To the Editor:
As a 20-year resident of Westchester County, I have seen our politicians come and go, and rise and fall, without being overcome by a sense of dread and disgust. Unfortunately, the campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump as our president has changed all that, and the change is being felt by many of us at the local level, right here in Westchester. And you need to look no further than the County Executive’s office for the reasons, who are named Rob Astorino and his senior adviser, Phil Oliva.
Mr. Astorino has lashed himself to Trump ever since the possibility of being anointed Trump’s HUD chief was dangled before him, though he has always espoused uncomfortably out of touch right-wing views on key issues: anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ, anti-fair housing and anti-NY SAFE act. It was his success in obstructing implementation of court-ordered steps to permit fair housing in Westchester that endeared him to Mr. Trump, whose real estate family has its own sordid history of keeping out “the blacks” and others seen as undesirable by these bigots. In fact, Mr. Astorino’s resistance to the fair housing mandates earned him an unprecedented scolding from a Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge, who called him out on his obstructionism and forced our county to forfeit millions in federal government grants. It also earned him unflattering press from progressive publications like Slate, which wrote that Astorino’s most meaningful accomplishment in Westchester County was keeping it segregated.
With the ascendance of Trump, Astorino grew more emboldened, as did resentful, bigoted, economically-disadvantaged whites across the United States. Even before Trump’s election “victory,” Astorino played to that ugly section of Trump’s base whenever possible. When he overrode the majority’s veto of a gun show held on county property, he allowed it to feature Nazi and Confederacy memorabilia, combining symbols of hate and genocide with the promotion of the tools used by totalitarian regimes to accomplish such genocidal acts. When Nazi-inspired graffiti appeared scrawled along the Bronx River Parkway in White Plains, Astorino adopted a Trumpian “both sides” approach. Because scores of earlier, similar acts had clearly been carried out by newly emboldened supporters of Trump, many of whom had proudly let fly their White Nationalist allegiances, Astorino attributed the desecration to election-related tensions, tacitly acknowledging the possibility that the perpetrators were Trump supporters. But he also made sure to add that it was just as possible that the act was the work of Hillary Clinton supporters—as if any supporter of Hillary had ever engaged in similar acts.
When our county’s Jewish Community Centers and synagogues suffered through a rash of threats, it took Astorino several days, and several articles in local papers questioning his inaction before he began to even talk about the issue. As recently as last week, White Supremacist flyers were found hung up on bulletin boards at Westchester Community College which not only broadcast the expected hateful messages but appeared to be aimed at recruiting our college students to join up with a hate movement. To date, Astorino has not mentioned it and has certainly not condemned it. This is not by accident. The story has been covered in numerous local TV outlets and newspapers. The silence is disturbing and shows that he is more concerned with appeasing his, and Trump’s base, than he is with showing moral leadership in Westchester County. Perhaps this also has to do with the sources of his funding. Robert Mercer and his various political action organizations fund racist, right-wing people and organizations—Breitbart, Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, to name a few. The Mercer family provided millions to Astorino’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign. Based on Astorino’s current abundant war chest, that funding likely continues to flow. Astorino has the highest rating given by the NRA to politicians—a grade A. With generous cash gifts come clear expectations by the givers, and apparently, Astorino takes those obligations seriously. Clearly, one of them was to veto the Immigrant Protection Act, despite its bipartisan appeal.
But there is more going on at the County Executive’s office than meets the eye—of most county residents, anyway. Phil Oliva is Astorino’s chief assistant there. Phil Oliva has political views that are even more disturbing, and dangerous, than Astorino’s. Google Mr. Oliva’s name, along with terms like “Syrian Refugees” and “Poughkeepsie, NY” and you will come upon a videotape of Mr. Oliva speaking to New York State citizens, alongside a Breitbart personality, in which he warns of the lurking dangers posed by approximately 80 Syrian refugees that had been relocated to Poughkeepsie. It is base fear mongering at its best and is capped with an emotional plea to stop these subversive, job-steeling interlopers before more job-seeking veterans ruined by them commit suicide. Mr. Oliva, in a single videotaped appearance, proved his White Nationalist credentials beyond all doubt. But just in case anyone harbored any doubts after seeing the tape, certainty is achievable instantaneously. Just go to the public area of Oliva’s Facebook page, where you will see his tribute to France’s far-right firebrand, Marine LePen, who has her own versions of Holocaust history that tend to absolve Nazis and the French.
Oliva is clearly under the same marching orders from the same donors as his boss. News reports show that when people raised objections to the Nazi items on display at the gun show forced through by Astorino, Astorino called it “fake news,” and disparaged residents who were bothered by it. Oliva took it a totalitarian step further. He claimed to have gone to the gun show himself and to have never seen any such thing. In fact, to Oliva, any complaints about such celebrations of genocidal regimes were the result of “politics.”
The bottom line here in Westchester is that vulnerable populations no longer feel secure. They know that county government will not support and protect them. And even those of us who aren’t as vulnerable as our immigrants, refugees and gays have now come to see that Nazism, White Nationalism and cruel, far-right policies are not only tolerated but welcome. This is not the Westchester I grew up in. And it is not a Westchester that I am comfortable living in. Something needs to be done, and voting out Astorino and his assistant, Oliva, would be a good place to start. But given the receptiveness to their stewardship by some citizens, we have a lot more work to do.
Deborah Bonner a long-time activist in Sleepy Hollow writes this letter
regarding racism and sympathy towards white nationalism in the County Executive office.
AJ is a Father, Author, Writer, Rapper, Radio Personality, Hip-Hop Historian and A Freelance Journalist whose byline has appeared in several print publications and online sites including The Source, Vibe, the Village Voice, Upscale, Sonicnet.com, Launch.com, Rolling Out Newspaper, Spiritual Minded Magazine and several others.
You can also hear AJ every Tuesday morning on The Bob Marrone show on WFAS
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