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Candidate stirs reaction because of his presence at Asheville protests

Raphael Morales filed paperwork to run for the Hendersonville City Council. Raphael Morales filed paperwork to run for the Hendersonville City Council.

Raphael Morales strikes a serious tone when he talks about his desire to serve on the Hendersonville City Council.

“Two reasons tie for first place,” he says when asked why he is running. “First off, to inspire civic engagement. The last election we had a 18.49 percent voter turnout. If I can inspire communities that feel disenfranchised to participate in this process, then that’s a win. And the second equal part would be to act as a platform for voices that are disenfranchised and to offer people a chance to feel like they’re heard.”
Morales’ presence on the ballot could heighten interest in the often somnolent city race because of his controversial background. Besides Morales, only Debbie Roundtree, who ran for the City Council in 2017 and 2019 for a Board of Commissioners seat last year, has filed a statement signaling her intention to run, declaring that she is running for mayor.
Born in Miami, Morales, 31, moved with his dad to Hendersonville in 2006 and graduated from East Henderson High School in 2008.

Around 2019, he had won a modicum of celebrity as lead singer and the primary songwriter for Strange Avenues, a popular local band that had more than 75,000 Facebook followers before it broke up. In a BPR public radio interview, he described his songs as “very personal” stories of “addiction, depression, kind of like co-dependence and fear of yourself and alcoholism.”
His biggest challenge in an election campaign could be explaining a misdemeanor conviction for tearing down an artist’s painting at Asheville Regional Airport and an arrest for failing to disperse during the downtown Asheville riot sparked by the death of George Floyd last May. The painting was by Jonas Gerard, an artist of some acclaim who died last Sept. 25 at age 79.
“Jonas Gerard was an abuser in Asheville — according to the courts he was an alleged abuser,” Morales says of civil cases employees had brought. The airport had displayed one of Gerard’s pieces in a prominent place in the terminal.
“For me I didn’t think that was acceptable,” he says. “I consider that to be a form of violence, as someone who was a survivor of his assault” could be confronted by the piece and “reminded of his presence.”
So he tore it down?
“I did. I removed it,” he says. When the airport rehung it, he tore it down again. “And it did not go up a third time.” He’s unapologetic, even now. “If you support platforming him, please don’t vote for me.”
A judge sentenced him to five years probation and ordered him to pay $29,000 in restitution. He refuses to pay, racking up, he acknowledges, regular probation violations.
Last May, Morales went to the protest over the death of George Floyd.
“I was there,” he says. “I was helping deliver a lot of supplies that were dropped off.”
After being badly affected by teargas police set off, he says, he walked to the Asheville police department parking lot, knelt on the ground and tried to flush his eyes with a water bottle.
“I thought, if anywhere, this is where there would be no conflict,” he says. Police officers, he says, struck him on the back of his neck, zip-tied his wrists and hauled him into a paddy wagon, where “I was forgotten for about 3½ hours. It was a pretty traumatic experience.”
Police charged him with failure to disperse upon command, a misdemeanor count that is pending. “I was in a pretty non-threatening position,” he says. “I was literally on my knees in a parking lot.”
Morales’ presence at the May rally and another incident on Sept. 23 that conservative activists claim he was involved in has led to his portrayal as a violent antifa activist. Chad Nesbitt, the president of Skyline News, was assaulted by a group of masked protesters, the online site reported. There’s no proof that Morales was one of the men who shoved, beat and kicked Nesbitt, who was hospitalized after the attack for a head injury and has lingering health problems. Morales calls the story “categorically false.”
“There’s an image going around of someone wearing a black mask and it’s going side by side comparing it to my face,” he says. “But that’s not me. I even showed my mom. I started getting death threats. I feel like it’s so uncalled for for a municipal election.
“I was in Atlanta when that happened,” he adds, working on a construction job building a Candlewood Suites. “I was not even in North Carolina when that happened. … My ex-roommate who was in Asheville knows that I was in Atlanta working. My family knows that I was in Atlanta.”
Nesbitt, who was chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party in 2010, doesn’t buy Morales’ denial.
“I think he has no business running for office,” he says. “I don’t think anybody in Hendersonville is going to vote a criminal. He’s on probation currently. … and he’s a known antifa member. He runs around with this violent, anarchist crowd.”
Told that Morales asserts he was out of state last Sept. 23, Nesbitt says, “I disagree. I’d like to see proof of that. I’ve got a video and picture is what I have. Certainly looks like him. He has very distinctive features around his eyes that you just can’t miss and I have two sources that corroborate each other and say he was there. …
“I think it’s a disgrace that you’ve got someone like that running for office up there in Hendersonville,” he adds, “and I think the people in Hendersonville are wise enough to know not to put an anarchist in office.”
Is Morales an antifa member?
“Absolutely not,” he says. “I’m registered as a Democrat but I have reservations with any political party. I don’t align with anything. I do have a moral compass and I’m not supportive of violence. Anybody that knows me personally knows that I wouldn’t attack somebody. I’m not a member of antifa, I’m not violent, I don’t affiliate or associate myself with the organization across the board. I don’t condone violence or support it.”
Henderson County Elections Director Karen Hebb says her office received numerous questions about Morales’s eligibility to run for the City Council when he filed his campaign statement. He could run even if he has misdemeanor convictions, she says. Any challenges to his candidacy would come during qualifying, which would be in July if elections are not postponed.

Responding to questions about city issues, Morales demonstrates a working knowledge of recent City Council actions on new downtown hotels, a possible new fire station and new development in general.
“As for hotels, I never want to come across as someone who comes across as interested in stifling commercial growth,” he says. “I totally support commercial growth. I just feel like a lot of people need to be in the room where those decisions happen.”
As a City Council member, he says, he would work to bring more people into the room.
“At the end of the day, really, truthfully, all we’re seeing is a lot of people that feel like they’re being left behind,” he said. “And that’s all that I’m trying to do, is to speak to those voices and to listen to those voices and to have hard conversations.”