Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro posted three words on Twitter just over two months ago that would go on to become the subject of widespread and acrimonious debate in the city and across the state.
“Eat it, Hogg,” Isgro said in response to an article about Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham losing sponsorships for disparaging remarks she made toward Florida school shooting survivor David Hogg, who has gone on national TV to call for gun control legislation in the wake of the attack.
The tweet – which Isgro deleted shortly after posting but has refused to apologize for – was captured by screenshot and shared widely, sparking scrutiny of his past social media posts, raucous City Council meetings and recall efforts against him and councilors.
On Tuesday, Waterville voters will decide if they want to keep Isgro as mayor or recall him from office. The pivotal vote comes amid an increasingly polarized national political climate under President Trump, whose own tweets seem to cause controversy almost daily.
‘THERE HAVE TO BE CONSEQUENCES’
Experts say it’s no coincidence.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt nationwide that Donald Trump’s behavior, particularly on social media, but really everywhere, has had an impact on the political discourse,” said Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine. “We saw this in the way he spoke as a candidate. Now, as president, he seems willing and eager to say things in such a way previous presidents just didn’t do. When you have a person who is the top office holder in the country willing to conduct himself in such a matter, it’s inevitably going to roll down the ladder.”
Democrats immediately seized on Isgro’s tweet as just one example of a history of disparaging social media posts, including an attack on the pope, a defense of accused child molester Roy Moore and anti-immigrant sentiments. And the posts have ignited a debate over First Amendment rights and what appropriate consequences there are for those who make remarks deemed insensitive or offensive.
“It used to be people thought these things and they knew it wasn’t OK to say it out loud,” said Waterville resident Hilary Koch, one of three residents who started the mayoral recall. “Now we’re being told it’s OK, and it’s not. There have to be consequences for acting in a way that’s not kind or empathetic.”
Julian Payne, a Democrat on the Waterville Board of Education who is also a vocal supporter of Isgro and opposes the recall effort, also said he sees the national tone trickling down to Waterville. Payne said he thinks people from both parties locally who were upset to see Trump elected have taken their emotions out on their neighbors.
“The city is on fire,” Payne said. “People are more divisive and angry, and it’s not really because of what’s happening in Waterville. I think it’s anger filtered down from the fact a lot of people are unhappy Trump is their president. The political climate in Waterville would not be as hostile if Hillary (Clinton) won the election. I’ve said that all along.”
Similar debates have unfolded across the country in the months since Trump’s election. The president himself has refused to apologize for anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant remarks.
A presidential staff member lost her job for saying that the opinion of Sen. John McCain, who suffers from brain cancer, doesn’t matter because he is “dying anyway.” Television star Roseanne Barr was fired for a racist tweet.
Isgro also lost his job at Skowhegan Savings Bank in the days after his tweet, and Gov. Paul LePage – himself well-known for controversial comments – pounced on the bank.
“I wasn’t super-offended by the tweet, but I can see how others might be,” said Joseph Reisert, Wiswell associate professor of government at Colby College. “In general though, I think we should want to be talking about the issues that really bear directly on what kind of policies we need to adopt to make the city grow and flourish. This seems like a distraction.”
Isgro also has argued the controversy over the tweet and the recall are a distraction from city work, in particular the city budget. He did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment for this story.
Critics, meanwhile, have said the mayor is trying to distract by putting forth false information about the budget and the motivations of city councilors.
Isgro has refused to comment on his social media posts and has said he’s not interested in “regurgitating a bunch of stuff.” His only acknowledgment of the Hogg tweet has been to say in a statement it was “promptly deleted.”
While politicians not wanting to admit a mistake or answer an uncomfortable question is nothing new, Reisert said in a hyperpartisan environment they also run the risk of alienating supporters with an apology. Others may be more inclined to think an apology is necessary in situations that might otherwise have been dismissed.
For some, the post about Hogg might have been the final straw because it was an attack directed at a child that came on the heels of a national tragedy, Brewer said.
“I think most reasonable Americans would say that crosses a line,” he said. “Certainly racist or homophobic tweets also cross a line, but directing an attack at a child, most Americans strongly feel that line shouldn’t be crossed.”
But those lines seem increasingly blurred on social media.
Just this past week, recent Kent State University graduate Kaitlin Bennett – who skyrocketed to national attention over a photo showing her on campus graduation day with a semi-automatic rifle slung over her shoulder – also went after Hogg. On Tuesday, Bennett tweeted a photo of herself holding up a rifle beside a photo of Hogg, saying she would be appearing on NRA TV to talk “about my challenge to (Hogg) to arm wrestle over the fate of the 2nd Amendment.”
“Think twig arms will tune in?” Bennett wrote. Isgro’s tweet at Hogg also came amid a wave of reaction to the Parkland shooting that saw public figures elsewhere face criticism – and consequences – for their reactions. Jamie Allman, the host of a St. Louis radio show, was fired for a tweet attacking Hogg, while Ingraham lost several sponsorships from advertisers.
In Maine, legislative candidate Les Gibson dropped his campaign after outrage over a tweet he made calling another survivor, Emma Gonzalez, a “skinhead lesbian.”
‘THE TRUMP PLAYBOOK’
In his defense, Isgro has scapegoated the news media and pointed to outsider liberal groups and “dark money” for meddling in city politics.
He called reporters “fake news” in response to questions about his tweet – a phrase popularized by Trump during the 2016 election.
Isgro also has tapped into language used by the alt-right in his social media, using, for example, the word ‘cuck’ in reference to an anti-sexual harassment bill supported by Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, and re-tweeting a post by Mike Cernovich, the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist who alleged Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor.
According to Brewer, research done during the 2016 campaign shows Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white men from rural or suburban areas with education levels of a high school diploma or less. Whether that demographic of people has become more politically active or empowered on the local level since Trump’s election is hard to say, but it’s an important question to look at going forward, he said.
Regardless of who’s involved, some in Waterville say local politics have taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks, with Democrats and Republicans more divided and the discourse at City Council meetings falling to new lows.
In the weeks leading up to the deadline for the recall petition, two anonymously run Facebook pages attempted to mislead and put forward attacks on organizers of the movement.
Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, who himself has a long history of making controversial statements, including recent comments urging people to resist the “left’s war on whites,” said across the state, politics have become more divisive since the 2016 election because of liberals refusing to accept the election of candidates such as Trump or Isgro.
“I wouldn’t have tweeted that, but the reaction from the left is just a case of character assassination against Nick Isgro,” Lockman said, referring to Isgro’s tweet. Payne and former Waterville Mayor Karen Heck, an independent who originally endorsed Isgro but has stated her preference for Democrats and has since helped lead the recall effort, said there have always been issues that have sparked political controversy in Waterville – whether it be the debate over pay-as-you-throw trash, city budgets in past years or school budgets. Both acknowledged attacks have become nastier in the latest debate.
“We’ve seen Waterville go from a community that’s respectful and can debate issues to one that totally reflects the national scene with a leader who is not respectful and who is unapologetic for his racist, misogynist and homophobic, bullying ways,” Heck said. “It’s just the Trump playbook.”
Still, Reisert pointed to the City Council’s recent unanimous vote on the city budget as an example of how local government may be working better in some ways than things on the national level.
“That’s a bipartisan group,” Reisert said. “Even though there’s just one Republican, you have other councilors who might be expected to ordinarily oppose a tax increase. Yet the whole council got to the point on the first reading where they said, ‘This is something we can all live with.’ I think that’s a really good sign. There aren’t a lot of unanimous votes coming out of Congress.”
Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at: