In the latest development of what has become a zero-sum political battle on the Anaheim City Council, the council majority — with help from powerbroker Curt Pringle — has apparently launched a coordinated attack against Mayor Tom Tait for his handling of an anti-Semitic and homophobic rant by a council gadfly at the body’s most recent public meeting.
During the public comment period of last week’s meeting, William Denis Fitzgerald shocked the council chamber by declaring that “evil Jews” like Councilman Jordan Brandman were to blame for hatred of the Jewish people and the genocidal crimes of the Holocaust. Fitzgerald ended his rant with a homophobic slur.
Fitzgerald, a well-known City Hall gadfly and provocateur, for years has pushed the limits of free speech with offensive language at council meetings. He has often called the women on the council “Disney whores” for their support of the megaresort and corporate subsidies.
During Fitzgerald’s tirade against “scheming Jews like Jordan Brandman,” Tait interrupted him and asked him not to be so “mean.” After Fitzgerald ended the speech with a homosexual slur, Tait rebuked him, saying that Fitzgerald has free speech rights, but that Fitzgerald’s comments “crossed the line.”
No other council member said a word for the record.
Fitzgerald’s remarks came during a special meeting set by Brandman to strip Tait of his power to schedule council agenda items between meetings. According to Councilwoman Lucille Kring, the council majority removed that power so Tait couldn’t repeatedly place the controversial proposed lease terms for Angel Stadium on the council agenda.
A spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League said Tait and his council colleagues could have done a better job of condemning Fitzgerald’s comments but allowed that they reacted like most people do when stunned by such hate speech.
However, Pringle’s camp and Councilwoman Kris Murray, the acknowledged leader of the council majority, immediately began publicly lashing out at Tait.
The night of the council meeting, Todd Priest of Curt Pringle & Associates, a lobbying firm owned by the former mayor and whose clients include influential business interests the mayor has opposed, sent a text message to Irvine Councilwoman Beth Krom, who is Jewish, notifying her of the incident.
The next day, he contacted the Orange County Human Relations Commission and blamed Tait for allowing hate to be spewed at the council meeting.
Murray, in a debate aired Oct. 4 on Rick Reiff’s SoCal Insider, said Tait should have used his gavel power to stop Fitzgerald’s tirade and referred to Fitzgerald as one of Tait’s supporters.
Tait was flabbergasted by Murray’s accusation, noting that Fitzgerald is hardly a supporter. In fact, Tait has previously sued Fitzgerald for filing misleading ballot statements essentially accusing Tait’s firm, Tait & Associates, of corruption.
Murray also wrote an Oct. 2 letter to Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, urging him to have the commission “review the matter and provide guidance on this very important issue.”
“While I would be the first to defend freedom of speech,” Murray wrote, “I also believe that the Mayor’s inaction was shameful, and, frankly, untruthful. He could have taken proactive action as the presiding officer to gavel the statements disrespectful and out of order, use the dais mute button, or request access to stop this hate speech.”
On the same day, Priest emailed the Human Relations Commission to make the same point.
“As I watched, I assumed the Mayor would gavel the comments out of order, but citing free speech rights he was permitted to continue,” Priest wrote in an email to the commission.
Murray and Priest did not return phone calls seeking comment.
One prominent observer said the council majority and Pringle’s camp have hijacked Fitzgerald’s rant for their own political agenda and to divert attention away from the mayor’s concerns regarding the stadium.
“They’re using Fitzgerald as the diversion, because they don’t want to see light on what they’re doing. … As Jews, we’ve seen this before,” said Rabbi Joel Berman of Anaheim-based Temple Beth Emet, which means “house of truth” in Hebrew. “That’s how it would seem to any rational person.”
Tait argued that he did what he could, given Fitzgerald’s First Amendment rights. He said that the city attorney has advised Tait that it would be illegal to stop Fitzgerald’s rants.
Tait’s colleagues made some offhand remarks with their microphones off, such as Councilwoman Lucille Kring suggesting that Brandman sue Fitzgerald. Only Tait said for the record that Fitzgerald’s comments went too far.
“My council colleagues and I sat stunned during his rant, because we recognize that the courts have found that censoring such comments would violate First Amendment rights to free speech,” Tait wrote in a Facebook post, “… but I can call it what it is, morally reprehensible.”
So far, only the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group, has urged only Tait to take more action. The group has called for a protest before the Oct. 8 council meeting. “We urge all Republicans to contact the Mayor and ask him to immediately provide decorum at meetings and put an end to the attacks on the Jewish and Gay Communities,” the group’s statement reads.
Other Jewish leaders have roundly condemned Fitzgerald’s speech, but their criticism of Tait has been tepid at best. None advocated shutting down Ftizgerald’s free speech rights.
“There are always going to be people out there who for one reason or another, whether its illness or pure bigotry, are going to say stuff like that,” said Aaron Breitbart, who works in the research wing of the New York-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“There’s only so much I can suppose [Tait] can do. … The question is, legally, what can he do about it? I really don’t know. … I can understand that he may feel that his hands are tied.”
Melissa Carr, regional director of the Orange County wing of the Anti-Defamation League, said that while the council need not stop Fitzgerald, council members should have been united in condemning such vitriol though she conceded in such moments, people are stunned and “frozen in time.”
“Could [Tait] have done better? Sure. Could the City Council have gotten behind him and done better? Sure, they all could have,” Carr said.
Irvine Councilwoman Beth Krom, who is Jewish, acknowledged the text message from Priest, criticized Fitzgerald’s comments and said that generally she finds it also terrible when someone uses hate incidents for their own political agenda. She cautioned, however, that she is unaware of the specifics of Anaheim’s situation.
“I think it’s bad when people engage in hateful and inappropriate speech. It’s not any better when people use that politically to create wedges in the community,” Krom said.
Some even praised Tait’s handling of the situation.
Republican Irvine Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, who also is Jewish, said that Tait did all he could do, given the right to free speech accorded to Fitzgerald. Tait immediately admonished Fitzgerald after the remarks, saying that First Amendment rights shouldn’t be a license to spread hate.
For someone “to turn it around and make it seem like Tom should have done more … clearly doesn’t understand the First Amendment of the Constitution and is placing blame at the feet of someone who tried to defend the honor of Jewish Americans,” Lalloway said.