’s a lot of pollution that affects kids,” he says.

Ask him about a new technology, and he says and laughs, “I’ve probably read everything about that.”

Having worked with the environment for decades, Dreyfors is also familiar with the emotional and spiritual work that has to be done. If you share your own frustrations with him, he nods knowingly. Yep, he’s been there too. “Just breathe through it, work through it,” he says.

Dreyfors’ organizations has never made too much in revenue, and he wants to change that.

According to tax filings, The Forest Foundation normally posts a combined total of revenue and grant funding and contributions of under $50,000. 2010 and 2011 were its best years, when it reported $50,344 and $86,587 total revenue, respectively.

Adding to the low revenue have been problems over the years with finding and keeping a permanent space.

In 2009, Carolina Biofuels was evicted from its space in East Durham off Angier Avenue. There, Dreyfors’ organization worked with young people with YIKES!, or Youth Involved in Keeping Earth Sustainable, painting an eco mural and rain barrels, and helped Recyclique, another nonprofit focused on sustainability, get off the ground.

Orange Recycling Co., owner of the site, decided to lease it to another business instead.

“We constantly roll ourselves into a situation where there are all these benefits from what we want to do,” Dreyfors said, but admits that finding people to pay for it is a problem.

There is also a potential problem with the new site in Efland. Orange County officials have told him to pave the gravel driveway and put in parking spaces. “But why would you do that?” Dreyfors asks.

“We need better messaging,” Dreyfors admits. “We need to communicate better. We need more investment. We need more people supporting us.”