Italian flag remark has Dems fuming

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
10/05/2007

GUILFORD — Members of the Democratic Town Committee are crying foul over a local public access TV show that included what the committee called “a disparaging remark about First Selectman Carl Balestracci’s Italian heritage.”

The show in question is the monthly broadcast of a group called Citizens’ Oversight of School and Town that was taped in mid-September. During the show, members of the group discuss Balestracci’s participation in a peace vigil on the Guilford Green, prompting member Ned Vare to ask, “Are you saying you think we need a first selectman who has the American flag in his office instead of the Italian flag?”

Balestracci, who called the comments “hateful” and “racist,” said he heard about them when another Italian-American resident of town called to say he found the show offensive.

“It’s totally inappropriate,” Balestracci said. “If he doesn’t like the fact that I’m Italian-American, why, that’s something that he ought to keep his mouth shut about because that kind of attitude and that kind of language is not shared by the rest of the people in Guilford.”

Vare said that he had not intended to denigrate Italians or Italian-Americans. He said that he had been told Balestracci has an Italian flag in his Town Hall office.

“I was commenting because people found it offensive that he didn’t have the American flag but flew the Italian flag in his office,” Vare said. “I never saw it there myself, but people who went in often said they thought it was weird and disrespectful.”

Balestracci, who has been first selectman since 2005 and also served between 2001 and 2003, said he has never had an Italian flag in the office.

“I have the American flag and the Connecticut flag,” he said. “They’ve been there ever since I took office.”

Balestracci is running for re-election against Republican Ken Wilson. On the same program that contained the comments about the Italian flag, Republican Town Committee Chairman Richard Evans appeared to discuss changes to the ballot in the election for Board of Education.

DTC Chairman Howard Brody said he found it “shocking” that Evans would appear on the show. Brody said he thought Evans was seeking the group’s endorsement, but Evans said he had no such intention.

“My piece was strictly explaining what had happened with the Board of Education race,” Evans said. “I really tried to stay apolitical.”

Evans finished his segment of the show and left before Vare’s remarks. Vare said the COST group usually does not endorse candidates.

“Sometimes (moderator Ed) Delaney does say who he’s going to vote for, but that’s not our deal at all,” Vare said, adding that he would not label the group with a particular ideology. “Our job is not to offend anybody — it’s just to give our opinion.”

Balestracci and Brody also took issue with the statements of another COST member, Earl Swan, during the same discussion. Referring to Balestracci’s participation in the peace demonstration, Swan said, “It used to be called treason.”

“I’m a veteran, and to me that was offensive,” Swan said.

Balestracci noted that he spent 4½ years in the U.S. Air Force.

“If marching for peace is treason, maybe the whole country ought to be treasonous,” he said.

DTC members said that this is not the first time a member of COST has come under fire for something he said during a public access program. In late 2005, a coalition of Guilford clergy wrote a letter to the local newspaper accusing COST member Ron Johnson of making anti-Semitic statements during a public access TV broadcast.

Evans said that, while people may not agree with some of the shows on public access TV, people have a free speech right to present their opinions.

“There’s a lot of things that those guys say that I don’t agree with as a Republican, and I’m sure there’s a lot of things those guys say that the Democrats don’t agree with, but that’s their right,” he said. “They’re responsible for what comes out of their mouth.”

Vare said he thinks the DTC is “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“I promise you the comment about the flag was the least important thing we said in that hour,” he said. “There’s a lot more wrong in this town than who flies what flag in his office — it’s purposefully attempting to miss the point.”

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