When Ricky Hurtado launched his state legislative campaign in November 2019, the kickoff party signaled a new kind of Democratic politics for North Carolina. For starters, there was the menu: trays of pupusas and Mexican sweet bread, washed down with pale ale and fruity Jarritos sodas.

It was an overheated crush of bodies that night, inside a Burlington real-estate office with mismatched furniture and exposed brick. Educators, racial-justice activists, old friends, and politicians took turns at a selfie station, where they posed with the candidate and held signs saying, “#BlueWave” and “Sí Se Puede.” 

“The place was packed, just packed, and it looked like North Carolina,” recalled Irene Godínez, executive director of Poder NC Action, which does leadership development with young Latinxs. “It was queer folks, straight, Black, brown, men, women. It was just what North Carolina looks like to me.”

At the center stood Hurtado, co-founder of the educational-equity group LatinxEd. Thirty at the time, with a goatee and oversized dimples, he was hoping to unseat Republican Rep. Stephen Ross in Alamance County’s House District 63. But for those at the kickoff, the stakes felt higher than a single legislative seat. Hurtado’s parents had fled El Salvador’s civil war in 1980, and he was running at the very moment that North Carolina, and the country, were riven by the debate over immigration. He represented next-generation North Carolina: educated and multilingual, nimble at moving through diverse communities, justice-minded and policy-driven. If his candidacy seemed like a threat to conservatives who prefer their border walls tall and strong, it also threatened moderate Democrats who like their politicians white, Tar Heel-born, and ideologically cautious.

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Downtown Graham, North Carolina // photo by Cornell Watson

At the Burlington gathering, though, the atmosphere was hopeful. District 63, which Ross had last won by 298 votes, was later redrawn under a court order and now tilted bluer. As Democratic lawmakers spoke that night, they described Hurtado’s run as key to reclaiming a legislative majority, and generating the enthusiasm Joe Biden needed to carry the state.

“There’s no way that we complete the Democratic revival in North Carolina without going through Alamance County,” said Rep. Graig Meyer, who helps recruit state House candidates. He pointed first to Hurtado, and then to Hurtado’s wife Yazmin García Rico, who shares the candidate’s long history of community organizing. “And we’re going to do it,” Meyer said, “with a Latinx millennial couple at the lead.”

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Almost a year later, Hurtado edged out the incumbent by 477 votes, out of more than 40,000 cast, to become the first Latinx Democrat elected to the state legislature. He did so even as his party lost House seats overall, and as then-president Donald Trump captured North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes.

Hurtado’s 2020 victory capped what Godínez calls “year one” of a concerted push to build Latinx electoral power statewide. It was all the more notable because of the national attention his candidacy had garnered. He had secured endorsements from former President Barack Obama and U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. He was featured in Rolling Stone. And he raised more than $1 million, outpacing the incumbent by a factor of three. 

Moreover, he won in Alamance County, where the leading political figure, Sheriff Terry Johnson, had built a following by casting Latinx residents as outsiders who don’t share the community’s values. “In Mexico, there’s nothing wrong with having sex with a 12-, 13-year-old girl,” the Republican once told a News & Observer reporter, articulating an alarmist narrative that would come to anchor the rightmost edge of the immigration debate and fuel Trump’s political rise. (“They’re bringing crime,” Trump would say when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. “They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”)

Hurtado’s own story of family hardship, hard work, and the building of a righteous life offered a counter-narrative. “For a son of that culture to rise and represent the people who have been demeaned and belittled, it is significant,” said the Rev. Tamara Kersey-Brown, senior pastor at Johnson Chapel AME Church in Mebane. “He has now come into the spotlight as someone to represent his people, to dismantle the myths and stereotypes for his culture.” 

That story formed the very core of Hurtado’s political appeal, even as it sparked blowback from his own party’s leadership.

* * *

They heard the screeching of tires first. Then came the gunshots, which blew out the top windows of the Hurtado family’s Los Angeles living room. Ricky, who was about five that night in the 1990s, ducked and crawled to his parents’ bedroom. His father was still at work, so he curled up with his mother and two siblings and fell asleep to the calming soundtrack of Gilligan’s Island.

