Durham County

Durham County elections board rejects challenge to candidate’s U.S. citizenship

The Durham County Board of Elections has rejected a protest filed by a failed candidate in last week’s Durham municipal primary that questioned another candidate’s U.S. citizenship status.

The protest form filed by Victoria Peterson two days after the primary said incumbent Javiera Caballero has publicly spoken of being an immigrant from Chile but not said or provided documents showing she is a U.S. citizen.

Caballero became the city’s first Latina on the Durham City Council when she was appointed two years ago to finish now-Mayor Steve Schewel’s unexpired council term.

Running on a joint Bull City Together platform with fellow incumbents Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece, Caballero finished third in Tuesday’s race for three at-large council seats. The top six finishers in the 10-person field now advance to the Nov. 5 general election.

Peterson finished seventh.

Her protest asked that Caballero’s name be removed from the ballot and that the votes be recounted.

In an email Sunday, Elections Director Derek Bowens said the Board of Elections, which met Friday evening, unanimously rejected the protest for lack of probable cause.

Peterson did not provide any facts or evidence “suggesting that Ms. Caballero is still a citizen of Chile or any other country besides the United Sates,” according to the findings signed by board Chairman Philip Lehman.

‘Baseless accusations’

In a joint statement, Caballero, Johnson and Reece called the protest “reckless” and a “fact-free distraction.”

“This is not the first time during the course of this election that our three campaigns have been subjected to baseless accusations,” they wrote.

”We have always chosen to focus our attention in this campaign on the issues that matter to the people of the city of Durham,” they continued. “While this allegation is hurtful and harmful, it is also an opportunity for Durham to recommit to inclusivity and our belief that Durham is for everyone. Since launching our campaigns, we’ve used the slogan ‘we’re all in this together,’ and we encourage all residents of Durham to champion this idea and to help us build a city that values, welcomes, and supports all our diverse communities..”

Caballero told The Herald-Sun in 2017 that her family moved to the United States when her father was in graduate school and that she became a U.S. citizen at age 14.

Sunday’s joint statement repeated that Caballero is a citizen and also a registered voter who has lawfully voted in Durham since 2010.

“Javiera has faced these sorts of baseless claims about her citizenship throughout this election, and it’s time for our community to speak with one voice to say that enough is enough,” Reece said in the statement. “Durham must be a city that works for everyone, and that must include our immigrant neighbors.”

Johnson, the city’s mayor pro tempore, said Caballero and many other immigrants have had to endure suspicion throughout their lives.

“An immigrant perspective on the council is a benefit to our entire city, and Javiera’s capacity to engage the Spanish-speaking community has helped us all to be more inclusive and improve our practice of language justice,” Johnson said. “This city belongs to all of our residents, no matter where they were born.”

Johnson, Reece and Caballero were the top three vote-getters Tuesday, followed by Joshua Gunn, former council member Jackie Wagstaff and Daniel Meier.

In a public Facebook post Sunday, Caballero said it had been “a rough few days.”

“Although this allegation is ridiculous, it would be a lie to say that there hasn’t been an emotional cost,” she wrote. “ I will continue to affirm that Durham is a city for everyone, and I will continue to defend and work for ALL Durham residents.”

Victoria Peterson

Peterson to appeal

Protests may be filed by candidates or voters over alleged irregularities or misconduct, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections.

A county elections board conducts an initial review and if it finds probable cause, or “the possibility of a protest’s truthfulness,” it holds a hearing with testimony and other evidence. Local board decisions can be appealed to the state board of elections and from there to the Superior Court.

Peterson said she will appeal.

She said she filed the protest after several people raised the issue with her and said she had not discussed it personally with Caballero, though both attended Friday’s Board of Elections meeting.

“It takes years to become a citizen of the United States,” Peterson said. “It’s not just done automatically.”

On Sunday night, City Council members Vernetta Alston and Mark-Anthony Middleton took to their Facebook pages to condemn Peterson’s protest.

“Xenophobic rhetoric threatens individuals, institutions, and the founding principles of our democracy,” Alston wrote.

“Racist and xenophobic,” Middleton wrote, calling on Peterson to apologize..

“This repulsive campaign to ‘otherize’ Councilor Caballero is no different than asking Barack Obama to produce a birth certificate,” Middleton added, referring to so-called “birther” conspiracies that falsely asserted President Obama was not born in the United States.

But Peterson said her protest was not about Caballero heritage.

“This has nothing to do with a person’s race or ethnicity,” she said. “This has to do with our constitution. You have to be a U.S. citizen or a naturalized citizen to run for public office. ... If she has all that I’m fine with it.”

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Mark Schultz is the deputy metro editor for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He has been an editor, reporter and photographer in North Carolina for 30 years.