The Aug. 12 events in Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s failure to condemn hate groups may have occurred far from Westchester, but it sparked questions last week about the responsibility local officials have in speaking out.
Reaction among elected officials in the county ranged from swift and decisive, to muted to non-existent following the Unite the Right rally and ensuing riots involving white supremacists, Nazis and KKK members with counter-protestors. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed after being deliberately run down by a car during the mayhem.
Last Wednesday, while taking questions during a press conference on his veto of the Immigrant Protection Act, County Executive Rob Astorino was the most forceful of any local Republican when he criticized Trump’s statements from the day before. The president refused to call out the and said there were “people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
“I don’t think the president’s comments were helpful, I think the racism, the KKK, the Nazis, they’re the worst of the worst in America and they shouldn’t be tolerated,” said Astorino, who backed Trump in last year’s presidential race.
“And so, I hope those who committed these crimes are swiftly arrested and my heart goes out to the girl who was killed, and we should remember her, as well. There’s no place for that in Westchester or anywhere in the United States. It’s despicable. When you are that hateful we shouldn’t give them any grievance.”
In a follow up on Friday, an Astorino spokesman in response to further inquiry from The Examiner, said in a statement the county executive’s administration has worked hard to bridge divides throughout the county.
“There is no equivocation when it comes to racism. Period,” Astorino’s statement read in part. “What (Trump) should be focusing on is where his strengths are, and that is on jobs and the economy, but he needs to get better at articulating a clear message that inspires people to come together and heal.”
While at first heavily criticizing Astorino, Board of Legislators Chairman Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers) said he appreciated his comments; however, they should have been made earlier and more forcefully.
“Every town, every community in this country is potentially an eyeblink away from being on the front lines of this issue,” Kaplowitz said. “I think all people should stand up and be counted.”
Calls placed last week to state Sen. Terrence Murphy (R-Yorktown), who also supported Trump last fall, and Board of Legislators Minority Leader John Testa (R-Peekskill) for comment on the controversy were not returned.
Assemblyman Kevin Byrne (R-Mahopac) issued a more tempered response.
“The bigotry and violence we have seen this past week in Charlottesville has no place in the United States of America, and moving forward I will remain committed to fighting racism and hate in all its forms here in the Empire State,” Byrne said in a statement.
Pace University Professor David Caputo said it’s understandable how local elected officials, particularly Republicans, are in a difficult position even at a local level. Their words could incur the wrath of the administration, which could pull much-needed federal money for a project, cause campaign donations to dry up or trigger a primary.
Local Republicans may have also been waiting for the party’s national leaders to be more decisive, he said. By late last week, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker made resounding comments against Trump.
“What it comes down to is individuals, an individual’s feeling about what the moral choices are here rather than the political choices and what we have seen on the part of many are the political choices instead of the moral choices,” Caputo said.
Darren Rigger, a Democratic strategist and a former Peekskill councilman, said even before the national debate following Charlottesville, many moderate Republicans have been strategizing to run with or run as Democrats, especially in Westchester.
New Castle Supervisor Robert Greenstein, a registered Democrat who is running for the third time this year on the Republican line, said local elected officials “absolutely” have a responsibility to speak out, but have a priority of addressing issues closer to home. Sometimes, though, larger issues like the issue of the gun show at the County Center does affect local communities.
“I am a local elected official,” said Greenstein, who issued a statement on Aug. 13. “There are certainly some things that happen outside the border that impacts New Castle but I try to keep the focus on New Castle.”