Personal attacks on council stem from non-U.S. citizen voting discussion

February 22, 2016

The Hyattsville City Council during the Jan. 4 discussion of non-U.S. citizen voting. Photo courtesy the City of Hyattsville.

BY REBECCA BENNETT — Two city councilmembers have been accused by fellow councilmembers of making offensive, racially tinged comments after a discussion that began during the Jan. 4 Hyattsville City Council meeting. The comments in question stemmed from the topic of non-U.S. citizen voting.

During the Jan. 4 meeting, Councilmember Paula Perry (Ward 4) said residents do not have to be citizens to address the council.  She said she would like non-U.S. citizens to be more involved and that it was the responsibility of the councilmembers to engage them. “I feel pride as an American citizen with the right to vote. I don’t want to give it away as if it’s nothing,” Perry said.

Councilmember Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5) said that voting was a big deal because she is a U.S. citizen, not just because she pays taxes. “All I have living in my neighborhood is a bunch of poor schmucks. So, you are saying that if you live in the City of Hyattsville, you can vote.  You pay taxes, you can vote,” she said. “You all make me sick. … I am really angry that you all sit here and talk about foreign nationals. That’s who you want to vote. Well, that’s not the only people who live in the City of Hyattsville.”

Click here to watch the full Jan. 4 discussion, which begins at 2 hours 50 minutes

“I am so tired of the racist rhetoric we hear on this council that is coded and targeted to certain populations that live in our city,” Councilmember Patrick Paschall (Ward 3) said. “I think it’s absolutely offensive for us to imply that there are … second class status people in our city.”

Paschall said his statement targeted not only the Jan. 4 and subsequent discussions, but a Dec. 7 discussion about small education grants. He told the Hyattsville Life & Times that he hopes the community knows that the comments made by Perry and Frazier don’t reflect the rest of the council.

Councilmember Shani Warner (Ward 2) said she mostly agreed with Paschall. “I think some things said on this [council] are seen by my residents as motivated by a racial or ethnic animus,” Warner said.  “I’m not saying that they are, but I’m saying that’s the general perception, and I think it’s important that we speak carefully.”

Warner told HL&T that she personally struggled with how to respond.  “I’ve let this outrageous behavior go on for a very long time without comment, as we all have, in the belief that publicizing outliers would do more harm than good and that it would not reflect well on Hyattsville,” she said. “I’ve finally decided that silence sends a message of tacit approval.”

Frazier told HL&T that her use of the word “schmuck” was not racist.  “[Paschall] knows nothing about us.  He has no right to call us racist,” she said.  “Find out who I am before you call me a racist.”

During public comment on Feb. 10, Perry’s husband, David Perry, said he was personally upset at the comments made using “coded language” that Perry was a racist.  “We were children at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when we saw lynchings, Freedom Riders beaten, buses burned and churches bombed, we didn’t seen them in documentaries or read them in books,” he said. “We saw them in the newspaper and on TV.”

“Just because we believe immigrants should earn the right to vote doesn’t make us anti-immigrant and it doesn’t make us racist,” David Perry said.

“My father [who was active during the Civil Rights Movement] was driven out of his first federal job … because he refused to treat his fellow black workers with anything less than dignity and the respect that everyone deserved. So he was a n—–r lover and he was driven out of that job,” David Perry said.

Mayor Candace Hollingsworth later apologized on behalf of herself and the council for the use of language. She said her own son had just been referred to by that derogatory term on Feb. 10, then left the council chambers in tears.

Later, Perry told HL&T, “He wasn’t trying to offend anyone. … Frankly, that’s what a lot of us were called back in the day.”

“I think that Councilmembers Perry and Frazier do not believe that they hold prejudice,” Patrick Paschall (Ward 3) told HL&T.  “I believe that they think the language they are saying is inclusive.  I think that they come with the intention to not offend people.  However, their comments are offensive.”

“Not all behavior on the [council] is equally worthy of respect,” Councilmember Shani Warner said (Ward 2). “Occasionally, and we all hope infrequently, clearly unacceptable behavior needs to be called out. … It is unacceptable when councilmembers disparage the same group of Hyattsville residents repeatedly and over the course of years. This is what happened on Jan. 4.”

Paschall said he was not taking the position that people against non-citizen voting were racist.  He also said he was asked at several council meetings to apologize for his comments, but he said resident feedback encouraged him not to.  He later told HL&T he believe Perry and Frazier should apologize for offensive language targeting the Latino community.

“Patrick … I don’t expect an apology from you, nor do I want one,” Perry said. “There are people that didn’t agree with what I said, and there’s people who have. … I’ve heard from both sides.  There are some people who think you’re a complete a—.”

Paschall asked where is the line of decorum and appropriateness was. “This is ridiculous,” he said.

“I said what I had to say, and I can let things go,” Perry told HL&T.  She said she does not believe it is affecting the other work the council is doing.

Councilmember Joseph Solomon (Ward 5) said he never envisioned the motion causing the kind of back and forth remarks between councilmembers. “Let’s do something that’s good for our city, because it’s good for our city,” he said.