North Carolina once again is in the national news, though this time it’s not because of House Bill 2, hurricane flooding or protests at the capital.
One of the state’s old capitals – Hillsborough – has become the capital of the latest political firestorm with questions swirling about who firebombed the Orange County GOP office and left an intimidating message on a nearby wall.
The news ignited a tweet storm Sunday.
Republican candidates, who had been forced last week to respond to the sexual assault accusations against Donald Trump, at the head of their ticket, quickly pushed a new political story line onto the national stage.
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Gov. McCrory held a news conference late Monday afternoon at the burned-out office and took a few questions from the several dozen journalists gathered, a group that included national news crews and one Norwegian reporter.
“This is not an act of vandalism,” McCrory said. “It’s an assault on our democracy.”
During a live interview on Fox News before fielding questions from other news crews, McCrory said he did not think the incident “was taken as seriously as it should have been at first.”
“The last thing we need is more of this type of violence and intimidation as it relates to the political process, not just in North Carolina but in the United States of America,” McCrory said “At a time when our state is working together so well to try to recover from this terrible hurricane that’s impacted us… to come back near our state capital and see a broken window from a Molotov cocktail is unimaginable and it’s uncalled for and there are no excuses for it whatsoever. ... There is no motive that justifies this type of violent act.”
Democrats decried the incident as well, with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket tweeting that the attack was “horrific and unacceptable.”
Several Democrats and unaffiliated voters set up a GoFundMe account that within 40 minutes of its launch online Sunday night met and surpassed its goal of collecting $10,000 to help the Orange County Republicans rebuild their headquarters. They stopped taking donations at $13,107.
“Until an investigation is undertaken, we cannot know who did this or why,” the GoFundMe site creators said. “No matter the result, this is not how Americans resolve their differences. We talk, we argue, sometimes we march, and most of all we vote. We do not resort to violence by individuals or by mobs. So, let’s all pitch in, no matter what your party affiliation, and get that office open again quickly.”
The incident was reported to Orange County emergency dispatchers at 8:54 a.m. Sunday by a woman who owns a business in the building opposite GOP headquarters.
“Someone has firebombed through the window of the Republican Party next to me and sprayed all over the side of my building, ‘Nazi Republicans leave town or else,’ ” said the caller, whose name has not been released by Hillsborough officials.
The buildings, which are in the Daniel Boone shopping center on the south side of town near the intersection of Interstate 85 and Old N.C. 86, sit high on a hill in a remote part of the complex.
The woman told emergency dispatchers she could smell smoke but did not want to look inside the GOP office to see if the fire was still burning.
“They threw some sort of firebomb through the window because it smoked up under the porch and all around the window frame,” she said. “I can smell smoke, so obviously it went out on its own or didn’t work well, but it is some sort of incendiary device.”
Though the woman did not see anyone in the area when she was on the phone with 911 dispatchers, she noted that cats she feeds, “or fosters,” as she said, were milling around so she did not think anyone was nearby.
Hillsborough police are working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the State Bureau of Investigation.
“I’m appreciative of our law enforcement expertise and cooperation across agencies to uncover who is behind this reprehensible act,” Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens said. “Especially given the national attention we are receiving, I’m extremely appreciative for everybody who is using this as an opportunity to pull our community together, rather than promote division.”
Hillsborough, with a population of about 6,400, is the seat of a county that houses the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. About 17,000 voters in the county are registered Republican, about 52,400 are registered Democrat, and about 39,000 are unaffiliated, according to the county board of elections.
Volunteers were busy putting campaign information together Monday under the canopy outside the blackened shell of the county Republican headquarters. Inside, a few salvaged mementos – a photo of former N.C. Sen. Jesse Helms, an unnamed soldier and a President George W. Bush bobblehead doll – were on a small, damaged table.
The firebombing didn’t destroy their spirits, said Orange County GOP vice chairwoman Evelyn Poole-Kober. The party isn’t going anywhere, she said.
They started the day finding a couple of tables that weren’t melted and powering the phones with an electrical cable attached to her car battery, she said. By afternoon, they were putting sample ballots in plastic covers and wiping soot from laminated door-hangers that list this year’s Republican candidates.
The local party doesn’t have any paid staff, relying instead on about 30 volunteers, Poole-Kober said.
“The place was filled Saturday with people coming out to put up signs together and go out and knock on doors,” she said. “Everything we’re doing today is either cleaning up our literature for the election or redoing what was done Saturday.”
A new campaign office will open in about a week in a vacant space a few doors down. But they will need donations of “everything,” from office supplies to computers, desks and couches, she said. Updates are being posted to the Orange County Republican Party website – www.orangencgop.org – along with a link for monetary donations, she said.
In Carrboro on Sunday, representatives from an Orange County Democrats office called police to ask for extra patrols. Volunteers closed that office early after finding “death to capitalism” written on the front of the Main Street building.
“It really just rattles your nerves,” said Matt Hughes, chairman of the Orange County Democrats.
Hughes also was upset by what happened in Hillsborough, about 10 miles to the north. “It is kind of unsettling, particularly if you work in a political office late at night,” he said.
Hughes and others said they thought the political discourse had become so coarsened and politics so divisive that volunteers sometimes feared for their safety. “Words matter,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Hughes, a Clinton supporter, compared her tweet on the incident to one from Trump’s account.
“Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems in North Carolina just firebombed our office in Orange County because we are winning @NCGOP,” stated a @realDonaldTrump tweet posted at 6:29 p.m. Sunday.
The Norwegian reporter asked McCrory about a photo shared on Twitter by a Milwaukee County sheriff and Trump supporter that included “It is pitchfork and torches time in America.”
“The worst I’ve seen is people tearing down each other’s signs, or using the middle finger when someone has the wrong bumper sticker,” McCrory said. “We’ve had sadly a lot of disrespect in the political process for a long time: The individual who interrupts President Obama’s speech, to frankly people saying some pretty obscene things to me outside the governor’s gate, and being recorded, and everyone says, ‘That’s just politics.’ That’s not politics. It’s disrespect. But violence takes it to a whole other level and is totally uncalled for.”
How to help
Anyone with information about the crime is asked to contact Hillsborough Investigator Jon Purvis by email or by phone at 919-732-9381, ext. 37. Information also may be left anonymously through the town’s website or by calling the Hillsborough Police Department’s tip line at 919-732-3975. The phone line is routed directly to voicemail and does not record callers’ phone numbers.