Greenwich Officials Respond to Controversial New Yorker Article

Greenwich Town Hall may be closed due to the pandemic, but town business carries on via Zoom meetings, and reactions to information are instantaneous through email and social media.

A story in the New Yorker written by Greenwich native Evan Osnos titled, How Greenwich Republicans Learned to Love Trump, was widely circulated among the self-isolating populace of Greenwich this week.

Osnos, who attended Greenwich High School and got his start as editor of The Beak, poked the hornet’s nest just as Greenwich’s Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) erupted in a bitter fight along party lines about a $3 million cut to the public schools budget.

On April 26, about 150 cars descended on the all-but-deserted Field Point Road in front of Town Hall for a drive-by protest of school budget cuts, their blaring horns drowning out the police asking them to disperse.

After the vote in favor of cuts, the fighting wore on. A May 5 BET special meeting on Zoom was contentious and abruptly ended in adjournment after a half hour of bickering over Robert’s Rules of Order.

BET Republicans were unhappy when a “wanted poster” featuring their faces circulated on social media.

Trump/Camillo sign on Mason Street by the YMCA. Photo: Leslie Yager

Trump/Camillo sign on Mason Street by the YMCA. Photo: Leslie Yager

All this transpired just two weeks after the Greenwich Police terminated Captain Mark Kordick for his role in “Signgate.” Kordick admitted to purchasing lawn signs last October that said “Local Elections Matter” and “Trump/Camillo…Make Greenwich Great Again.”

Signgate is not to be confused with Spygate, which unfolded last year after images of Democrats in a closed door private meeting at 2017 Town Hall mysteriously appeared on the Twitter feed of a former three-term Republican Town Committee chair, raising issues of privacy and misuse of town property.

Seven weeks of Covid-19 lock down and distance learning for thousands of students have tested everyone’s patience.

Greenwich was already so tense when the New Yorker piece was published that town business conducted over jam-packed Zoom meetings had the feel of campaign season even though the election is six months away.

If Osnos’s goal was to force Republicans to admit publicly that they supported Trump, he succeeded.

Tracing the evolution of the Republican party in Greenwich back to its more socially moderate roots, Osnos said Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of two future presidents, bore the label “Rockefeller Republican” for espousing liberal views on issues like birth control, civil rights and welfare.

He noted Prescott Bush, who served as moderator of Greenwich’s RTM and later as a US Senator from 1952 to 1963, passed down his interest in politics to his sons Prescott Jr, who served as Greenwich’s RTC chair, and George, who would become the 41st US President.

Osnos begins his romp through history with an anecdote about Prescott Bush, who, “prone to righteousness,” condemned an off-color joke in the Round Hill Club locker room.

He pivots quickly to Republican fundraiser Leora Levy, who had embraced the candidacy of Jeb Bush in 2016 and harshly criticized Trump, calling him vulgar and ill-mannered in a Greenwich Time op-ed.

Levy, a recipient of the Prescott Bush Award, the highest honor of the Connecticut Republican Party, did an about-face when she began to laud Trump’s leadership. Later, Trump would nominated her for Ambassador to Chile.

In Greenwich, where it is rare to hear any public official mention President Trump by name, Osnos said Trump supporters included the First Selectman, the BET Chair and a State Rep.

Republican State Rep Harry Arora (R-151) said he had only read the first paragraph of the article and couldn’t comment for this article.

Livvy Floren (R-149), who has held her seat since 2000, and recently announced she would retire, declined to comment except to say, “I have known Evan since his GHS days, and he called me for a comment. I told him ‘no’ because I really do not think this is the time for partisan politics. Period.”

State Rep Stephen Meskers, the first Democrat to hold the seat in the 150th district in 107 years, said, “It’s never come up in the conversations with the electorate I serve.”

“I was elected during the period covered by the article. National politics were not front and center during my campaign,” added Meskers, who was elected in 2018.  He described his district as wonderfully diverse and said he’s had a warm reception.

First Selectman Fred Camillo questioned the timing of the Osnos story.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Greenwich hard, Camillo has pivoted from ushering his proposed budget through town departments to issuing directives for social distancing and wearing face masks.

Even that issue has turned partisan, though in this case, Camillo’s detractors were a group of Republicans.

Carl Higbie, who served briefly in the Trump administration as Chief of External Affairs for the federal agency that runs AmeriCorps, along with RTM moderator Tom Byrne, took issue with Camillo’s March 22 decision to close town beaches, golf course and marinas to slow the spread of COVID-19, signing a petition to add a Sense of the Meeting resolution to the May 11 RTM agenda to partially reopen town parks. (Camillo has since partially reopened parks.)

Mr. Byrne was quoted in Greenwich Time, saying, “Quarantine has historically applied to those who were sick. We are now quarantining the healthy. Why we don’t have a revolution in the streets escapes me.’