His parents, more than a decade earlier, had escaped El Salvador when the war was cranking up and coming close to their homes in the capital. His mother fled with relatives; his father gave up his dream of studying engineering to join them. They bought one-way bus tickets to Mexico, then hired a coyote to ferry them across the border. Undocumented at first, they received legal status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed in 1986. Eventually they became U.S. citizens.

“They had an abiding faith that, with hard work and perseverance, we could take our own little slice of the American dream,” Hurtado would later tell supporters. But that slice was hard-won. Though they shielded their children from feeling deprived—young Ricky regularly enjoyed frozen chocolate-covered bananas, a popular Salvadoran street food—his parents were in fact scraping for a foothold. His father used to bring home turkey patties from the country club where he waited tables. “For him it was like, ‘Thank God, I don’t have to purchase groceries for the day,’” Hurtado said. “For me, it was like, ‘It’s Friday. I get turkey burgers.’”

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Rep. Hurtado holds photos of his parents in front of his home in Mebane, North Carolina // photo by Cornell Watson

There was crime to contend with, culminating in the drive-by shooting that shattered the family’s living-room windows. And there was Hurtado’s asthma, compounded by the California pollution. On the worst nights, the boy would put on a respirator and lie down on the living-room couch. “And my dad started sleeping beside me every night,” he said, “because I literally couldn’t breathe.”

When Hurtado was in second grade, one of his father’s friends convinced the family to move to Sanford, North Carolina. It would be greener there than in Los Angeles, the friend promised, and there would be work. His parents sold most of their possessions and packed the rest into a trailer, taking a week to drive across the United States.

His mother worked at poultry plants whenever jobs were available. His father drove garbage trucks for Waste Management. Ricky thrived in the public schools, where he played soccer and participated in the Math Olympiads. “Early on, I recognized I could figure this school thing out,” he said. “It got me praise, and it got me attention from teachers, and it got me friends.”

He wasn’t thinking about college. “I didn’t know that’s what people did,” he said. In high school he worked three jobs, providing a second family income when his mother was out of work. He filed X-rays. He sold hot dogs at a ballpark concession stand. And he clerked at the Waste Management transfer station, letting trucks pass and ensuring that they only dumped legal items.

When he was in tenth grade, Hurtado recalled, one of his teammates won a merit-based scholarship to North Carolina State University: “And I was like, oh, people pay you to go to college?” His competitive instincts kicked in—and when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill invited him to join the Class of 2011, the offer came with a full-ride Morehead-Cain scholarship.

Hurtado and his father were both at work when the scholarship email arrived. He didn’t show his father until they got home. “And he just starts bawling, crying and hugs me, and is just like, ‘Oh my God, you did it.’”

* * *

Education opened up Hurtado’s future. As his career plans crystallized, he decided to help open up others’. With a master’s degree from Princeton, he returned to North Carolina in 2015 to lead the Scholars’ Latino Initiative, a mentoring program that paired UNC students with first-generation college-bound high-schoolers.

The UNC-sponsored program made a difference one-on-one. But Hurtado had come to think more systemically. “I didn’t feel like the impact was big enough,” he said. “We can help get five, 10, 25 kids to college. That’s great for those 25 kids. But what about the other hundreds of thousands that we’re not touching?” With the help of a former classmate, Elaine Townsend Utin, he relaunched the initiative in 2018 as a non-profit called LatinxEd. They would still help individual families, but they would also branch into advocacy, leadership development, and public awareness.

By then, Hurtado had married García Rico, a social worker who had immigrated from Mexico in eighth grade. When they met, she was protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era initiative for undocumented immigrants who had come to the United States as minors. García Rico shared Hurtado’s social-justice mission: The couple’s first date was a protest at a Trump rally at the State Fairgrounds, where an angry Trump supporter threw his car into reverse and almost pinned the couple between two vehicles.

García Rico was living in Alamance County, where she had spent her adolescence, and Hurtado moved there in 2018. He immersed himself in groups like Alamance Achieves, an initiative focusing on education. When the Rev. Jason Gaskin, a bearded Methodist pastor, started a pro-immigrant, pro-LGBTQ congregation called Storied Church, the couple began attending. Together, they were crafting a life at the epicenter of North Carolina’s immigration debate.

