Both sides allege partisan politics at City Council meeting
By Guy Page
July 13, 2020 – The Montpelier City Council Wednesday, July 8 unanimously rejected a proposal by Republican gubernatorial candidate John Klar of Brookfield to paint “Liberty and Justice for All” on State Street next to the “Black Lives Matter” street mural.
Unlike its June 12 approval of “Black Lives Matter,” the City’s rejection of “Liberty and Justice for All” received spotty coverage from instate media. But Fox & Friends, the nation’s most highly rated morning news/talk television show, interviewed Klar Sunday. The story was covered by the Daily Wire, a national conservative news service founded by activist Ben Shapiro. Vermont-based Twitter news site News Done Right on July 1 sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the city council, requesting all information about their deliberations leading to their June 12 decision. After threatening yesterday to report Council tardiness to the Vermont Attorney General, News Done Right received a response yesterday evening, publisher Bradford Broyles reported.
For Klar (who is white) and GOP House candidates Alice Flanders (who is black) and Ericka Redic (a white woman married to a black man), painting the final five words of the Pledge of Allegiance next to Black Lives Matter celebrates American constitutional equality and right to life under the law. For the all-white City Council – including several with strong past affiliations with the Vermont Democratic Party – the addition merely distracts and diminishes the BLM message. And Mayor Anne Watson said she doesn’t like the idea of people driving over even a painted representation of Old Glory.
Flanders of Hartford and Redic of Burlington are among 30 candidates for state office associated with the Klar campaign. An introduction of new candidates will be held 11 am Thursday, July 16 on the Vermont State House lawn. At least one other Klar-affiliated candidate, Levar Cole of Williamstown, is black.
“You can go ahead and preferentially approve of black lives matter, and then turn your back on liberty and justice for all, but history will judge,” said Flanders, an African-American. “I want you to stand and support, Conor [Councilor Conor Casey, who had criticized Klar and his plan in the press.] I want you to say, ‘allright, John, I’m sorry I jumped a gun. Liberty and justice for all, of course. Lliberty and justice for all.’ Vermonters can all rally behind that. I want to stand with you, I want you to stand with me.”
Klar and others have said it seems unfair to allow the message of one group while rejecting another. Mayor Watson said the city is under no First Amendment obligation to honor Klar’s request. “Courts typically consider these displays to be government speech. The US Supreme Court has explained that when government speaks, it is not barred by the free speech clause from determining the content of what it says,” she said. “That freedom in part reflects the fact that it is the Democratic electoral process that first and foremost provides a check on government speech.”
In other words: government speech is accountable to the voters. It’s up to them to check or change government speech.
The same power that gives the Council the right to deny also gives the power to grant, Klar said. “As an attorney who worked in free speech law for years I would just point out that I would rather not have litigation on the matter. Whatever you’ve just read from your attorneys, you clearly do have the power also to grant this,” he said. “I would hope that this counsel would not be out to undermine our free speech argument but to embrace our free speech argument especially when what’s in the balance is something as highly visible as the U.S. flag and the Pledge of Allegiance and our police.”
One Montpelier resident – herself a former Democratic party official – called Klar’s proposal nothing but politics.
“I hope that we’re all going to stop suspending disbelief, pretend that this is anything for Mr. Klar other than a political move,” said Maggie Lenz of Montpelier, a lobbyist and former Finance Director the Vermont Democratic Party. “I think it’s clear to all of us that’s what this is. This is a struggling campaign that’s trying to get attention.“
Another former Democratic politician twice called Klar’s request “disingenous,” which the dictionary defines as “not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.” Connor Kennedy of Montpelier, an unsuccessful 2016 Democratic candidate for the state senate from Windsor County, said “I think it would be a terrible disservice to try to literally bracket the message of black lives matter with this other message. It just seems so incredibly disingenuous in this time.”
Having impugned Klar’s personal integrity, Kennedy warned him to expect more of the same: “I hope you are ready for it, it does not stop, you have to stand by your proposals.”
Flanders agreed that timing and politics are playing a role – but not in the way Kennedy and Lenz meant. “Isn’t it just convenient that it [Black Lives Matters] comes up at the time of elections more than other times,” Flanders said. In fact, a Google analytics study by political science Ph.D. candidate Tyler-Joseph Ballard of Poultney shows a spike in BLM-related web activity during 2016 and 2020, with relatively little traffic in between.
