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Monday, May 27, 2024

School board candidate’s dropout related to pro-Palestine post, Democratic infighting

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — One of the Democratic candidates for the New Hanover County School Board dropped out of the race over the weekend; more details have come to light why. 

READ MORE: NHCS to keep Mosley open, abandons newcomer school idea in wake of commissioner comments

Friday Cynthia Munoz told Port City Daily she was ending her campaign in response to PCD’s questionnaire, distributed to all primary candidates.

“I’m disappointed that I am ending my campaign for NHC School Board,” Munoz said. “I do think students deserve better and more diverse candidates, but the safety of my family has to come first. I will continue to support our community in every way possible.”

Munoz did not elaborate on what threats, if any, were made to her or her family. She then added: “Politics should be about the best ideas to represent our students and community, not a blood sport.” 

Though Munoz has dropped from the school board race, her late action means her name will still appear on the primary ballot along with Democratic candidates Judy Justice, Tim Merrick and Jerry Jones. Three seats are open and there are also five Republican candidates — Nikki M. Bascome, Kimberly McDuffie Murphy, David Perry, Aubrey Tuell, and Natosha Tew — vying for the seats.

If Munoz is elected, the Democratic Party will be tasked with choosing her replacement. New Hanover County Democratic Party Chair Jill Hopman said it did not have a particular person in mind, but it has a “strong bench of Democrats who would be willing to step up if needed.” 

PCD asked Munoz, a first-time candidate, if she could share more details on why she dropped out.

“All I can share is that I am not able to name the Candidate at this time because of continued safety concerns for myself, but especially my daughter,” Munoz wrote in an email.

Sources close to the matter told Port City Daily Munoz’s dropout is the result of attacks from supporters of Justice, based on a pro-Palestinian Facebook post Munoz made last year.

The post obtained by Port City Daily shows Munoz at a Nov. 19 ILM for Peace in Palestine rally held in front of Thalian Hall. Her post reads: “Excellent turnout today! Let’s keep it up Wilmington!” followed by the hashtags #ceasefirenow, #freepalestine, #ilm, #propalestine and #fromtherivertotheseapalestinewillbefree.

It’s the last hashtag that has triggered outrage or concern from several members of the New Hanover County Democratic Party and supporters. The phrase “from the river to the sea” is up for different interpretations, especially for those in the majority-Jewish Israel and majority-Islamic Palestine. For years, the two have been embroiled in political and military battles over land, which includes Jerusalem, a holy city for Muslims, Jews and Christians. 

The most recent conflict started on Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas militants from Gaza, one of two Palestinian territories, invaded Israel, took over a hundred people hostage, and murdered 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials. 

Israel, with its more sophisticated weaponry and with the United State’s financial backing, has laid siege, mostly through its hundreds of bombings, to Gaza since. The country’s stated goal is to destroy Hamas, though that has come with thousands of civilian deaths. 

The Gazan health ministry reports 25,105 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, while another 62,681 have been wounded. The Health Ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its figures but reports around two-thirds of the Gazans killed were women and children.

As reported by NBC, Israeli military officials said at least 220 soldiers have been killed during the ground invasion of Gaza.” 

Though the phrase “from the river to the sea” is not novel to the current war, its use is more inflammatory in the wake of the Hamas attacks. Many Palestinian activists say it’s a call for peace and equality after 75 years of Israeli statehood and military rule over Palestine. 

For many Jews and supporters of Israel, it’s a call for persecution and elimination of Jews from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea. 

However, some Israelis have used similar terminology; the original platform of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling party Likud asserted: “between the river and sea there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”

According to sources, Judy Justice’s supporters, mainly former North Carolina congressional candidate Steve Miller, have taken offense to Munoz’s use of the phrase. Munoz has apologized for the post, saying it was not her intent to spread hate, according to inside sources. She declined to comment to PCD regarding the situation.

“How would you look at me on my Facebook page, saying that I like the KKK?” Miller rhetorically asked PCD by comparison.

Miller — who made an in-kind contribution to Justice’s campaign and unofficially counsels her — admitted to showing the post and Munoz’s Facebook “like” of the ILM for Peace in Palestine to Democratic Party leaders and supporters to dissuade them from working with her. 