* * *

In the 1990s, a growing demand for industrial workers, particularly those unlikely to unionize, sparked a Latin American diaspora from the border states to the Midwest and South. In North Carolina a backlash was inevitable, and it took different forms across the Piedmont region.

In Durham, immigrants who didn’t have bank accounts became targets for robberies because they carried cash on payday. In Siler City, protesters at a 2000 rally held signs saying “No way, José” and “To hell with the wretched refuse.” They listened to speeches by white supremacists, including former Klan leader David Duke of Louisiana, who told them, “If you don’t do something now, you’re going to be outnumbered and outvoted in your own country.”

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Rep. Hurtado walks in front of a mural in downtown Graham, North Carolina // photo by Cornell Watson

In Alamance County, Sheriff Johnson signed an agreement with the federal government in 2007 authorizing his deputies to help enforce immigration laws. According to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, the sheriff then proceeded to raid predominantly Latinx mobile-home parks (“Catch me some Mexicans,” he reportedly demanded) and target Latinx drivers at traffic stops. At one such stop, the Justice Department said, a deputy accused a driver of stealing her own valid driver’s license. “The woman in the picture is pretty and you’re ugly,” the officer allegedly said. “We’re going to deport you.” 

In the resulting climate of fear, patients began skipping medical appointments, said a report published by the UNC School of Government. Sales at Latinx-owned shops plummeted. “There are students whose parents have been taken away while they are at school,” teacher Tina Manning told a UNC researcher. “They get home and they’re gone.” One night in 2008, reported The News & Observer, three Honduran children were abandoned on the shoulder of Interstate 85 for eight hours after their mother’s arrest.

Johnson, for his part, bragged that crime had dropped 19.5 percent. “The people we pick up self-identify,” he said at the time. “We don’t tell them to violate the law or drink and drive.”

In 2012, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) terminated the agreement with Johnson’s agency. Later, the sheriff settled a lawsuit filed by the federal government by pledging to work toward “bias-free policing.”

Still, inequities remain. Since the 2016 settlement, 19 percent of Hispanic drivers stopped by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office have been stopped at a checkpoint, according to unpublished data analyzed by Burlington Times-News investigative reporter Ahmed Jallow. The figure is seven percent for whites and six percent for Blacks. 

Johnson renewed his relationship with ICE in 2019, signing a contract to house the agency’s detainees in the local jail. Alamance, he recently said, is the only North Carolina county authorized to hold ICE detainees for longer than 72 hours. This distinction does not inspire a feeling of safety, said Juan Miranda, organizing director with the immigrant- and Latinx-led grassroots group Siembra NC. 

“Yesterday,” Miranda said in a March interview, “I got a phone call from a man who called our hotline, asking if it was safe to go get the vaccine, because [of] the police and the sheriff and how they treat us.” 

Johnson, through a spokesperson, declined an interview request.

* * *

Hurtado jumped into local politics as soon as he moved to Alamance. He volunteered in 2018 to help his friend Kristen Powers, a progressive Democrat who was running for the county Board of Commissioners. He knocked on doors as part of her Latinx outreach and served on her campaign advisory council. Though Powers lost, the experience got Hurtado thinking about running himself.

One option was House District 63, which starts at the Orange County line and stretches from Mebane into parts of Burlington—a post-industrial swath of Piedmont that has recently seen spillover from the more liberal Triangle. The district includes all of Graham, the county seat best known for the long showdown over the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse. (See “Today’s Outlaws” by Belle Boggs.) And it includes Pleasant Grove, home to the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. Close to sixty percent of the district’s registered voters identify as white. Just five percent identify as Hispanic. 

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A new fence surrounds the Confederate monument that has been the epicenter of protests in Alamance County, North Carolina // photo by Cornell Watson

Hurtado reached out to Elaine Berry, incoming chair of the Alamance County Democratic Party. Over coffee, Berry grilled him about the rough-and-tumble he was likely to face. She had managed Erica McAdoo’s 2018 race for District 63, and saw how the campaign took over the candidate’s life. 