In a daily Covid-19 press briefing, Camillo described Byrne’s comments as reckless and dangerous.

This week Camillo said he was not impressed with the New Yorker article, adding that he was interviewed by Osnos and received a follow-up call from a fact checker, but was mentioned only as a local business owner and state lawmaker who had voted for Trump.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Camillo said, adding that he was disappointed that the reporter boiled all his comments down to three facts.

“My whole life is dedicated to town government and the main thing is that I voted for Donald Trump?” he said. “He didn’t say I voted for Kasich in the primary. His intention was to do a hatchet job.”

“If this young man grew up in Greenwich, he benefited from all our great town had to offer,” Camillo continued, adding, “Every town has its faults, but this town is more giving and forward thinking than any town in the country.”

Republican BET chair Michael Mason, said he’d not been interviewed by a national news outlet prior to being contacted by Osnos.

He said on Friday he had no dispute with the quotes attributed to him or the mention of his friendship with President Trump’s sons.

Mr. Mason said he had been impressed when he attended an early campaign rally for Donald Trump in Bridgeport.

“I walked in and said, ‘Where did all these people come from?’ It was like going to a Rolling Stones concert,” he recalled. “I looked around and saw people wanted change.”

After the rally, Mason said he walked outside, expecting to see protesters, but saw none. “I drove home and said to myself, ‘Wow, this guy’s talking policies.'”

“There were people in Greenwich who I think were really afraid of Donald Trump getting elected – and he did not win Greenwich – we saw that.”

“Everyone is talking about his culture and his tweeting,” Mason continued. “But it’s become the new norm. They kept trying to ask me about his culture and behavior, but I don’t follow his tweets.”

Mason said he expects people who voted for Trump in 2016 will vote for him again.

“I look at how his policies impacted the country and the town,” he said. “When the economy is good, philanthropy goes up, public-private partnerships go up, people go to work.”

Mason said during Trump’s period in office the town was accelerating building renovations and tackling projects that had been deferred. “It had a positive impact,” he said.

Mason expressed sympathy for the President. “There’s no doubt from day one, some of the most prominent leaders have said, ‘We have to get rid of this guy,’ and have been trying to ever since. This can’t be fun for any leader. Anyone trying to lead at this time – it can’t be easy.”

He predicted that attention will increasingly turn to China when the pandemic subsides.

“So much of our medical supply and equipment comes from China. There will be a lot of talk about of that. You’ll see the market change its theory about investing in China. Donald Trump has always had a plan to bring back commodities manufacturing from abroad and have them made here. You’re going to see that come back even stronger now.”

As for criticism of Trump’s immigration policies, Mason said the President’s fears were prescient. “We have to protect our borders from a disease getting in,” he said.

Dan Quigley, chair of the Republican Town Committee, the job once held by Prescott Bush Jr, said the town is hungry for a return to public civility and debates that focus on facts rather than partisanship.

He said social media not only invites incivility but chokes off healthy debate.

“The advent of 24/7 news in the 90s and social media today allows people to listen to and speak with only those who they agree with. This reinforces people’s belief that their positions are right and it chokes off rational debate,” Quigley said.

“We’re in a time of extremes. Centrist conservatism and fiscally conservative Democrats are not in vogue,” he added.

Though current Democratic Town Committee chair Joe Angland declined to comment on the New Yorker piece, saying the article spoke for itself, two former DTC chairs did not hesitate.

Jeff Ramer and Frank Farricker both said not only are the Republicans changing their stripes, but that the Town overall is becoming more racially and socio-economically diverse, and the make up of registered voters is turning purple.

Ramer, who currently serves on the BET, said, “The Greenwich of Prescott Bush is gone. Little more now than a figment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination. If, as Mr. Osnos describes, Prescott Bush was Brahmin stature and integrity; he has been replaced now by odious lust and greed of Trump. Mr. Osnos tells us of the Faustian bargain by a few now in that high echelon.”

“But for all the wealth that they wield, the demographics of the Town around them is changing.

Fifty years ago, the Greenwich voter registry was 55% Republican, 17% Democrat. Twenty-five years ago, 46% Republican, 20% Democrat. Ten years ago, 40% Republican, 25% Democrat. A year ago, 34% Republican, 28% Democrat.

Tomorrow, shove over.”

BET member and former DTC chair Jeff Ramer

Frank Farricker, who was quoted by Osnos saying the only color that matters in Greenwich these days is green, said in an email this week that the timing of the New Yorker article was spot on.

“I think when there is a true existential crisis in your world, that is exactly the time where people should clash over their views on how to move society in the future,” he said. “But when you stake your electoral fortunes on devaluing the political process altogether, it makes sense. Greenwich Republicans thrive on the concept that nothing matters at all, it doesn’t affect us, and shouldn’t we maintain – their version of – civil. When that is exposed as being false – Trump is the most egregious partisan we have had as President perhaps ever, they gloss over that support as something else not related to the icky side of going along with his policies.”

