You gotta give it to my home state. In Connecticut, there’s never a dull moment in an election year. First the governor’s race descends into an argument over which candidate has the most bathrooms in his home. Then one of those candidates, Steve Obsitnik, releases a pair of campaign TV spots that are so horrendous and ill-conceived that they essentially serve as attack ads on himself.
Now we have a selectwoman in Haddam who has stolen a tactic right out of the NFL playbook. In deciding to “take a knee” before board of selectmen meetings, Melissa Schlag, who is not running for anything this year, has succeeded in jettisoning herself from anonymity to infamy in the span of only a couple of weeks.
Schlag first took a knee — so-called because of the practice of kneeling by some NFL players during the national anthem to protest racial injustice — at a July 18 selectmen’s meeting. That display went viral and was picked up by national media, including — you guessed it — Fox News.
Schlag liked it so much that she tried it at the next meeting on July 30, when the gathering had to be moved into the firehouse to accommodate the capacity crowd of protesters, counter-protesters, news media, and curiosity seekers. Even so, an overflow crowd of Schlag supporters and detractors lined the street and lawn outside the firehouse.
I should say upfront that I’m a big fan of peaceful protest. The first one I saw was in 1968 when my family moved to Chicago just as the now-infamous Democratic National Convention was getting underway. A new friend and I climbed a tree and watched a protest in a nearby park on the South Side. Fortunately, that particular assembly was one of the few peaceful protests that week. No blood, no teargas. But as an 11-year-old, I was introduced to passion in dissent. Fifteen years later, along with hundreds of thousands who mobbed Central Park, I also attended the great 1983 anti-nuclear protest in New York.
In kneeling before the flag to protest the Trump administration’s policies, Schlag is obviously exercising her First Amendment right to free speech. And those who take offense are also entitled to express themselves. They can speak most loudly at the polling places if Schlag runs for re-election next year.
If done primarily in response to one president’s actions, taking a knee during the pledge is not a form of protest I would engage in. Then again, I’m a white guy in America and, at 61, life has treated me pretty well, so take my preference for what it’s worth.
I do take exception to anyone who would question Schlag’s patriotism. I understand that conservatives, veterans’ groups and perhaps even some progressives are offended when anyone fails to show sufficient deference the flag, but suggesting Schlag hates her country is absurd. Most of her critics are misguided but as the father of a newly minted Marine Corps officer, I totally get where they are coming from.
My disappointment is with the politicians who sought to exploit the event. Granted, Schlag is now a politician, too. But the two minutes of fame she gained from her actions is surely offset by the offense she gave to her detractors.
No, I’m talking mostly about Republicans seeking statewide office. The office-seekers who assembled on the Higganum Town Green before the selectmen’s meeting ought to know better than to scurry off to the “last refuge of a scoundrel.”
True to form, gubernatorial candidate and whippersnapper Tim Herbst threw his famously sharp elbows at Schlag, calling on her “to resign immediately” because “we don’t disrespect our flag.”
Obsitnik, a decorated former naval officer and a successful entrepreneur running for governor, should know better. One of his favorite campaign themes is that he’s not a “career politician.” Well, he sure acted like one on Monday when he seized on Schlag’s gesture and thundered, “We can never, never, let up for what the flag, what liberty stands for.”
Jayme Stevenson, a candidate for the office of lieutenant governor, bragged that when she was elected first selectwoman in Darien, one of her first official acts was to order that the pledge of allegiance be recited at selectmen’s meetings. And for that, I’m sure everyone on the Gold Coast sleeps better at night.
State treasurer candidate and outgoing state Sen. Art Linares said Schlag exhibited “a complete lack of respect.” Later, he called on Schlag to resign after a video surfaced of her calling Haddam a “fascist and racist” town — a comment Schlag later apologized for.
Methinks Linares doth protest too much. Ironically, it’s very likely Linares owes his senate seat to Schlag. In the 2012 33rd senate district general election, Linares garnered a little more than 48 percent of the vote, while his Democratic opponent trailed by about 5 percentage points.
Running as an independent in that very race, Schlag took 8.7 percent of the vote. If you take it as conventional wisdom that most of Schlag’s progressive supporters would have voted for Democrat James Crawford if she had not been in the race, then her presence on the ballot handed Linares a victory.
Schlag’s critics have a right to call her out for her behavior, as they did in interviews and some audience members did at the most recent selectmen’s meeting in that firehouse. At that time, some of them knelt in protest when Schlag spoke. Since it was a predictable response, the only suspense was whether the creaky-kneed, middle-aged anti-Schlaggers would be able to rise back to their feet unassisted.
It’s episodes such as this one that make me long for the general election. Once the primaries are over, if Schlag kneels again, there will be fewer candidates running for high office and, no doubt, less hot air contributing to climate change. From this man’s perch in the Northwest Corner, Aug. 14 can’t come soon enough.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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