“Dude, I know you. You’re a great guy,” she recalls telling Hurtado. “You’re newly married, and you’re gonna be a Latino candidate running in Alamance County. You really need to think about this. Is it the right time? Is this something you want to do?”

It was. When McAdoo decided against a rematch, she and Berry agreed that Hurtado could mount a strong challenge in District 63. Berry told Hurtado that if he wanted to run, there were volunteers available and money in the bank. 

Hurtado talked with his wife, and then called Berry back the next morning. “Yazmin said, ‘You’d be stupid not to do that,’” Berry remembered him saying.

Others offered a frostier response. North Carolina’s Democratic establishment tends to measure viability by how neatly a candidate fits a certain profile. There’s a common, though not universal, assumption that many white voters will be turned off by candidates who are too young, too dark-skinned, or too bold in their policy positions. 

“It got messy really quickly,” said Poder NC Action’s Godínez. “The Democratic Party pushed back so hard—not once or twice, but about four times—saying that Ricky could not be the candidate. What they weren’t saying, but what was unspoken, is, ‘How in the world could a brown man with an immigrant background run in Alamance County? We will lose if he runs.’ And this was coming from allies and friends that I had in the party.”

“I think that the state party was scared,” said Ernest Lewis Jr., third vice-chair of the Alamance County Democrats. “The state party looks at the demographic map [and concludes that] Governor Roy Cooper has won consistently by being, you know, an older white gentleman.” 

* * *

Godínez and Lewis weren’t misreading the signals from Raleigh. 

The 63rd District is a “really tough seat,” said Morgan Jackson, a veteran campaign consultant and the governor’s chief political advisor. “There are all kinds of things in these legislative races you look for that give you an advantage in a red county, or in a red district. What’s the profile you need that gives you a chance to win more than your fair share of swing voters and peel off some Republicans?” 

On paper, Jackson said, the ideal candidate has a big public profile: “the city council member that has a strong following [or] an educator who has educated half of the county’s children.” They also have moderate politics. 

Plus, Jackson said, on paper that candidate is white. “Racial dynamics are challenging everywhere,” he said, “but I think in Alamance County, especially for the Hispanic and Latino community, are really challenging.” Democrats had seen McAdoo, who is white, come close with a less sympathetic map in 2018. She seemed to be the model of a winning candidate, and they wondered whether a Latinx contender could close the deal. “There were a lot of question marks,” Jackson said. “Was this the right formula?”

Tasked with delivering this message was Rep. Graig Meyer. He had known Hurtado and García Rico for years, and had served on the board of the Scholars’ Latino Initiative before it hired Hurtado. He was also a campaign co-chair of the House Democratic Caucus, which was trying to win back control of the chamber.

In November 2019, three weeks before speaking at the Burlington kickoff, Meyer met with both Hurtado and Berry. “Look,” he recalled saying, “there are people in the Democratic Party who don’t think we should run a Latinx millennial in Alamance County, given Alamance County’s voting record for people like Sheriff Terry Johnson.” With national Republicans poised to make immigration a 2020 campaign issue, a first-generation American like Hurtado could find himself in the crosshairs. 

“What would we do as a Democratic Party,” Meyer asked Hurtado, “if Trump came to town and did a rally in Burlington, and called you undocumented, even though you're not, as a way to rally up his base and to tear you down, and you became the focus of Trump’s attacks?” At minimum, it would require a carefully planned response. At worst, Hurtado could find himself alone, without material support from his state party. (Hurtado calls Meyer’s recollection “almost verbatim.”)

If Republican attacks drove down Hurtado’s poll numbers, Meyer warned him, “we may not be able to financially help you close out the campaign.” This prospect, while “crappy,” was no different from how the party would treat any legislative candidate in trouble. “Except for the fact about Ricky being Latinx,” he said. “And it being in the context of Trump’s horrible racist anti-immigration pitches.”

Berry took the Democrats’ reticence as a challenge. “I’m a gay woman,” she said. “I’ve had my own battles. And people underestimate people that are different all the time. The way I looked at it was, ‘OK, fine. We’re going to work that much harder.’ That’s what made us get up at 7 o’clock in the morning, work till 10 o’clock at night. I said, ‘You watch at the end, if we pull this off, how many people come out of the woodwork, and all of a sudden they’re supporting Ricky.’”

