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Marco Perez during an online forum hosted by the Times Free Press and WRCB

A Hamilton County Board of Education candidate says criticism of his Costa Rican heritage by local conservatives is an "unfair distraction" from the heated campaign after a series of posts questioned his citizenship and called him a socialist.

In an opinion posting on the Chattanoogan website, recurring conservative opinion writer April Eidson suggested District 2 candidate Marco Perez, who was born in Costa Rica, move back there because of his political beliefs.

"I wonder why Mr. Perez does not move to Costa Rica if socialism is so great," Eidson wrote. "Could it be the schools, medical care and food access are far superior in the greatest nation in the world, called the United States of America?"

After the comment in the Chattanoogan, the Chattanooga Tea Party made a series of Facebook posts including an advertisement questioning Perez's citizenship and insinuating he is a socialist.

In one post, the party linked to the Chattanoogan article and included an image of Perez edited over a Socialist Workers Party flag with the caption "Importing socialism one child at a time."

The group followed that post with a poll, which has since been removed, asking "Should Hamilton County Elected Officials and Hamilton County School Board Officials be US Natural Born Citizens to represent our local community." In a comment, the Tea Party's account said it had contacted INS (the former Immigration and Naturalization Services) to "confirm Mr Perez immigration status."

The group also took out an advertisement on Facebook which read "Importing Socialism: Transplant Costa Rican Democrat Marco Perez is running for school board in District 2," and linked back to its Facebook page, according to a screenshot of the ad obtained by the Times Free Press.

Perez, who does not identify as a socialist and who is running in a non-partisan local election, says the comments are just a distraction from the actual issues at hand.

"I am running for our students, for education, for improving our schools and continuing the improvement that we've made. To me, this kind of attack has no place in our discussion about education," Perez told the Times Free Press on Sunday. "It's an unfair distraction from the election and the things that actually matter."

Additionally, Perez says that while he was born in Costa Rica to a Costa Rican father, his mother was an American citizen, making him a citizen since birth.

"I have every right to run as a candidate. I am an American citizen and have been my whole life. So there's no excuse and no reason to to attack me on that basis," Perez said. "And I also represent the diversity that's in our community, which is a reality that we should embrace about the diversity that's in our schools."

Perez's opponent, Tom Decosimo, said that he had no part in the posts or Facebook ad and declined to comment on their content Saturday.

Eidson did not return a request for comment over the weekend.

A representative for the Tea Party said the group had "no further comment" on the matter.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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