The four-member Guilford County Board of Elections had a split decision along party lines at their Tuesday, April 10 meeting on the question of whether Steve Buccini – the only Democratic candidate in the North Carolina House of Representatives District 59 race – would be allowed to remain on the ballot.
Buccini’s claim to residency in that district had been challenged, and, due to the 2-2 deadlock, the case will now move to the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement, which presumably will decide it.
Buccini was one of three candidates in Guilford County who had their residency status challenged in the 2018 election. At the April 10 meeting, the elections board also heard residency challenges against Senate District 27 candidate Michael Garrett, the Democrat running against incumbent state Sen. Trudy Wade in November, and state Rep. Jon Hardister, who’s seeking reelection to the District 59 seat Buccini also wants to win. Those two cases moved faster than Buccini’s and, in the case of both Garrett and Hardister, the board found unanimously that they had established residency in their districts by the end of the candidate filing period, Feb. 28, and were therefore qualified to run for the offices they sought.
However, when it came to Buccini’s residency hearing – the last hearing of the nearly five-hour meeting – the elections board had a lot of questions and, in the end, was split down the middle. Republican board members Kathryn Lindley and Eugene Lester voted for a motion to uphold the challenge, while Democrats Anthony Spearman and Jim Kimel, the board’s chairman, voted against the motion that Lindley made.
At the start of the meeting, Kimel explained the procedures to be followed that afternoon and he pointed out an interesting aspect of North Carolina’s election law: Unlike defendants in a criminal trial, when a candidate faces a residency challenge, he or she has the burden of proof. The candidates must demonstrate that they do live where they claim and that they were living there by the applicable deadline. Only by doing so are they eligible to run for the seat.
Kimel said the candidates had to show residency by “a preponderance of the evidence.”
Ken Jacobs, the town administrator of Whitsett, filed the challenge against Buccini last month. Jacobs wrote in that statement that his observations, as well as a report by a private investigator, convinced him Buccini did not reside at 7100 Gusenbury Road in Whitsett at the time he filed to run, on Thursday, Feb. 15. Nor did Buccini, Jacobs claimed, live there by the last day of the filing period, Feb. 28, the residency deadline Buccini had to meet to qualify to run for the District 59 race.
At the hearing, Jacobs explained why he filed the challenge.
“I based it on the fact that I didn’t believe he lived in the house,” Jacobs stated.
Jacobs said he’d read in the newspaper that Buccini had filed to run, but, as someone who knew that area and its people well, that claim raised questions in his mind.
“I’m fairly familiar with the town of Whitsett, and I didn’t recognize the name,” Jacobs told the elections board.
He added that he decided to make frequent trips to the house and he had found no evidence of anyone living there.
“I saw nothing, no activity,” he testified.
Jacobs, who’s been the Whitsett town administrator for about two years, said that then, in a discussion with Hardister, he became aware of a private investigator’s report. The North Carolina House Republican Caucus had hired Scott Investigative Group of Greensboro to stake out the house on Gusenbury over the last week in February. The investigator wrote in her report that the residence didn’t appear to be occupied.
Jacobs said that, at one point, there was a dark colored SUV parked at the house when he went by, but other than that there was no evidence that anyone lived there.
“There was never any lights on,” he said.
Sandra Russell, the private investigator who had camped outside the house much of that week, presented testimony that mirrored Jacobs’.
“The house did appear to be vacant,” she told the board, adding that some of her trips there were made very late at night and early in the morning.
At one point, she said, she knocked on the door but there was no answer.
“The house had no furniture in it from what I could see,” she said.
The board viewed numerous photos she’d taken with her iPhone through the window. They showed what appeared to be a largely empty house that lacked the usual signs of habitation. She said there was a bottle of Pine-Sol in the sink, but not much else to see.
She also testified that there was a real estate agent-type lockbox on the garage door and mail overflowing from the mailbox.