Farricker said the Osnos article showed that “Republicans’ Greenwich nice” is fake and used to convince people to vote for them.

“They are complicit in the ideology that cuts $3 million from schools not because it makes budgetary or social sense, but because wealthy people shouldn’t pay more taxes as a political position,” Farricker said. “They say we should open up public places, risking health because their ‘freedom’ is a political position. They consistently vote in favor of the most extreme ideological positions in Hartford, then make bogus claims about not knowing what was in those bills, appealing to their political flank, but lying to their whole constituency as to their intentions. They just are not really who they say they are, but have been exposed as just another bunch of misleading politicians.”

Former First Selectman Peter Tesei, who held the position for a record six terms, said he was contacted by a New Yorker editor for fact checking.

Having had time to reflect on his 12 years leading the town of 62,000 residents, Tesei, a self-described moderate, said the split in the Republican party originated in 1980s.

“When I was a kid, I remember my parents would get the newspaper, and there were full page ads that said, ‘Brown Bag It with Bush.'”

“I must have been in 5th grade. I remember there was a loyalty to the Bushes,” he said. “I learned later on where the split came. George HW Bush was a moderate. The centrists even then were becoming more of a liability.”

Tesei worked as a Senate page for Lowell Weicker before heading to college at UConn.

“People criticized him. That’s when the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) came about,” Tesei said. “It was guilt by association. Everyone gets labeled.”

As for Trump, Tesei said the President came to nomination through a process.

“Connecticut didn’t play a significant role in it – Our vote in the primary was between Cruz and Kasich at that point,” he said. “Nationally, he had amassed a considerable amount of support. There’s only so many times you can say, ‘I disagree with his mannerisms and approach, but I think his policies have been productive.’ What’s the alternative? You’re affiliating with a party, not so much with an individual.”

“You’re not always going to agree with everything your party does,” Tesei continued, adding that people in his party hadn’t always agreed with him either. “Many people didn’t want a northwest fire station. They said ‘Oh, it’s growing government.’ I came back to my data points and I still believe that. Does that make me a RINO? No. I asked them to put a premium on public safety.”

Again, he asked, “What’s the alternative? We don’t really have any. Not voting?”

Hewing to his party’s philosophy, he said, “I come back to government at the lower level being more accountable and accessible to the citizenry. You’re better to govern through your locality and your state.”

Tesei said incivility in politics and on social media was a problem long before 2016.

Long before Greenwich’s 2017 ugly municipal election drew national attention, before a Republican RTM district chair was charged with sexual assault, and before the “charter change” proposal to restructure the Board of Education resulted in confrontations at the dump and the beach, Tesei had been talking about civility in politics and social media.

A decade ago Tesei condemned news sites that allowed anonymous comments. He recalled a thank you he received from the US Conference of Mayors for signing their “Civility Accord.” The year was 2011.

Of the New Yorker article, Tesei said the story gave an interesting historical perspective.

“Kudos to him for sewing together a historical timeline as to how (the Greenwich Republican party) evolved, though I think he had already decided his conclusion,” he said. “Again, the money point is true. Both parties come here for money. George W Bush and Barack Obama both raised big money in Greenwich.”

Tesei said supporters of Trump are able to disconnect between his policies and his personality.

Again, he asked, “What’s the alternative? He came to the nomination through a process.”

Mr. Higbie, now a member of the RTM in district 8, is unique in his loud support of President Trump. His red pickup truck features a Trump 2020 bumper sticker, which he says has made him a target.

And while his truck has been keyed several times and rocks have been thrown at his windshield, he remains steadfast, declaring he’d take a bullet for the President.

Higbie acknowledges that his public support of Trump is rare.

“The crazy thing is that a lot of these people who supported Bush knew he couldn’t win and secretly rooted for Trump,” Higbie said. “People ridiculed me in public but praised me in private for my early support. Even the people who spoke out publicly against him when the Access Hollywood tapes came out said to me in private that they didn’t really care, many said they have even seen far worse. People in Greenwich didn’t like Trump because they couldn’t control him with their money and he didn’t kiss their asses.”

Democrat Alex Kasser, who in 2018 defeated Republican Scott Frantz for State Senator in the 36th district, becoming the first Democrat since 1936 to hold the seat, said, “One of the most disturbing revelations of the Trump era is how much some people are willing to overlook to amass greater wealth and power.”

“America would be much better if we all followed the model of Prescott Bush, who prioritized service to country and protecting the most vulnerable,” she added. “I hope the current crisis will lead to a cultural reset of values and priorities.”

The EvanOsnos article in New Yorker is part of his next book, “WILDLAND: The Making of America’s Fury,” to be published in fall 2021.