* * *

On a cloudy day in January 2020, Hurtado launched what he thought would be a nine-month canvassing effort. The candidate gathered his volunteers before they started knocking on doors. “These conversations [with voters] are rich,” he told them. “Listen and not just persuade. We want to know what’s going on on the ground. We want to hear back from you what’s on folks’ minds.”

He also reminded them what was at stake: “This election will determine who’s in power for the next ten years.” Lawmakers elected in 2020 would use new census data to redraw their own districts, a contentious partisan process.

Then he sent them out, but not for long. After the March primary, “we only got one canvass in for him before COVID hit,” said Berry.

Like everyone else, Hurtado had to pivot to remote operations, including phone banking. State Democrats urged the campaign to stay on-message even as the medium changed. 

That made Berry bristle. “We can’t do what the [House] caucus is telling us,” she recalled telling the candidate—“call and say, ‘Hey, this is Ricky Hurtado’s campaign. He’s running for state legislature. How likely are you to vote for Ricky?’ They don’t know him. They’re worried if they’re going to be able to put food on the table, have a job, send the kids to school. Are they going to die? How are we going to call into those houses?”

Instead, they asked voters what they needed. Phone bankers had the authorization to give out the candidate’s cellphone number. Hurtado delivered food and masks in his 2014 Jetta. He helped residents navigate the unemployment-insurance system. He took a break only when he and García Rico came down with COVID-19 themselves.

This shift didn’t surprise Hurtado’s friends. “Six feet of distance is not his thing,” said David Gaddy, a math teacher who worships with Hurtado at Storied Church. When someone is suffering, “I feel like Ricky is that person that’s holding himself back and just wanting to embrace that person and say, ‘This is just a season. We will get through this.’”

State Democrats made their disapproval clear: They didn’t want to see campaigns turn into relief operations. “The reasoning was, we shouldn’t have non-elected officials calling people to offer support and assistance, because it might sound like they’re portraying themselves to be currently elected officials,” said Meyer, who disagreed with the House caucus on this point.

Hurtado disregarded his party’s pushback. “If running for office was disconnected from serving the needs of the community in the midst of a global pandemic,” he said, “then I don’t want to run for office.”

The candidate did raise money aggressively. He and some Democratic colleagues held a joint virtual fundraiser featuring cast members from Hamilton. (He and Kristen Powers, who ran and lost again in 2020, listened to the soundtrack in her truck while campaigning, paying special attention to the song “History Has Its Eyes on You.”) Other fundraisers featured comedians. Hurtado spent so much on paid media that when volunteers finally did start knocking on doors again—masked and keeping their distance—they discovered that the candidate had significant name recognition. 

During her own campaign, Powers said, “We would go to so many houses, and I’d be like, ‘My God, there’s another Ricky flyer in this mailbox.’”

* * *

Republicans ran at Hurtado hard. They published a three-part, 226-page dossier, which they summarized by saying the candidate “came from California to bring far left, big-government policies to Alamance County.” They accused Hurtado of supporting “a complete government takeover of health care” and wanting to “take away police equipment.” They invoked Hurtado’s support from “radical leftist groups” like the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club. The North Carolina Republican House Caucus website, which posted the summary, said explicitly that it was appealing to white and “soft GOP” voters with these arguments. 

Voters, meanwhile, received a mailing saying that Hurtado had signed a “socialist pledge” favoring “higher crime” and “higher taxes.” The flyer featured side-by-side photos of Hurtado and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. There was even a picture of one man handing off a wad of hundred-dollar bills to another. In the end, the attacks failed. 

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Rep. Hurtado bumps elbows with a constituent in Graham, North Carolina // photo by Cornell Watson

Hurtado was elected on November 3 with 50.6 percent of the vote. His win was a rebuke not just to mud-slinging Republicans, but also to Democrats who had questioned his viability. “The profile undersold the candidate,” said Morgan Jackson, the party strategist. “He was an exceptional candidate who ran a really incredible race.”

