Mayor Shari Cantor and Minority Leader Lee Gold issued a joint statement earlier in the week about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting all of the members took the opportunity to share their thoughts publicly.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Town Council meetings customarily begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, but rather than just engage in the routine and rote recitation Tuesday, Mayor Shari Cantor preceded the pledge with a heartfelt statement about the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week and highlighted the meaning behind the words.
“Like most Americans, I was heartbroken and disturbed to see a violent insurrection in the heart of American democracy,” Cantor said. “More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, it was sickening to see the Confederate flag and other symbols of hate carried through Congress by a violent occupying force. We are incredibly fortunate that no members of Congress were seriously hurt or killed, which was the clear intent of some of the insurrectionists. The American experiment has never been easy, and we have survived attacks from within before. I have no doubt that we will endure this difficult period, and I call on all residents of West Hartford to keep faith in our democratic institutions and commit themselves to peaceful constitutional governance.”
The words of the Pledge of the Allegiance seem “especially poignant and even more fragile tonight,” Cantor said.
“I pray for our Republic and the safety of our citizens. I prayfor the wisdom and patience to stand together as one nation, indivisible. The peaceful transition of power was a beacon to the world and now is a scarred part of our history,” said Cantor. She also called for a moment of silence for the country and to honor the police officers who were assaulted and died defending the U.S. Capitol.
The rest of the Town Council members were given the opportunity to speak during the announcements at the end of the meeting, and each shared their thoughts on what transpired as Congress was meeting Jan. 6 in joint session to certify the electoral votes and take the final step of completing the presidential election process.
In a joint statement released early Monday morning, Cantor and Minority Leader Lee Gold noted that “Words matter. They have real impact and consequences – especially when they come from people in positions of power and influence. And these words have shaken the very foundations of the Republic. It is our responsibility and duty to protect democracy by holding those that threaten it accountable for their words and actions.” They condemned President Donald Trump’s use of incendiary language “in an unseemly attempt to present an alternative reality and overturn a democratic election.”
Local residents, they said, have expressed their horror about the events in Washington, DC, but also shared social media content from members of the local community they found disturbing – including a comment made by Republican Council member Mary Fay which was highlighted in a Jan. 11 article in the Hartford Courant.
Fay had commented on a Facebook post by former Town Council member Joe Visconti, a Republican and outspoken supporter of President Trump, who posted Jan. 5 that he was at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally. “Beautiful place. Love it! Kick ass Joe,” Fay wrote. On Wednesday, Visconti attended the rally and was outside the U.S. Capitol while the violence was taking place inside, posting videos and photos to Facebook and Twitter, all of which have since been deleted. His Twitter profile, @JoeVisconti, is no longer active.
Gold said Tuesday that while we have been taught to study history and learn from it to avoid making the same mistakes, “we have lost our way.” This country is rooted in “truth, justice, civility, and respect,” he said, expressing his hopes that President-elect Joe Biden will lead with honor and dignity and that the healing can begin.
While he said he is concerned that a Council member has been vilified for exercising first amendment rights, elected officials are held to higher standards and have to make the right choices, Gold said.
The remainder of the Council members were also give the opportunity to speak, called on in alphabetical order during the virtual meeting, which was held on the Webex platform.
Democrat Carol Blanks said she was in disbelief as she watched the protest turn into a mob that stormed into the U.S. Capitol. She said she thought about how differently the Black Lives Matter protestors were treated over the summer, how law enforcement was brought out in advance, “and I thought why, for Black and brow people? In 2020?”
Blanks said she felt sick, angry, and disgusted, and also thought about how this would impact the children, the future. Disagreeing, and agreeing to disagree is okay, but by engaging in these activities, “we have arrived at a very new low and we all need to recognize and hold, not just each other, but everybody else accountable.”
“Words matter. Let me repeat that, words matter … listening matters,” Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff said. “Building trust, seeking common ground, fostering peace, promoting our democratic principles … respect for our fellow human beings. That’s what matters.”
The actions of Jan. 6 cannot be excused, Davidoff said. “I’m optimistic that with a new administration the healing can begin, people can reach out to each other, be there for each other and start to listen to each other … because words matter.”
