2020 brought a pandemic, civil unrest, a tumultuous election — and recovery

DFL state Reps. Rena Moran and Carlos Mariani, both of St. Paul, led police reform negotiations on behalf of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/ Minnesota Reformer

Helping launch a news startup in 2020 proved to be full of unexpected developments and circumstances, both professional and personal. 

The year brought a pandemic, a racial reckoning unlike any other in the past 30 years, as well as a consequential election that continues to tear at the fabric of democracy. On a personal note, I sought treatment in late summer for addiction, taking time to recover from the stress of work and learn how to take care of myself. 

As I reviewed the stories I reported this year, I see a body of work that encapsulates my style of journalism. 

I labor to unearth stories that offer readers a look behind the curtain; stories that are prescient and help flesh out a fuller picture of our state’s influential figures and institutions; stories that give voice to marginalized people in a state sorely in need of journalists from these communities. The Reformer was not initially intended to be a breaking-news operation, but we did not hesitate to run into the middle of the action when protests over the police killing of George Floyd turned into riots. We found people who knew him and reported on the peaceful protests that rapidly turned into looting and rioting.

Tracy Gordon lays down flowers at a memorial erected for George Floyd in south Minneapolis on May 26, 2020. Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

My stories also included travel to Minnesota towns and cities, including Worthington, Rochester and Duluth. 

Here are some of my favorite stories of the year:

I had no idea that a story I wrote in February about the emerging anti-vaxx caucus in the Legislature and doubts about accepted scientific facts in the State Capitol would become so important just a few months later, when a handful of lawmakers were regularly castigating the work of epidemiologists and virologists and substituting information they got from their own sources. 

State Sen. Scott Jensen would become a national spokesman for alternative ideas about the pandemic, and we published a profile early in his rise

Also early in the pandemic, we reported on Minnesota’s undocumented population — nearly 100,000 strong — anxiously bracing for the health and economic fallout, and largely left out of government relief efforts. 

The JBS pork packing plant in Worthington has temporarily closed amid a COVID-19 outbreak that has sickened at least 26 workers. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

We also were early reporting an outbreak at a JBS pork plant in Worthington, and then followed with a story about the dangerous working conditions these workers face every day, even before the pandemic.  

Just a few months after the pandemic began, Floyd was killed and suddenly Minnesota was confronting a long overdue racial reckoning. We covered the state Senate Republican majority passing a limited police reform measure last summer, which included a striking exchange between Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Sen. Patricia Torres Ray during one special session. 

Later, I gathered everything I’d learned over years of reporting on race in Minnesota — including several years at the Capitol — in this reported piece on the obstacles to achieving racial justice legislation in the North Star State, which boasts a high quality of life, but not for many Black Minnesotans. 

Finally, it was time for one of the most consequential elections in years. 

Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, meant to send an email to his GOP colleagues telling them during a House floor debate to focus on crime, because COVID-19 was not a winning issue for them. But the email mistakenly went to the Democrats instead. And then it wound up in my in-box

The weirdness of 2020 continued when Adam Weeks, the Legal Marijuana Now candidate for 2nd Congressional District, died in September, triggering a special election. That led to a legal battle, and the special election was called off. 

We were there at a momentous moment of the 2020 presidential election in Duluth, when President Donald Trump warned his followers that Joe Biden would turn Minnesota “into a refugee camp.” It was Trump’s last rally for awhile; he was infected with COVID-19 at the time.

President Donald Trump addresses supporters in Duluth at a campaign rally on Sep. 30, 2020. As it turned out, he was positive for COVID-19. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

We also reported on Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, who was just about the only local official in America who managed to say no to the Trump campaign and limit his rally in the southern Minnesota city to 250 people. 

When Minnesota GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan told a group of Republican activists they needed to get out and amplify the president’s debunked claims of voter fraud, we were on the conference call. That moment just a few days after the election wound up being a preview of the weeks to come, with Trump and his followers refusing to accept the results. 

The year ended on a sad note, with the passage of state Sen. Jerry Relph, a St. Cloud Republican who became the first Minnesota lawmaker to die of causes related to COVID-19. His daughter talked to us about her frustration with Senate Republicans, who held a party after the election, which is where she believed her father contracted the virus.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.