On several occasions, she said, she went to a house in Greensboro owned by Buccini’s parents – one not in North Carolina House District 59 – and saw a red Toyota Corolla parked there with a license plate registered to Steve Buccini.
Buccini, who was represented by Greensboro Attorney Don Vaughan, had several witnesses testify on his behalf and he testified as well. All witnesses were sworn in first.
Buccini earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and worked as an intern at Apple. He was a California resident for about five years before returning to North Carolina in October of last year. At that time, he moved back in with his parents in Greensboro and lived there until moving to the Gusenbury house in Whitsett where he says he now resides.
Robert Buccini, Steve’s father, testified that Steve had moved out of the Greensboro house in February.
Vaughan asked the father where his son had moved.
“Well, ostensibly, to what we call the Gusenbury house,” his father stated. “I have never seen the house. I have not been there.”
Vaughan asked: “As far as you know, to your knowledge, he moved to that particular place – is that correct?”
The father said to the best of his knowledge that was the case. He said he didn’t know the exact date, but it was around Feb. 22, and he added that his son had no intention of moving back into the house in Greensboro.
There was also something of a surprise witness at the hearing: Steve Powell, who said he was Buccini’s roommate at the Gusenbury house, testified that he lived at the house as well.
Vaughan told the board that Powell needed to testify at the start of the hearing so he could get on the road.
“He said he drove four hours to get here,” Vaughan said of the roommate, a comment that caused some heads to turn because Whitsett is only 15 or 20 minutes away. The roommate later explained he was a field geologist and he had work out of state he needed to get back to.
Powell said he moved in to the house Feb. 14 and Buccini moved his bed there on Feb. 22.
“Our schedules don’t always match up,” Powell said, adding that from that point on there he saw an “increasing progression” of clothes being moved in as well as dishes, a laptop computer and an Instapot.
Buccini then testified on his own behalf, largely by responding to questions from Vaughan.
“I consider my moving date to be on the 22nd, because that was when I started sleeping there,” he said, adding that there was a transition period in which he was still moving some items from his parents’ house.
He said he was renting the property for $800 but there was no written lease. He said his landlord is a family friend.
“He’s sort of a touchy-feely kind of guy in that he knows me and he trusts me so there’s no formal lease agreement,” he said.
Buccini produced copies of two checks both dated Feb. 28 – one for the February rent and one for the March rent.
Buccini also presented a candidate’s survey and a voter registration card that he received in the mail at that address.
He also showed the board a note from his landlord who was in Seattle on the day of the hearing. The landlord’s letter stated that he had read information in a Rhino Times article regarding a preliminary hearing held on April 3 and he countered several claims that Jacobs had made against Buccini at the hearing. For instance, he said, Jacobs may not have seen the trash cans put out on trash day because Republic Waste had changed pickup times and Buccini had been provided the wrong pickup dates.
The landlord’s letter stated that he gave the keys to the house to Buccini in January.
At the hearing, Kimel asked Buccini if he intended to move back in with his parents in the future.
“God no,” Buccini exclaimed, a comment that drew some laughs from the board members and the two dozen or so audience members in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House.
After the testimony, Kimel said that, in his opinion, Buccini had demonstrated his residency claim at the house in Whitsett. Kimel said that, once Buccini returned from California, he stayed with his parents and then moved to the new residence in February and he clearly had no intent to return to his parent’s house.
Lester spoke next.
“I do think that Mr. Buccini is credible,” he said, adding that in his opinion Buccini had sufficiently established his claim to residency there as well as demonstrated his intent to continue living in the district he was running in.
While it sounded like Lester was in agreement with Kimel, things then took a dramatic turn that virtually no one in the room saw coming.
“I have a concern I’d like to share with the board,” Lester said. “I believe the testimony was that he had been in California for four or five years and had returned to North Carolina for approximately four or five months prior to establishing residency at Gusenbury.”
