As residents of one of southern Wake County’s fastest-growing towns prepare for a local election, one candidate is concerned about rhetoric they say is intended to divide the town.
Holly Springs, home to over 41,000 residents, has nine candidates running for three open, at-large seats on the Town Council.
For the first time, a non-binary person, Jack Turnwald, is running for election. Turnwald uses they/them pronouns and also identifies as a transgender person.
Turnwald, a former educator, has become a target of the Wake County Republican Party, which singled them out in an invitation sent to some Holly Springs residents in August.
The letter states, “this is the first time that there is a nonbinary running for town council in Holly Springs. This concerns me because the town’s politics and policies will be about advancing the ideologies of a small minority.”
In newsletters sent to voters from the Wake GOP, the party accuses the Wake County Democrats of focusing their support on Turnwald because they “represent the policies and agenda” the Democrats want “in every municipality.”
Oksana Sharapova, the Holly Springs area chair of the Wake GOP, wrote the letter inviting voters to an event on Aug. 30 to show support for three candidates endorsed by the Republican Party on the ballot: Brian Norman, Brian Dennis and incumbent Danielle Hewetson.
“The town as we know and love can change drastically if Democrats gain control of our town council,” the letter stated. “Small businesses will suffer with the passing of the Non-Discrimination Ordinance. Instead of family-friendly festivals and activities, our town will have drag queen events and pride parades, and these types of events occur all throughout the year as the democrats try to normalize sexuality and pedophilia to our children.”
The Holly Springs municipal election is non-partisan even though candidates have received endorsements from both of the major political parties.
Sharapova also suggests that if Democrats are elected to the Town Council, affordable housing developments will increase crime and decrease property values and that the Holly Springs Police Department will “be soft on crime” if it hires officers based on “skin color and sexual orientation.”
Turnwald was not sent the invitation but received a copy from a colleague. The letter “says the quiet part out loud,” Turnwald said. They are registered as a Democrat and have been endorsed by the Wake County Democratic Party.
“The implication there is that when someone who belongs to any minority group gets elected to office, they’re only going to serve people like them,” Turnwald said. “That’s a really unfortunate assumption.”
Turnwald’s campaign slogan, “They for all of Them,” captures the candidate’s goals for running for the Town Council. As an advocate for the town, Turnwald said they would serve everyone if elected, even people who disagree with them.
“All of us live in a town where we share needs, and those needs should be things that we should be able to talk about, but instead, people are wanting to turn this into a culture wars issue,” Turnwald said. “It’s not a culture wars issue for me. It’s my humanity, and I get to exist just as anyone else in the world does.”
‘A non-partisan board’
The Holly Springs Town Council consists of five elected officials under the leadership of Mayor Sean Mayefskie, who was elected in 2021.
Running for the two, four-year, at-large seats this year are Turnwald, Chris Deshazor, Staci Almquist, Brian Dennis and Hewetson, who was appointed to the council last year.
For one unexpired seat, there are four candidates, including Anne Dees, Chris Green, Travis Groo and Brian Norman.
There are three endorsed Democrats, three endorsed Republicans, one Libertarian, one unaffiliated, and one unendorsed candidate.
In June, Mayefskie was criticized for drafting a proclamation to celebrate Pride Month that never mentioned the LGBTQ+ community.
Residents also protested the town’s decisions not to declare June as Pride Month in previous years and not to adopt the Wake County non-discrimination ordinance, which would have expanded protections in the town for marginalized people and small businesses.
In an emailed statement, Mayefeskie told The News & Observer on Tuesday afternoon that “we are a non-partisan board, and the content of this invitation does not reflect the views of the Holly Springs Town Council.” The mayor did not say if he attended the Aug. 30 event.
‘Running on hate and fear’
In a statement, Wake County Democratic Party Chairperson Kevyn Creech said the party’s endorsed candidates “are focused on issues facing all citizens in Wake County: equitable affordable housing, sustainable infrastructure, responsible development, clean drinking water, public safety, and inclusion.”
“On the other hand, the Wake County Republican Party’s endorsed candidates in Holly Springs appear to be running on hate and fear rather than running on issues that actually affect all residents each day,” Creech said.
Creech said the Wake Democrats are “confident” that Holly Springs residents “will reject the Wake GOP’s message of intolerance and self-interest and embrace the message of sound governance.”
Sharapova has not yet responded to questions that The N&O sent her Tuesday afternoon.
In a newsletter sent by the Wake GOP, the group suggested that Holly Springs was the target of “extreme left national” PACs.
Turnwald was cited for receiving endorsements from Equality NC and the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund. Turnwald said the groups have not donated money to their campaign.
“I want to serve my community and also with what I see happening at the state level, people like me, we are fighting for our own survival as well,” said Turnwald, who lives in Holly Springs with their wife and two children. “People can try to make it a partisan thing, but to me, it’s always going to come back to basic humanity.”
Recently, Turnwald said they have taken extra safety measures when campaigning, fearing the rhetoric and allegations in the letter that they are connected to pedophilia could incite violence against them.
“It hearkens back to things like post-Reconstruction. The implication that a certain kind of person being elected is going to make everything go to hell in a hand basket is wild,” Turnwald said. “This comes back to the question, is this where we are still? Is this really where we are still?”
Election Day is Nov. 7 for Holly Springs voters. Early voting begins Oct. 19 and runs through Nov. 4.