Hartford Selectwoman Rebecca White Faces Backlash as Community Debates Divisions

  • Hartford selectboard member Rebecca White listens as selectboard chair Richard Grassi speaks during a special meeting on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt. to address the creation of the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality. White, who is running unopposed to retain her seat in March, faces criticism for her silence during the Pledge of Allegiance at meetings. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Those attending a selectboard meeting for the first time raise their hands on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt. The Hartford selectboard called for the special meeting to address the creation of a Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lannie Collins, of Quechee, Vt., defends selectboard member Mike Morris during a special selectboard meeting held by the town of Hartford on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt. to create a Committee on Racial Inequality. Collins said at the meeting that he plans to campaign against selectboard member Rebecca White, who is running unopposed to retain her seat in March. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/26/2017 12:31:54 AM
Modified: 2/27/2017 11:28:54 AM

Hartford — Much of it stems back to that one moment during the Jan. 30 meeting when Selectwoman Rebecca White, a 22-year-old community organizer for a solar company, twisted in her seat to address 61-year-old Selectman Mike Morris, a veteran who owns a home-building business in town.

“I do believe that you should resign,” White said, looking at a spot in the wall above Morris’ head. A moment later, she looked at him more directly, adding, “I have not forgiven you.”

It was a dramatic moment, one that played out before a crowd of 30 members of the public, many of them young, many attending their first Selectboard meeting ever. They showed up to show their displeasure with Morris for having recently forwarded an email that contained a racist depiction of President Obama, his family and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Morris didn’t resign — the conversation in Hartford has since shifted to a broader re-examination of how town officials can address racial inequity in the community — but White’s public call prompted a backlash, including a barrage of Facebook posts in which a handful of Hartford residents called for her resignation, in part because of another hot-button issue: White does not join the other Selectboard members in saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but instead stands silently.

Morris’ perceived insensitivity to people of color and White’s perceived insensitivity to veterans have fueled a debate that has been, by turns, thoughtful and venomous. Though none of the rifts breaks cleanly, there’s a sense, at times, of large gaps between the socially conservative and the liberal, the old and the young, an established Hartford built on a particular brand of good-folk neighborliness jostling uncomfortably with an emerging, hipper brand of idealistic neighborliness that is integral to the revitalization of White River Junction.

White’s decision not to say the pledge has only recently led her Facebook critics to insult her as a “disgusting” person who should be “ashamed,” but it has been noticed among some area veterans since 2015, when she first won the post by eking out a 593-580 victory over Morris (Morris won his seat in 2016).

“She stands, and she places her hand over her heart, and she closes her eyes,” said Lannie Collins, a 50-year-old technical instructor at the Thayer School of Engineering who often offers pointed comments to the Selectboard on a variety of issues.

Collins said White’s lack of forgiveness offends him as a Christian, and her refusal to say the pledge offends him as a 20-year veteran.

“I was very offended,” said Collins, a member of Hanover’s Christ Redeemer Church. “I believe if you don’t say it, it’s disrespectful for all of those who have died.”

When the deadline for March elections passed, White was the only one who turned in a candidate petition for her seat on the board. But now, Collins has declared that he is running against White as a write-in candidate.

The son of a veteran, Collins said that, from a young age, he has taken the pledge seriously. When he was 17, he signed up to join the U.S. Navy, and, after being deployed to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006, he was injured in a war zone in Baghdad.

White’s reasons for not saying the pledge date back to her own childhood.

“I was raised as a Buddhist,” said White. “My mom and I, we had a really open discussion about it. She said, ‘if you want, you can say the pledge, but you don’t have to.’ I chose not to say the ‘under God’ piece because it didn’t reflect me.”

Four years ago, when White was 18, she said, she had a discussion with a veteran friend who convinced her that modifying the pledge by omitting those two words was more problematic than simply observing a moment of silence.

White, who now regards herself as an atheist and is a member of a Unitarian Universalist Church in Hartland, said she understands that not saying the pledge can be offensive to some people, but that she’s not being intentionally provocative.

“I don’t want to say something that makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable because of a religious belief,” she said. “It’s not because I don’t value the contribution made by veterans and folks in the armed forces.”

My Generation

The vigorous debates, and the competition for the Selectboard seat, may be a sign of a broader shift in Hartford, as the tectonic plate of a younger generation ever-so-slowly intrudes upon the space occupied by the older generation.

For Collins, who grew up in Quechee, it looks like a slow, often-unwelcome erosion of the world he grew up in.

“When I was growing up, I used to know the names of every homeowner on Main Street,” he said. “Now, I couldn’t name two.”

For White, who grew up in Wilder and recently bought her first home, it’s just the world in which she is living.

“I think things are changing very rapidly, at least in the technology world and the way we live our lives. What our standard of living is, how we talk to each other, that is all changing very quickly. For a lot of young people, our ideas match with that constant changing and adapting,” said White.

The gap between those perspectives — young and old — can lend itself to a lack of understanding.

White said she sometimes feels like that divide defines her.

“There are moments they say ‘I’m happy to have you involved, but I don’t want you to have opinions other than mine,’” she said.

That can cut both ways, said Ken Parker, 69, who owns an insurance company in town, and wrapped up a six-year stint on the Selectboard a couple of years ago.

“Just because people are older doesn’t mean they’re hard-headed,” he said. Sometimes, he said, experience allows people of his generation to see solutions to problems. “Maybe the younger folks can’t do that, because they haven’t walked that walk, in those shoes, for that mile. Yet.”

Parker said he sees the difference in the town government.

“I think it’s become more social-issue-focused over the last few years than it was for a long time.”

