Immaculate in a dark suit on a drizzly Election Day, Rick Gunn, a Republican candidate for state senate in Alamance and Caswell counties, strolls up to the Fellowship Baptist Church polling station in Burlington. In one hand, he holds a Wachovia Bank blue-and-white umbrella; in the other, a bright-pink NCAA Final Four baseball hat. His wife, Gail, has been standing in the rain, distributing candy to voters from a Ziploc bag plastered with a "Gunn/NC Senate" bumper sticker, and her hair is soaked. As he hands his wife the hat—the umbrella remaining perched on his shoulder—he explains, "I tried to find something neutral."
Despite his jovial appearance Tuesday, and the kind words he had for voters of all political persuasions, Gunn's anti-immigration stance—his principle campaign issue—is scathing. He has appeared in a television ad with Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, in which the sheriff insists, "The issue is illegal aliens—they're hurting our economy and costing us jobs." In that ad, and in a campaign mailer, Gunn accuses his opponent, first-term Democrat Tony Foriest, of voting to "let convicted illegal aliens out of prison early."
In fact, in a 47-0 Senate vote, Foriest voted for SB 1955, which would expedite deportations of illegal immigrants by allowing their conditional release, from local prisons, into the custody and control of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"This has been a tough, hard-fought campaign," Gunn says of the ads, appearing conciliatory in the presence of a reporter. "We do control information, but we do have a lot of advice at the state level. We have to trust our state party leaders, and consultants, to do what's best."
Gunn lost to Foriest by a 52 percent-to-48 percent margin, according to the N.C. Board of Elections results Wednesday morning.
Foriest, in an earlier telephone interview with the Indy, agreed that Gunn's stance on immigration was part of a larger agenda by the Republican party to incite fear among voters. He faced the same anti-immigration language from Hugh Webster, a six-term state senator whom he defeated in 2006, and who is now running for U.S. Congress in the 13th District on an anti-immigration platform.
"[Gunn is] coming at me with the same kind of agenda, the same kind of passion, for inciting fear—suggesting, for example, that a vote for me is going to undermine efforts to thwart immigration," Foriest said. "It's a little bit frustrating, to think that people would buy into it, but this is America, and you take the good with the bad."
Immigration is in the spotlight in Alamance County, where Latino immigrants have flocked, reflected in the taquerias and Spanish-language signs in downtown Burlington. This summer, Marxavi Angel Martinez, a 23-year-old former honor student who arrived illegally from Mexico as a toddler, was arrested for forging documents—she is accused of working at a county library under a false Social Security number—after information she provided to her health-care provider may have been leaked to county officials.
Some speculated whether controversy surrounding Martinez's arrest led the U.S. Department of Justice to send elections observers to Alamance County—the only precinct in North Carolina where the feds sent observers, out of 59 jurisdictions nationwide. Yet the Department, and county officials, refused to provide details about the observers, saying it would impede their ability to do their job.
In an e-mail to the Indy, Department of Justice spokesman Scot Montrey wrote, "We wouldn't be sending people if we didn't have reason to believe there might be problems on election day." He pointed to Section 8 of the Voting Rights Act, which states in part, "Observers monitor the treatment inside the polls not only of blacks but also of Native Americans, Chinese Americans and Hispanics."
Yet Johnson, the sheriff who has campaigned with Gunn, told the Indy he saw no reason for elections observers to be in his county.
"We have never heard anything about voter intimidation since I've been sheriff," he said in a telephone interview. "I have no idea why the Department of Justice is wasting their time down here."
A recent Burlington Times-News article provides a clue: In 2004, Johnson requested a list of Hispanics registered to vote in Alamance County, and reported that out of 125 registered voters, 38 were registered illegally. The article notes that Department of Justice observers watched elections in Alamance in 2004 as well. Johnson denied the report, and told the Indy that he only investigated three voters. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the job of investigating voter fraud was the Board of Elections', not his.
"I'm sure there have been people registered illegally, but that will have to go through the Board of Elections," he said.
Gunn says that if his tough anti-immigration rhetoric led legal immigrants, and Latinos, to stay away from the polls, that would be "wrong."
Marty Rosenbluth, who has been monitoring election irregularities for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and Christian Stalberg, who is tracking the election for the Center for Community Alternatives, both said they had not heard of any voter intimidation in Alamance by 5 p.m. Tuesday. Paul Cox, North Carolina press secretary for the Obama campaign, said he had received no word by press time.
Meanwhile, former Sixth District Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Moser says she has never seen voter intimidation in Alamance County. While handing out flyers for the Democratic slate at the Fellowship Baptist Church, she said she has voted Democrat for president every election since Lyndon B. Johnson. (She said she "just missed" voting for John F. Kennedy, which she regretted.)
"I haven't had a winner in so long—I'm afraid to get excited," she said.
But she was excited about a candidate she saw on television at the 2004 Democratic National Convention—Barack Obama. She says she didn't think an African-American would be running for president in 2008.
"He's going to help our relations with other countries. It bothers me that we're hated by the rest of the world," she said of Obama. "He's a very intelligent man, and he knows how to talk to people. He's not above talking to people."
Meanwhile, at the Kernodle Senior Activities Center, where rain had picked up by late afternoon, Britz Brustmeyer had just cast a vote for Obama. She voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, but she was undecided this year. She says she decided to vote Obama in honor of her mother, an avid Obama supporter who died on Mother's Day and who could not have voted for him because of her residency status: She was an immigrant from Panama, where John McCain was born (a fact her father-in-law, a McCain supporter, often mentioned).
"She just wanted change, and someone who could fix the country," Bustmeyer said, admitting that her hands were shaking in the voting booth. "She had so much faith in that man—she was campaigning on her hospital bed."