As a 23-year-old Latino man who is the son of a Panamanian immigrant, Nick Gallardo expected some resistance when he announced his candidacy for mayor of Siler City, a rural town of 8,159 people in North Carolina’s central Piedmont region.
But he was caught off guard by the level of vicious hatred that escalated as the primary election season progressed: more than 100 text messages, including his photo with a noose drawn around his neck and an image of a mock lynching, and crudely sexual text messages and at least one pornographic image. Beyond digital harassment, Gallardo, his mother and friends have been tailed in their vehicles.
“To be honest with you, through the county, there were some issues that have happened,” Gallardo told Raw Story. “I wouldn’t think I would be directly attacked because of my ethnicity and sexuality; I have a girlfriend. I don’t understand why someone would draw a noose around my neck. It’s upsetting for me, but it also affects my family.”
Siler City sits at the western end of Chatham County. Although Chatham is trending Democratic due to the growth of the Raleigh suburbs in the east, the western part of the county remains more rural and conservative. Underpinning its current political divisions, Chatham County has struggled with historical and ongoing racial tension. In 1885, a white mob lynched a Black couple, Jerry Finch and Harriet Finch, and in 1921, a white mob kidnapped a 16-year-old Black boy named Eugene Daniel who was accused of standing in a white girl’s bedroom. After dragging him out of the jail, members of the mob hanged Daniel with a chain and fatally shot him, with the collusion of the county sheriff.
The county removed a Confederate monument that stood in front of the historic courthouse in 2019. Public deliberation over the monument drew dozens of neo-Confederate activists who erected Confederate flags across the street from a middle school named for George Moses Horton, a formerly enslaved person who was the first Black man to publish a book in the South. Tensions between the neo-Confederates and antiracist counter-protesters resulted in repeated clashes in the county seat of Pittsboro in late 2019 and early 2020.
More recently, a parent disclosed that white students at a middle school in Chatham County held a mock slave auction.
While grappling with a history of Jim Crow racial oppression and current tensions between its urban and rural constituencies, Chatham County has at the same time been transformed in recent decades by rapid growth in its Hispanic population, driven in part by jobs at meat processing plants in and around Siler City, including Mountaire Farms.
If Gallardo wins his race, he will become the state’s first Latino mayor and the youngest Latino mayor in the country.
Hispanics make up 46 percent of Siler City’s population, with non-Hispanic whites accounting for 26.2 percent and non-Hispanic Blacks comprising 19.9 percent, according to the latest Census numbers. Almost half of the town’s residents speak a language other than English at home, and more than a quarter are fluent in Spanish.
“There’s never been any Hispanic representation in this area,” Gallardo said. “For the majority to be treated as if they’re the minority needs to be addressed. That’s why I’m running.”
As part of a “Unity” slate, Gallardo and allied candidates seeking positions on the town board who have embraced a shared platform calling for racial equity, a plan to recruit and retain bilingual town employees, hiring a Spanish-language access coordinator, participatory budgeting, and developing resources to help orient new residents to local institutions.
“They’re a very diverse group — African-American, Hispanic, white, but it seems like they’ve been getting racial slurs and homophobic slurs,” said Kristen Picot.
Picot is the executive director of StartUp Siler, a major initiative of CJGRPINC Foundation Inc. that helps early-stage entrepreneurs in Siler City "reach their idea's potential." Two of Picot’s brothers are also part of the “Unity” slate.
“Even at my job, I have had someone come in and call me the C-word,” Picot said. “My boss has been called an ‘uppity’ N-word. It’s the old patriarchy and racism that runs thick. It’s been escalating.”
Since the beginning of the campaign, candidates on the “Unity” slate, along with their families and associates have been subjected to harassment, including being followed in their vehicles and targeted in person.
Gallardo said one time someone followed him and threw coffee at his car. About a month ago, Picot said someone tailed her while she was driving home.
A couple of weeks ago, Gallardo said, his mother came to visit and have dinner in Siler City. When she was driving back to her home in another county, Gallardo said, his mother told him a car tailed her, and even when she slowed down to 30 mph on a highway with a 65-mph speed limit, the other car stayed behind her.
A couple of days later, Gallardo said he received a text from an anonymous sender asking, “Who’s this lady coming into town,” while identifying the color and make of her car.
“I can take that on; I know some people aren’t going to like me,” Gallardo said. “When it comes to family members being put in danger, that’s not okay.”
Gallardo said over the course of the campaign he has received more than 100 text messages from different senders, although he assumes they’re part of the same group.
When Gallardo received the endorsement of Albert Reddick, an African-American pastor who is running for Chatham County Board of Commissioners, the text messages escalated sharply.
On May 8, someone using a phone with a 984 area code sent Gallardo a string of violent and degrading texts and images. One depicts an effigy in blackface hanging from a noose next to a white Klan robe draped over a wireframe.
The text underneath the photo uses a derogatory term for Black people to describe a person the sender says is “behind” Gallardo” — an apparent reference to Reddick — adding, “I hope y’all get AIDS and die.”
The sender also texted Gallardo a photo pulled from Reddick’s campaign website that mocked the African-American candidate using another racial slur for wearing a mask during the COVID pandemic.
The same string of texts also includes a screengrab from Gallardo’s website with a noose drawn around his neck and a penis drawn next to his mouth, accompanied by the text, “That’s what you like huh.”
The violent and homophobic content of the message assumes the sexual orientation of Gallardo, who has a girlfriend.
Gallardo received a string of texts from the same sender that include crude interrogations about members of the “Unity” slate, including, “Or is your whole Unity ticket one big fag orgy!”
The threats are culminating as North Carolina voters go to the polls for the final day of early voting on Saturday before May 17, which is North Carolina's primary and also the delayed municipal election for Siler City.
Picot said she shared the texts with Reddick so that he could be apprised of his safety. Reddick, in turn, reported the threats to Siler City police Chief Mike Wagner on Thursday. He said the chief assured him the matter is being investigated.
Picot said the police called her on the same day and confirmed they had received Reddick’s complaint. But, as of Friday, Gallardo said the police have not reached out to him.
“I haven’t received a phone call about the police report,” he said. “I don’t know what to think.”
He added that he didn’t report the threats himself because he didn’t believe it would make any difference.
“It’s something that really bothered me,” Gallardo said. “I don’t want to say I felt hopeless. I felt like nothing was going to be done.”
Despite his doubt that the harassers will be held accountable, Gallardo said the threats haven’t dampened his confidence in his ability to connect with voters in Siler City. He said he’s knocked on voters’ doors every day of early voting.
“Not everybody is going to vote for me,” he said. “The majority of the people are very accepting. We have issues with clean water and flooding — so many issues. It doesn’t matter who’s coming to the door, Hispanic or not, they love that…. This county can do great things, I truly believe that.”
Mixed with his desire to promote economic progress, Gallardo acknowledged a sobering awareness of the deep racial division that troubles Chatham County.
“All of us have gotten some harassment, but I have experienced quite a bit, I think it’s fair to say,” Gallardo said. “How much worse does it get than putting a noose around your neck? It feels like we haven’t progressed since the fifties or the sixties.”