The following morning, Poder NC Action’s Godínez popped in some earbuds and switched on a video camera. She looked tired but elated. “We have so much to celebrate,” she said in a four-minute Facebook message. “This year is our very first year in North Carolina that we are beginning to build [our] political muscle.” Developing a full-fledged infrastructure, as Latinx progressives had done in Arizona, would take years, she said. But Hurtado’s win offered both encouragement and representation. She held up a poster with the words “Nuestro candidato” and an illustration of a smiling Hurtado against a backdrop of dogwood flowers. 

When Hurtado graduated high school in 2007, North Carolina’s electorate was 0.7 percent Hispanic. By 2020, that figure had climbed to 3.1 percent. Among the newest voters was Yazmin García Rico, who became a U.S. citizen on October 29, just in time to vote for her husband.

A couple of Sundays later, Storied Church held an outdoor service at a Mebane park. Children ran around the playground while adults sat on lawn chairs and worshiped. Gaskin, the pastor, led the service from under a covered pavilion, wearing high-tops and an untucked shirt.

After the Lord’s Prayer, Gaskin looked at Hurtado and García Rico and acknowledged the two milestones in their lives. “Are y’all OK with me praying for y’all?” he asked. “Because if you say no”—he lifted his arms and laughed—“it’s gonna be awkward.” Gaskin put on a mask as the legislator-elect and the new citizen approached, then asked permission to touch their shoulders. The congregation, still in their folding chairs, stretched their arms forward, coming as close to a laying-on of hands as the pandemic allowed.

* * *

“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well,” the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire wrote in 1970. “Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” 

Irene Godínez thought about those words after Election Day. It wasn’t just that Hurtado was an exceptional candidate, she said. It was also that his strategy was developed by political outsiders who had been living under siege, were eager to claim some power, and were willing to take risks to do so. “It was our first time when we could finally flex a political muscle through strategy and through actual financial decisions,” she said.

Precisely because they were outside the establishment, she said, Hurtado’s supporters knew to get an early start on door-knocking. They knew, when the pandemic hit, to stop asking for votes and start asking about food and masks. Their ears were sufficiently sensitive to detect a Latino male shift toward the GOP, and to focus more energy on reaching Latina voters instead. 

And it worked. “I finally felt like I had a case study with Ricky’s race to prove that if the folks who have been running politics—white folks, white progressives—got out of the way, and let those of us who are from marginalized communities form the strategies for how to win in these races, then we can actually win,” she said.

Other potential candidates are already stepping forward. This year, Godínez has spoken with five young Latinxs who want to run for offices like school board and soil-and-water supervisor. “It’s not the leaders of the future,” she said. “These are current leaders that are saying, ‘Well, OK, there isn’t anyone who’s going to come to rescue us ... and I can learn it.’ I feel like it’s almost part of the immigrant ethos. My dad, for example—I’ll say, ‘Papi, do you know how to build a couch?’ He’s like, ‘No, but I’m sure I can do it.’”

Both Godínez and Hurtado say that, in their vision, next-generation North Carolina politics will depend on diverse coalitions led by people of color. Poder NC Action, for example, has been talking strategy with likeminded Black- and brown-led groups. Meyer, the legislator, says Alamance County is already modeling what’s possible.

“You’ve got phenomenal multiracial organizing going on there across a variety of issues,” he said. Plus, groups like the NAACP know how to turn out voters. “So you get the whole package for what Democrats need to do to win. But what I worry about is 2022.” With redistricting imminent, and Republican lawmakers in charge, a minor mapping adjustment could put District 63 back in GOP hands. “I don’t think they’re going to do Ricky any favors,” he said. 

Ross, the Republican, told The Assembly he plans to run for his old seat next year.

Hurtado, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to be a legislator—advocating as a minority-party freshman for Medicaid expansion, public-school funding, and LGBTQ and immigrant rights—while remaining planted in his community. His campaign volunteers have resumed phone banking, this time asking constituents whether they need help scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations. And this month, they began knocking on doors once again.

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Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham. He has covered North Carolina politics for more than three decades. Find more of his work here.