Parker said he welcomes those discussions, but they have come at the expense of other important issues, and that the Selectboard would benefit from paying more attention to the business community. But he appreciates the new generation’s perspective, too. After all, those who are old, once were young.

In 1972, Parker, then in his early 20s, was elected to the Vermont House. He was one of a handful of sponsors of a first-of-its-kind law that reduced the age of adulthood from 21 to 18, allowing older teens to vote. “You always have the need to have an exchange of ideas and approaches of things from one generation to the next,” he said. “The younger generation is going to be the leaders in the not-too-distant future.”

National Debates

While some of the tension in Hartford might be attributed to conflicting sensibilities between generations, it should be remembered that the issues in play are not unique to the community.

Over the past month, there have been local media reports of an Oklahoma bill that would compel all schoolchildren to say the pledge each day, while in Florida, the Palm Beach County School Board recently finalized a policy that explicitly allows students to opt out of the pledge.

Meanwhile, the very same racist Obama depiction that brought criticism to Morris was also posted to Facebook by a school board member in Pennsylvania, who, rather than apologizing, defended it by saying, in part “some people don’t have a sense of humor, I guess,” according to local reports.

Morris, who apologized soon after his email went public, offered a second, more expansive apology on Friday. “I am directing this to everybody and in this instance, particularly, to people of color,” he said. “I now realize that the email cartoon was racist. And as such, it was an attack on people of color. I deeply regret my actions in passing this email along. I would like to again extend my sincere apology to the whole town and particularly to those who were threatened by what I did.”

Morris added that, as a result of the recent discussion, “I have become aware that we need to take action to raise awareness of the racial concerns we have within our community. I am in full support of moving forward with the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality and I am hopeful that we will develop ways to address, train and make people aware of these concerns within this community. I am also hopeful that we will all learn from this. No one should have to live in fear in the town where they live.”

Meanwhile, White offered to take a dramatic step herself.

“If a board member were to ask me to resign based on the fact I don’t say the pledge, I would step down,” she said.

Morris said that, while the pledge is personally important to him, he will not ask White to step down.

“She has the freedom to do what she wants,” he said.

Forging a Future

The generational gap that underlies some of the discussions in Hartford points to another factor for consideration: Though young people have been vocal at recent public meetings about their needs and desires, their numbers are dwindling.

Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Hartford residents in their 20s dropped by more than half, from 16.6 percent of the population, to just 7.9 percent, according to census records.

Hartford’s home-grown pipeline of youth doesn’t look much better, with school district enrollment shrinking from 1,953 to 1,524 over the past 13 years, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.

Vermont’s aging population is almost universally acknowledged as bad news for the economy, which relies on a sufficient supply of employees to allow for growth.

If the loss is, as is often stated, due to a lack of career opportunities, there may be brighter days ahead for Hartford.

The state’s annual 2016 report on designated downtown areas has tracked an explosion in opportunity in White River Junction over the past year. The opening of 11 new businesses, and the expansion of three others, have created a total of 45 new jobs, while 22 new housing units were completed.

But economic revitalization may only be part of the answer to attracting new, young residents.

Ashley Andreas, 24, is an active member of the Upper Valley Young Liberals, pointed to a lack of local culture, citing a time when she found herself as the lone millennial at a town-sponsored tree walk. “It’s clear that young people’s needs here aren’t often met and heard,” she said.

Though some characterize the young as too sensitive about life’s trials, Andreas said they’re simply less accepting of injustice.

“We have an older generation that tends to try to ignore the issues that we all face, and just say, ‘that’s life; we have to move on,’ ” she said. “Younger people say, ‘let’s acknowledge this oppression, and let’s dismantle it.’ ”

But Andreas gives Hartford high marks for its efforts to be inclusive.

“In this community specifically, many people are so welcoming and supportive of young people getting involved in the community and in politics,” she said. “They have been overwhelmingly welcoming to young people in this town.”

Community Civility

Among those interviewed for this article, the 20-somethings saw the division as one of age, but older residents were more likely to cast it in other, more shaded terms. Nearly everyone interviewed spoke about the importance of a positive, solution-oriented tone in the ongoing conversation between generations.

Though sensitive topics like race and patriotism are discussed in communities throughout the country, the discussion can unfold in different ways, with very different outcomes, said Selectman Simon Dennis, 46, director of a sustainability center.

“If we have breakdowns, if we have divides in the community fabric, then that will inevitably lead to a diminishment in the overall potential of the community,” he said. “We have to open up a dialogue that opens the possibility that people can connect with one another.”

Dennis made headlines last year when he asked the town to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, because of the explorer’s brutality against indigenous people. The idea was, predictably, more popular among the young, and Dennis said the current discussions about race are based on some of the same principles of valuing human decency and keeping the town a hospitable place for all.

“I do think it’s important to maintain standards of civility in civic dialogue,” said Dennis. “But the essence of it has to do with whether the conversation can proceed in a way that calls forward everybody’s better self, as opposed to calling forward more closed-heartedness. … We always talk about five villages, three rivers, one town. The focus has been on five villages, but now we need to talk a little more about one town.”

David Briggs, 70, owner of the Coolidge hotel, said reports of tension in Hartford lack perspective.

“I see the least amount of tension I’ve seen my whole life here,” he said. “I’m really happy for it. I think these issues come up, and they get processed respectfully, and people are happy with it. We keep coming out ahead.”

Parker said the burden is on town officials to set the tone.

“There’s always the possibility as a public official that you’re going to have people stand up and harpoon you and they don’t want to hear another view,” he said. “The extent to which we don’t take that path, but that we respond in a civil, thoughtful manner, we all gain from the experience.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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