Miller told PCD on Tuesday he made four or five phone calls to Jewish Democratic Party members, such as precinct chair Steven Hamburger and former House candidate Amy Block DeLoach. He suggested they take those things into consideration at the ballot box. 

PCD obtained a Dec. 30 text message chain from Miller to Hopman; Miller criticized Hopman on the Democratic Party’s inclusion of Munoz.

“Having this woman on the school board, in my opinion, would be not only a slap in the face to the Jewish community, but a catastrophe,” Miller wrote to Hopman in a text. “Have I made myself clear enough? Your judgment on this particular situation is beyond abysmal. Anyone supporting terrorists I can’t possibly find my way to support.”

He said Tuesday he stands by those beliefs, still.

Miller also vowed in the text to triple his support for Justice: “I will be letting every Jewish friend I know here in New Hanover County about this woman’s position.”

Justice said she learned of Miller’s crusade in late December and instructed him to stop immediately. Miller characterized it as a mutual agreement to drop the criticism of Munoz after he was confronted in a restaurant by Munoz’s unofficial campaign manager Marla Barthen.

Justice and Miller said the conversation over Munoz stopped after that point. 

Other sources told PCD it did not, and Munoz and her daughter have received multiple threats. Only one was detailed to PCD: The incident occurred in a grocery store, when a woman accused Munoz of supporting Hamas and told the candidate to go back to her own country (of Mexican descent, Munoz was born in California). Previous to the Palestine post being sent to party members, sources say Munoz’s daughter received calls trying to reach her at school.

The threats to Munoz could not be verified by PCD. 

Both Justice and Miller said they did not make threats, nor direct anyone to make threats to Munoz on their behalf. They also questioned the validity of Munoz’s claims; Miller said he thought it was an excuse to remove herself from the race due to a lack of preparedness. 

Hopman, in a statement provided to PCD on Monday, addressed the party’s role in assembling candidates.

“We do have to better prepare our candidates for office and how difficult it is to run, how intense and demoralizing it can be to run for office and get elected,” Hopman said. “We are all on the same team and working towards the same goals and should remember that.”

The concern over her family’s safety is what ultimately led to Munoz’s decision to end her campaign. According to several sources, Munoz sent out text messages to members of the Democratic Party notifying them of her withdrawal and accusing Justice of spreading a false narrative.

In a statement provided to PCD on Monday, Justice said she had nothing to do with any purported attacks on Munoz.

“I am saddened and shocked that Ms. Munoz has publicly stated via text to many people in the Democratic Party ‘that the false narrative that was started by Judy put my family’s and especially my daughter’s safety at great risk,’” Justice said.

Justice accused Munoz of defamation and said claims that she led a smear campaign are “totally untrue.”

“She has absolutely no proof I did anything even remotely to harm her daughter, herself, her family or her campaign,” Justice said. “What I do know is that she angered a number of the Jewish population in the community with a Facebook posting from November on her page that was perceived to be anti-semitic.”  

“I never accused anyone of being antisemitic,” Miller clarified to PCD. “I just said [Munoz] supports these organizations. People can draw their own conclusions.” 

Justice said the post was brought to her attention by a supporter “after he and a number of people in the Jewish community had already confronted [Munoz] with the post.” Justice did not name the supporter, though Miller told PCD Tuesday he has never met the former candidate. 

“That is the only involvement I have had concerning the controversy,” Justice said. “Again, it is sad and shocking that she feels the need to defame me when it is she who is responsible for her actions for her Facebook post and the resulting reaction of our active and well respected Jewish community.”

In a statement to PCD Tuesday, Munoz backtracked on blaming Justice. 

“To my knowledge, the false narrative came from within the candidate’s campaign team,” Munoz said. “My only concern now is regaining my family’s safety.” 

Hopman provided another statement Tuesday as well, explaining the unfolding events were between Justice and Munoz wasn’t a party or political dispute.

“It is a disappointing conflict between two candidates,” she said. “The New Hanover County Democratic Party has seen this film before, and we didn’t like the ending. It is called 2022. We won’t watch it again. We have far more important goals than refereeing, in private or in public, personal narratives between any two candidates. They do not speak for our party as a whole. The NHCDP is only focused on electing strong and diverse Democrats to office and making the county a better place to live. We have looming budget cuts in our schools, a potential toll tax on our bridge, an affordable housing crisis in our city, and much bigger problems to resolve than this.”


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