For Redic, the cause of national racial reconciliation isn’t political – it’s personal. It’s family.
“The reason that my husband and I support this this mural proposal is because we are in an interracial couple, we are in an interracial marriage, and so we’ve had these conversations about racial reconciliation and what that looks like, and what’s been required for many many years,” Redic said. “And so we’re very glad that the black lives matter movement has highlighted areas where black people have legitimate grievances against certain systems, certain cities, certain people.
“While this country has not always lived up to its founding ideals, it has with successive generation done better and better and better,” Redic said. The United States is the story of progressive sanctification. This is the greatest country on Earth. And while we are not perfect, we are always looking to get better. And I love that. What concerns me is that the BLM messaging is very divisive, and so in many ways missing the point of moving this country forward. Lliberty and justice for all is not a response to the BLM, it’s not in addition to, it’s not trying to cover up, it is an affirmation that this country is created for everyone and that everyone has equal rights, equal justice under the law.”
After the general public had had its say, the City Councilors themselves commented. Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party from 2015-2018, batted leadoff:
“I’m not against the concept of liberty and justice for all. I think it’s a great aspirational statement but right now it’s a farce in America. Yeah, maybe something to aspire to, but until we can recognize that black lives matter I don’t think liberty and justice for all is alive and well in America.” To Klar he said, “I read some of your commentary pieces, and you know I find them offensive. Commentary pieces about reverse racism where you talk about black culture is rife with anti white references and themes, and this has been tolerated presumably because of white guilt.”
When City Councilor Jack McCullough was appointed to the post in 2017, the Times Argus wrote that “residents said privately that the appointment of McCullough was an effort to build a strong presence on the council because of McCullough’s lengthy service as a top Democratic Party official in Montpelier and Washington County.” He noted that he flies the American flag at his home. He agrees Montpelier is under no free speech obligation to submit to Klar’s proposal, he said. He added, “I oppose the message. I do not believe that it is complementary to the black lives matter message. I do not believe it’s intended to be complementary to the black lives matter message. I also oppose the request.”
Ditto, said Councilor Dan Richardson. “The First Amendment protects an open forum, but it doesn’t protect government speech….If we pass a resolution painting hockey sticks on the street, we don’t have to pass a resolution painting basketballs on the street because the basketball fans deserve equal representation for the basketball team.”
Councilor Lauren Hierl is Executive Director of the Vermont Conservation Voters, which publishes a legislative scorecard in which most Republicans get low scores while Democrats and Progressives routinely get high marks. She said she hasn’t heard from a single city resident supporting the Klar proposal but has heard from many opponents. “I think at this moment in our nation’s history, the path and striving for liberty and justice for all demands that we affirm that black lives matter. I believe we don’t need to approve this. I strongly oppose it.” Two other councilors, Donna Bate and Jay Ericson, also gave prompt approval, making the decision unanimous.
I’m very uncomfortable with printing an American flag on the ground,” Mayor Watson said. “I know it’s not a cloth flag but nonetheless with the U.S. flag code not allowing the flag to touch the ground it just really rubs me the wrong way. This is a practice of some other countries – they might print the flag of their enemy on the ground and then have their army march over it. I do not want to have our flag printed on the ground.”
This morning, Klar was asked by Vermont Daily if he plans to pursue the matter further:
“I’m weighing my options, considering allies and legal resources. I have sued the State of Connecticut, the United States Post Office, and numerous large banks and corporations. I’m not going to back down from such a flagrant violation of Free Speech rights.
“In fact, the Council was so outspoken in their condemnation of my effort, importing their subjective judgments into the process as well as my extraneous writings, that they created the perfect record to present to a Court for review. This record shows they scoured my writings to parse out details that THEY feel justified their own prejudices — might this be government stifling my free speech as well? I am not paid anything for my writing, but I am to be stigmatized and attacked by public officials in the course of their duties for my opinions?
“Really, the fact that more people are not disturbed by this Council’s outrageous (white) conduct is proof that Vermonters need to be “woke” to their Constitution.”
Vermont gubernatorial candidate John Klar appears on “Fox & Friends” Sunday, July 11. Photo credit Fox & Friends