It will, no doubt, be the biggest meeting the Casco Board of Selectmen has held in a long time. Maybe the biggest ever.
There will be a crowd of people, some residents of the tiny town and some not, squeezed in to catch a glimpse of Barbara York, the selectwoman who eight months ago hit the “send” button on her computer when she should have opted for “delete.”
There will be a phalanx of media types to capture the drama — and perhaps even the demise of a public servant who by now must know that an e-mail “joke” comparing first lady Michelle Obama to a monkey is, by any civilized measure, not funny.
There will be those who holler that York, anyway you look at it, is a flaming racist and should be banished from public life now and forever. At the same time, there will be others who holler back that she’s the victim of a small-town smear campaign and should be left alone.
And then there’s Steve Wessler.
“We’re in a society that labels people, if they engage in an act that appears to be racist, as being in very large, capital, block letters a RACIST,” noted Wessler, executive director of the Portland-based Center for the Prevention of Hate. “As if it defines all of who they are.”
Which more often than not, Wessler has learned over the years, it doesn’t.
York’s life changed forever last week when, during an otherwise routine selectmen’s meeting, Casco resident Mary-Vienessa Fernandes stood up with a copy of the e-mail that York sent in July and demanded that she resign from the board immediately.
It was, as they say, must-see TV. And sitting in the audience with a video camera was Jeannine Lauber-Oren, a Casco resident who 10 years ago worked as a TV news anchor for WMTW. (More on that in a minute.)
It’s clear from the tape that York never saw this coming. When Fernandes, who is black, finally identified York as the board member behind the e-mail that someone left on her door, it was all York could do to stammer a hasty apology.
“It was sent to me and I sent it on,” York said. “I’m sorry if I offended anybody.”
York, who has declined numerous requests for interviews, will have another chance to show her contrition when selectmen revisit the issue on Tuesday. Still not clear is what difference it will make.
This story, after all, is about more than just a mindless e-mail masquerading as humor. It’s about small-town politics.
In an interview this week, former news anchor Lauber-Oren said she brought her video camera to the selectmen’s meeting (for the first time) to help keep track of her ongoing feud with the town over its handling of the Casco Helping Casco fuel assistance fund.
The fuel fight is, as these things usually are, a long and complicated story. But the bottom line is that Lauber-Oren, who serves on Casco Helping Casco’s board, is no friend of York, who until last summer was the organization’s treasurer.
Upon taping the Fernandes-York exchange, Lauber-Oren made a beeline for what she calls “my friends at Channel 8″ along with other local media outlets.
In an e-mail to 19 separate reporters and editors at this newspaper entitled “Racism in CASCO ME — Elected Official Admits Guilt,” Lauber-Oren provided the names and numbers of Fernandes and another black family from Casco that attended the selectmen’s meeting.
“Call me if you want a copy of the tape,” she advised her onetime colleagues. “It’s unbelievable.”
Asked if her media blitz may have been motivated, at least in part, by her ongoing battle with York over the fuel assistance fund, Lauber-Oren replied, “Yes, of course it is. I’m already mad at the town. I’m already angry.”
Meaning she admits to using her media contacts and savvy to put as big a white-hot spotlight as possible on her local adversary?
“You are 100 percent right about the fact that I knew what to do with this issue,” Lauber-Oren replied. “I was so upset. I knew I was going to tell everyone I could. That’s how disgusting this story is.”
As for the offending e-mail, Lauber-Oren said she has no idea how a copy found its way to Fernandes, whom she’d never met before last week’s meeting.
(Fernandes, whose home voice-mail is full, could not be reached this week for comment on who might have given her the e-mail and what that person’s motive might have been.)
Lauber-Oren’s expertise at putting her hometown nemesis in the media cross hairs, of course, doesn’t change the simple fact that York received the racist e-mail, read it and then passed it on. But it does illustrate how one person’s justified anger can be another person’s political sledgehammer.
It also stokes the 24/7 scream machine when what’s really needed are a few voices of reason.
Voices like Yvonne Pepin, who has lived in Casco for 33 years and knows Barbara York not as a racist, but as a woman who has taken in several foster children over the years, served as a leader of her church and is still grieving the loss of her husband, Paul, who died in January after 48 years of marriage.
“Barbara is really a very nice person,” Pepin said Tuesday. “I don’t believe she meant it that way. She just got the e-mail and passed it on and thought nothing of it.”
And voices like Wessler, who planned to call the Casco town office Tuesday to see if perhaps the Center for the Prevention of Hate might be of some assistance.
Wessler said it’s important for York, above all, to make a heartfelt public apology — the first step toward a meaningful dialogue on the impact of the e-mail rather than what may or may not have motivated it.
“I’m hoping that she’s able to understand why this type of joke is deeply hurtful to anybody who’s black, anybody of color, as well as to a whole lot of other people of good will,” Wessler said.
At the same time, he said, those who will forever brand York as “a cardboard cutout that only has the word ‘racist’ on it” would do well to revisit the now-famous campaign speech on race delivered by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in Philadelphia just over two years ago.
“He talks both about his pastor (who is black) and his grandmother (who is white) and basically says the fact that they have said things that are racist is wrong,” Wessler said. “But it doesn’t define who they are.”
Nor, he said, should the dumb or hurtful things we all do at one time or another (imagine seeing yours at the top of Page 1 or leading the evening news) define each and every one of us.
“I just have a feeling that this could have an ending that brings peace to both of these women, but also is educational for everyone else,” Wessler said.
That depends on two things:
What Barbara York has to say in the glare of the camera lights come Tuesday evening.
And, just as importantly, how willing her audience is to listen.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]