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Stefanik dodges accountability

Rep. Elise Stefanik delivers her victory speech late on the night of Nov. 6, 2018, at the Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls. (Photo — Jenn March, for the Post-Star)

What would happen if a federal lawmaker walked by a group of protesters and one of them displayed a toy gun?

Or how about the president? Where would a critic wind up after pulling out something that even vaguely resembled a weapon?

This person would be on the ground in custody with at least several law enforcement agents brandishing real firearms — that’s where. Doing anything that suggests a threat to a government authority is taken very seriously, as it should be.

And it’s likely that the suspect would face criminal charges even if the object wouldn’t cause injury. Any implied threat would be enough to warrant an arrest.

This is an appropriate response. Intimidating public officials, even when there’s no intent to engage in violence, is an attempt to coerce them into behaving a certain way. Rather than persuading them with rational arguments, the goal is to make them fearful over the possibility of physical harm.

Most people I know have the good sense to condemn such actions. Trying to influence public policy decisions through scare tactics is wrong, plain and simple.

But not everyone garners this anticipated level of protection. When some people express concerns over perceived threats, opponents frequently call them “snowflakes” and claim they can’t take a joke.

Members of the news industry often land in this category.

Let’s recall one T-shirt that made the rounds during the 2016 presidential campaign. It publicized this message: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.” Walmart lined its pockets with this item for a while before pulling it from its inventory after objections were raised.

Greg Gianforte, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Montana in 2017, took the intimidation mindset a step further. He responded to a question by Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by slamming him to the ground. Voters rewarded Gianforte for his violent behavior by electing him.

I understand why many people feel contempt toward those of us in the media. There is much we get wrong, and too few journalists are willing to acknowledge the errors we make and the problems inherent in our news-gathering process.

But advocating violence, even as a joke, is just as unacceptable when directed at journalists as it is when lodged at public officials. When are threats designed merely to make people look over their shoulders, and when do they predict acts that could turn bloody?

U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, has not been forthcoming about her reported association with a political activist who’s made disturbing comments. Mike Kibling, who leads a group called North Country Deplorables, said he was asked by one of Stefanik’s staff members to pack a Coffee with a Congresswoman meeting in Kingsbury on Friday with her supporters. This was one of several town hall events that she’s held in the region this past week.

“I was contacted by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s campaign manager, Alex [deGrasse] to send his appreciation on behalf of Elise for holding down her Glens Falls office from the invasion of socialists and commies,” Kibling wrote on social media. “She is asking us to show up early to secure all the seating inside the fire station so that the fake news reporters will only capture supporters clapping and cheering as she announces her accomplishments, ideas and future plans.”

(A story by the Post-Star in Glens Falls, published Friday in the Watertown Daily Times, explained that deGrasse is Stefanik’s director of strategic planning. He previously served as her campaign manager.)

It’s refreshing that Kibling publicly declared his collusion with Stefanik’s office to stack this event with ringers. I suppose he wanted to ensure that the “fake news reporters” actually had fake news to report.

But then Kibling veered off in a menacing direction with his post: “WE NEED TO MAKE OUR PRESENCE KNOWN. I will be there to grab seating at noon but we need warriors outside as well to stifle the resistance.”

North Country Public Radio reported on Kibling’s claim of collaboration with Stefanik’s office in a story it published Thursday, Oct. 10. Madison Anderson, Stefanik’s communication’s director, told NCPR in an email that “our office is not affiliated in any way with this organic grass-roots organization.” But she has repeatedly refused to answer questions about any interaction that deGrasse may have had with Kibling.

The Post-Star article described Kibling’s alarming actions at a rally earlier in the week.

He pointed a toy gun at Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli, one of the newspaper’s reporters, and implied that others at the news organization could be harmed.

The story reported the following:

“Just four days ago, at a downtown Glens Falls pro-Trump rally, Kibling cocked his fake semi-automatic weapon, pointed it at a Post-Star reporter and said: ‘Here is my unloaded rifle, Post-Star. Thanks for the calls from the FBI and the BCI (state Bureau of Criminal Investigation).’ After aiming the fake gun’s barrel directly at the reporter’s face, Kibling called the reporter by name through the megaphone and threatened the Glens Falls newspaper. ‘Hang on, Post-Star, we’ve got one coming for you over there too,’ Kibling said.”

Kibling told NCPR that he never intended to threaten anyone. This, of course, is of little comfort to the Post-Star staff.

“On Thursday morning, Post-Star Editor Ken Tingley sent an email to Stefanik’s communications director, Madison Anderson, in response to the alleged invitation. Urging the congresswoman to visit the Glens Falls newspaper and explain to the staff and their families why she ‘has put them in danger,’ Tingley called on Stefanik to denounce the actions of [deGrasse] and renounce any affiliation with Kibling,” the article reported. “As of Thursday evening, Stefanik had not responded to Tingley’s request. And after repeated Post-Star attempts by email and phone to reach Anderson and [deGrasse] regarding Kibling’s comments, the NY-21 congresswoman’s office remained silent.”

Kibling later on told NCPR that he “embellished” part of his post — although he wouldn’t elaborate on the fabricated bits. However, he held to his story that deGrasse contacted him about inviting supporters to the event.

So far, no one from Stefanik’s office has specifically addressed whether deGrasse had contacted Kibling about stacking the Kingsbury town hall meeting with supporters. Both Anderson and Stefanik have dodged the question by refusing to answer it directly. At Kingsbury, Stefanik said she did not “personally” get in touch with Kibling — but that’s only part of what she was asked!

At the Kingsbury event, Kibling stood up and said, “I made up the post to generate people to come here.”

Now that he’s outed himself as a liar, why should we take anything he espouses seriously? Is he lying about lying? Does he now regret publicly admitting that he helped manipulate a constituent meeting at the request of Stefanik’s office?

In an email Saturday to the Watertown Daily Times, Anderson called attention to Kibling’s newest claim that he made up the post. But once again, she did not refute the previous assertion that deGrasse had communicated with Kibling! Stefanik’s camp obviously wants to infer that there was no collusion without having to state this on the record, just in case there’s a digital paper trail indicating there was.

Stefanik finally got around to commenting on threats of violence — albeit, oddly enough, not directly to the Post-Star.

“I condemn any threats of violence, any rhetorical threats related to violence,” she said Friday, Oct. 11 during her town hall meeting in Kingsbury. “I don’t support that. I condemn that, and I think we need to have safe, secure freedom of speech, and I think we need to have our communities and the physical places where protests are safe for citizens.”

Tingley reiterated that Stefanik continues to keep the Post-Star in the dark.

“I saw the Watertown story where Stefanik claims to have said she condemns violence,” he wrote in an email (last) Friday afternoon. “I just want to clarify that I sent an email directly to her PR person and never heard back. It has been 34 hours. We do not cover Johnstown, so we have no idea what was said in that town hall. I just came back from town hall in Hudson Falls where she said she had condemned violence but we had not printed it. That’s because they have not responded to any calls for comment from reporters or myself.”

All this certainly raises some troubling questions about Stefanik.

For one, it suggests she’s promoting some of her events as open to the public but packing them with supporters. This reduces opportunities that constituents have to question her about pertinent matters by turning them into political rallies.

By ignoring ongoing requests by local news organizations for clarification on specific issues, she doesn’t believe she needs to be held accountable. And what’s even sadder, her supporters assert the same thing when they cheer her obstinacy.

In addition, Stefanik still refuses to correct the record about her involvement with such a polarizing figure as Kibling. Her evasiveness may help her get reelected next year, but it doesn’t serve the people of our district.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times.