We've seen birtherism in national campaigns — the practice of questioning a candidate’s qualifications for office by raising doubts about where they were born, or their citizenship. Then-citizen Donald Trump famously raised questions about Barack Obama's qualifications for the White House. As president, Trump is amplifying unfounded rumors about vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris.
But now birtherism has appeared at the local level. Olympia correspondent Austin Jenkins spoke to KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco about a story he reported about a candidate in Thurston County defending herself against a birther attack.
Listen to the full conversation above, or read a transcript of it below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.
Ed Ronco, KNKX: The candidate facing these attacks this time is Carolina Mejia. Who is she and what office is she seeking?
Austin Jenkins, Olympia correspondent: She's a candidate for the Thurston County Commission. She's a millennial candidate, a first-time candidate, a Democrat, and she's an immigrant, which is something that she's very vocal about, very proud of, and talks a lot about on this campaign.
KNKX: So along comes John Pettit. Who is he?
Jenkins: John Pettit is a local landowner, a lifelong resident of Thurston County. He's the guy who shows up to almost every county commission meeting and uses those three precious minutes that they give each person who shows up to testify. He's very involved in county politics, pays a lot of attention. His dad was a county commissioner back in the late 70s. He himself ran as an independent for county commission back in 2016 and lost.
KNKX: And what did he do here? What's raising concern?
Jenkins: So what he did here is after Carolina Mejia won her primary race … he sent a letter to the county canvasing board challenging her eligibility to show up on the November ballot. And specifically, what he was questioning is whether she is a U.S. citizen.
(Audio clip) John Pettit: I don't look at this as being a “going after Carolina Mejia.” I look at this as wanting to have accountability in our system.
KNKX: But, of course, Carolina Mejia is a U.S. citizen. So what's her response to this?
Jenkins: Right. She is a citizen. She naturalized five years ago in 2015, on Oct. 22. So her response was, first off, she said, a fear came over her and a sense of dread and a desire to prove that she's a citizen. She gathered up her Social Security card and her naturalization certificate, she scanned them, and proactively sent them to the county auditor who sits on the canvasing board. She also, in many ways, was feeling like this was her worst fear come true. In the back of her mind, she had thought that because she is vocal about being an immigrant, the fact that she's involved in immigrant rights efforts, that this might come up in the race.
(Audio clip) Carolina Mejia: I think your brain just starts thinking through what do I really feel? Is this humiliating? Are you angry? Are you upset?
Jenkins: So it was that sense of “I need to do something to respond to this and I can't believe this is happening. But I also feared it might.”
KNKX: Birther attacks are regarded as a form of racism. Is this the first time we've seen a birther attack in a local race?
Jenkins: To my knowledge, it's certainly the first time we've seen something like this in a local race, certainly here in Thurston County. And to see something like this emerge at a local level really does seem like something that's quite new and perhaps unprecedented.
KNKX: You know, you mentioned Mejia getting together documents to prove in advance to the canvasing board that she is a citizen. This has to be really unnerving for her.
Jenkins: Well, it is, also because John Pettit conducted a background check on her and got at least part of her Social Security number as part of that. Separately, somebody messaged her on Facebook, somebody she didn't know, and produced her entire Social Security number along with her birth date. And in both cases, the person messaging her on Facebook and Pettit were questioning the validity of her Social Security number, because of the number it starts with is a little bit unusual. It's a valid number, according to the Social Security Administration, but they were questioning her on this.
So, she's feeling like now she's potentially in an identity theft situation. She was having to notify the credit report agencies. She had to file a report with the Olympia Police Department. Mind you, she's trying to run a campaign while this is going on, and she's getting late-night messages saying “We have your Social Security number. We don't think it's valid. And you need to prove to our lawyer that that it's legit.”
KNKX: Now, we know she's not fighting this alone. Some pretty prominent people have spoken up for.
Jenkins: They have. She's she kind of felt like she was under siege. They reached out to supporters, community leaders here in Thurston County. Eventually, this reached the state Democratic Party, and there was actually a news conference. Congressman Danny Heck declared birtherism has arrived in Thurston County.
(Audio clip) U.S. Rep. Denny Heck: And really now the only question is, how far is this going to go? We saw it with President Obama. We saw it with Sen. Harris. And now we're seeing it with Carolina. This is obviously something that would never happen to me or anybody that looks like me, a white male.
Jenkins: And they really went on the offensive and said that this is wrong, it's unacceptable and it needs to stop.
KNKX: This is not her opponent doing this. This is not a campaign tactic. It's a private citizen. And at one point, he used the courts to do it.
Jenkins: That's right. So first (Pettit) was trying to get the canvasing board to take action. He was also separately communicating directly with Carolina Mejia, encouraging her to drop out of the race and then threatening that if she didn't, he would take her to court, which he, in fact, did.
He filed a petition with the court saying that he didn't believe that she was qualified to be on the ballot. There was a court hearing. The judge heard both sides ruled that his petition was factually insufficient and said that he wasn't going to put Carolina Mejia in a position of having to prove her citizenship to either he the judge or to John Pettit. So case dismissed.
KNKX: There are plenty of examples on the national level of people spouting unfounded claims. We often hear the president, for example, say, well, “some people tell me” or “I've heard that...” and then amplifying a rumor that has no evidence behind it. And one of the criticisms I think journalists always get is people saying, “Oh, if only they'd stop reporting on it, if only they'd stop giving them attention for these weird claims.” Why not ignore something like this?
Jenkins: A few reasons. One is that we are in a climate of misinformation and disinformation, and it can be very powerful and very damaging. It's a little like dropping a pebble in a lake and there's a ripple effect, so identifying and highlighting and showing the anatomy of how this works, and how just raising the question or putting it out there can have that ripple effect. It's also important to note the Carolina Mejia wanted to tell her story because she believes that something like this has a chilling effect on people like herself — from marginalized communities, people of color, immigrants — who might want to run for office in the future.
(Audio clip) Carolina Mejia: People of color have just such a fear of running for office anyways. And there are people who worked with my campaign who are also women of color, who are immigrants, and this affected them seeing this. I saw that fear in their eyes and in their voice, you know, basically of just thinking “maybe this is not … I don't want to confront this. This is probably not for me.”
Jenkins: And what Carolina says is that when this happened, she realized that she not only had to be a candidate and that she had to ... take steps to protect her personal identity. But then she also suddenly had to sort of pave the road for other women of color, immigrants like her, who might want to run in the future. She felt this added burden on her shoulders to show people who might come behind her that, yes, this kind of thing may happen, but you will have support. It's not a reason to sit out an election. So she really is having to take on an added burden and role during this campaign because of what happened to her.