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A Democrat incumbent Gaston County Superior Court judge running for re-election was caught on camera appearing to remove a campaign sign belonging to the chairman of the Gaston County Republican Party.
The YouTube video shows Superior Court Judge Jesse Caldwell IV allegedly taking a sign belonging to Jonathan Fletcher on Oct. 29. The sign read "Jesse Caldwell IV Is a Proud Democrat." It was located outside the Gaston County Board of Elections.
Caldwell is facing Republican challenger Justin Davis, an attorney and Gaston County school board member.
Fletcher had placed several of the signs on Oct. 28 at early voting locations across Gaston County, including two at the Gaston County Board of Elections.
On Oct. 31, Philip Thomas, chief counsel for the North Carolina Republican Party, sent Caldwell a cease-and-desist letter via email.
The letter said that on Oct. 29, "You were captured on camera removing and carrying away one of the signs belonging to Mr. Fletcher without his permission. As the video and screenshots show, you clearly intended to deprive Mr. Fletcher of his property as you placed his sign in the trunk of a car and returned to electioneering in the parking lot."
The letter further states, "Your intent is also clear because, as you are aware, Mr. Fletcher attempted to discuss this matter with you later that day, and you refused to return his property to him. As you know, when Mr. Fletcher asked you to return his property, he told you that if you returned his sign that he did not intend to pursue any further action against you. In response, you stated, 'I'd love to see the magistrate that brought those charges.'"
Thomas also says the sign's content is not false or misleading as the words are Caldwell's own, as he stated in an interview with the Gaston Gazette on Mar. 24, "I am proudly running as a Democrat."
The letter ends, stating that if the sign isn't returned to Fletcher, the Gaston County Republican Party and NCGOP will pursue further action.
In a phone interview with Carolina Journal, Caldwell said that he never received such a letter via email or regular mail, but he was aware that one was sent to him.
When asked if he took the sign, he repeatedly didn't answer the question but admitted to seeing it and saying it was taken down. The local Gaston Gazette reports that Caldwell did admit to taking the sign,
"At the time, when we saw it, it was unclear as to who, in fact, owned the sign and put it out, and that includes my people, but what I can tell you is when it was discovered, located where it was, it was immediately clear that it was unsanctioned campaign material," Caldwell said. "Certainly, I did not authorize unauthorized campaign material, and it certainly did not meet the legal definition of a political sign which protects and allows for the political sign that advocates for any political action to be placed at a polling precinct while voting is going on. You can't just put up anything you want at voting precincts and then claim it's campaign material."
Caldwell said North Carolina has particular rules and regulations about political signs and referred to N.C. Gen. Statute § 136-32.
When a portion of the letter was read to Caldwell, that said, "Mr. Fletcher was careful to follow N.C. Gen. Stat. § 136-32, which regulates the placement of political signs and placed the signs after having confirmed their legality with the Director of Elections for the Gaston County Board of Elections," Caldwell said that while he spoke to Fletcher on Oct. 29, he doesn't recall what was said.
"I did talk to Mr. Fletcher on Saturday," he said. "I don't even remember what he said. I don't put a lot of stock into what he says, and this is through my dealings with him. He has not demonstrated to me a high degree of integrity, so his word is mud with me. The sign was removed. The ownership was unclear. He didn't put his name on it, and it looks just like the rest of my campaign signs, which goes to show that this is dirty tricks all over again, and I'm not going to have my campaign get in trouble for a violation."
He said that when or if he gets the letter, he will read and respond accordingly. Caldwell was appointed to the bench in June 2021 by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to complete his father's term because the older Caldwell reached the state's mandatory retirement age of 72.
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