Fay, who uses an image of the U.S. Capitol as her video backdrop during virtual meetings, and said it serves as inspiration, said she was shocked when she got home Wednesday and saw the violence. “To see that sacred place trampled on was shocking.”
Fay said even more troubling was that she ended up being a “lightning rod for this event” due a to the “silly, benign, unrelated” comment she made on Visconti’s post. “I’ve never felt as threatened and in harm’s way as I have since people barraged my Facebook, my Twitter, my email, my phones, and my texts.”
She said she did nothing wrong, she was not in DC, and she would not have planned to be in DC. “What happened last Thursday there are no words for. The incident at the Capitol is an unprecedented, historical, sad event.” Fay said that she is ashamed that town leaders, Cantor and Gold issued the joint statement, which she said became the subject of articles in the Courant articles and on Yahoo, with accusations that she had incited violence through her “benign comment” on a friend’s Facebook post days before.
“Now I am facing threats, imminent threats, and if anything happens to my family as a result of this, words matter, and we know who placed the words that went to We-Ha.com and the Hartford Courant,” Fay said. Fay said she has always had to justify herself, and now she has to justify herself to Cantor and Gold, and justify her integrity and honor.
“Yes words matter, and the words out of these two leaders matter greatly … and now they have the audacity to publicly shame me, shame me, and my safety and the safety of my family hangs in the balance.”
Fay said one thing that has been taught from this: “When we display hate we need to recognize the face in the mirror looking back at us.”
Before reading her statement, Democrat Beth Kerrigan apologized for the threats Fay has received.
“There is a saying that all politics are local,” Kerrigan said, and local politicians earn their seat when individuals cast legal votes. “We have to be able to differentiate between opinions, wants, and facts,” she said. “Facts are not lies … and sitting on the Council we can agree that the votes we cast are not lies.”
Kerrigan said questioning that process, and denying the facts, and putting it on Facebook is dangerous, because people see the posts of elected officials and jump on the bandwagon.
‘“I think we find ourselves in a very serious place right now,” Kerrigan, said, and really need to hold our elected officials accountable.
As people have been home during the pandemic they have spent more time communicating through social media, Democrat Liam Sweeney said. “When we sign up for this job we give away a lot of freedoms that we have as private individuals … to comment on social media,” he said, and have responsibility as elected officials to hold ourselves accountable.
People were looking for leadership, Sweeney said, and he commended Cantor and Gold for their statement and their leadership.
“I thought that the statement made in a bipartisan manner was very useful for healing,” Democrat Ben Wenograd said. As an example, he said, while he and Republican Chris Williams disagree on policy more often than not, there’s no hate. “That isn’t how it works nationally, unfortunately.”
Elected officials need to be very careful, even when hitting “like” on social media, said Wenograd. “But when we err, as we all do on social media and support something we shouldn’t support … and it happens to all of us, I believe the proper response is to take some personal responsibility.” He said it bothers him that it’s something that’s difficult for some people to do.
“What happened last week was horrific and needs to be condemned in the worst possible terms,” Republican Chris Williams said. He said that event was the culmination of what has been going on through the last year.
America is on fire, Williams said, and it’s going to get worse unless we stop.
“America is allowed to have stupid leaders – vote them out,” he said. You don’t silence people, you beat them peacefully, and the way people should operate is by honoring the vote.
Cantor said the statement was never intended to vilify. “I do not condone … any threatening or comments that are at all harmful to anyone’s family. We’ve all been criticized publicly and we’ve all had things written about us.” Many people submitted information about Fay’s comment and it was also shared publicly.
“People can disagree and they can be harsh about that disagreement because they should feel strongly. We are in a place in this country where we have not been and we hopefully will not be for long,” she said.
“The way for us to change it is for us to be responsible for the way we act,” Cantor said, and when we don’t agree we can speak up, but not by threatening or acting violently.
“We should believe in truth. We have a responsibility to be more factual and not to mislead people and, we’d better get to it,” Cantor said. “The point was that it’s the responsibility of the public to hold elected officials responsible for their words and their actions.”
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