Lester, an attorney, said that in a court ruling – North Carolina v. Covington – federal judges had waived a one-year residency requirement for running in races in redrawn districts. In a prior election, Buccini would have had to live in the district for at least one year to run, but Lester said that provision was abrogated by the federal court with respect to the district.
“But the question,” he added, “is if the federal court intended to abrogate the North Carolina Constitution with respect to residency in North Carolina. That is my concern.”
Lester said he was inclined to uphold the residency challenge, not because Buccini isn’t credible in his claim of living at the house in Whitsett – but because allowing that candidacy was inconsistent with the Constitution of North Carolina that he took an oath to uphold when he joined the Elections Board in March.
After Lester spoke, Lindley concurred.
“I appreciate that, because that was exactly the point that I was going to make,” she said.
She said that the federal court ruling stated that the candidates didn’t have to live in a redrawn district for a year to run for office from that district, but she added that that didn’t change the fact that a candidate had to live in the state for a year.
“I don’t think that that meant that you don’t have to live here in North Carolina for one year,” Lindley said. “He lived in California until Oct. 23 of 2017. So I do not believe that there is any way I can support that person being named as a candidate.”
In addition, Lindley questioned if Buccini really lived at the Gusenbury address in time to run for the seat.
“I’m not sure he did prior to filing,” she said.
A motion fails on a tie vote and the board could therefore neither dismiss the challenge or affirm its legitimacy. The Guilford County Elections Board must present a written ruling within 20 days and, once that’s done, the state’s elections board – which last year was combined with the state’s ethics oversight board – is expected to take up the matter. That board has four Republicans, four Democrats and one member who isn’t affiliated with either of those parties.
In the other two cases heard at the April 10 meeting, the board dismissed the challenges but not without some questions. Garrett, seeking the District 27 Senate seat, testified that he, his fiancé and his 4-month-old son had moved in with his parents to a house 8003 Willow Glen Trail in Greensboro and had moved out of a house at 2605 W. Market St. in Greensboro, not located in District 27. The house on Willow Glen Trail is owned by Garrett’s mother, Guilford County Board of Education member Darlene Garrett.
Michael Garrett had a letter from the next door neighbor that stated he, Garrett, lived at the house on Willow Glen Trail and had moved there prior to Feb. 28. A real estate agent also testified that she’d been working on selling his other house.
Garrett said he left the previous residence on the Feb. 23 and moved in with his parents in the district where he was running.
“Did your wife and child move in with you at your house?” one board member asked.
“Yes” Garrett said, clarifying later in the meeting that it was his fiancé.
By far the most cut and dried case was that of Hardister, who brought binders of evidence that he had lived at 6427 Bellcross Trail in Whitsett since late last year.
Hardister had a signed lease that began on Nov. 1, 2017, an affidavit from his next door neighbor and one from his property manager. He also had written testimony that he had been interviewed at the house by a News 2 reporter last year. He had copies of paid power and gas bills, as well as Spectrum cable bills.
Hardister had an Instagram photo of snow outside the house’s window that he posted on Dec. 8, 2017 with a geomarker that said Whitsett, NC. About two dozen pieces of evidence were presented to the board before Kimel started hinting that they may have seen enough.
One attorney in the room not connected with either side said after the hearing that if the horse wasn’t dead by exhibit four or five, it most certainly was by exhibit 25.
Hardister and his attorneys also presented the board with the bill from movers as well as evidence of his payment of that bill for $931.43 cents.
“Do you normally pay bills that you wouldn’t need to pay,” his attorney asked Hardister.
“No,” Hardister replied.
“You wouldn’t pay a mover just for the thrill of it?” he asked.
Hardister said he would not.
Guilford County Democratic Party Chair Nicole Quick filed the challenge against Hardister. When, after Hardister’s testimony, Quick was asked if she wanted to make any statement, said she was going to let the affidavit she filed “speak for itself.”
After the meeting, when asked if the hearing convinced her of Hardister’s residency on Bellcross Trail, Quick said, “He did have a lot of evidence.”