Got a lot of blowback on my recent post about the Syrian refugee debate in Rutland. More than one correspondent kindly pointed out that I had misidentified Mayor Chris Louras as a Republican.
They were right and I was wrong. He switched to independent several years ago.
But contrary to their claims, my argument still stands. The refugee proposal is likely to be the dominant issue in next March’s city elections, and if opponents put up candidates who would reject the plan, then the Vermont Republican Party and its hypothetical Governor Phil Scott would face a critical choice:
Do they support the refugee plan, or do they embrace the Trumpian fear tactics of the opponents?
That doesn’t change because Chris Louras is an independent, and I’ma tell you why.
First, Rutland is a Republican city. It’s arguably the strongest Republican redoubt in the state, and it plays an outsized role in the VTGOP.
Second, refugee panic is a predominantly Republican phenomenon. After all, Donald Trump is the party’s standard-bearer. He won the nomination fair and square, by trouncing a boatload of high-profile hopefuls. He resurrected “America First” from the ignoble ashes of pre-World War II conservative isolationism. The local activists didn’t choose “Rutland First” because it came up in the alphabet soup. No, it was an echo of Trump’s populist nativism.
And whether Vermont Republicans like it or not, Donald Trump is the party’s leader, and the vast majority of them will vote to install him in the White House, race-baiting and all.
And Trump didn’t appear out of thin air. There’s been a strong nativist strain in Republican politics since at least 1994, when California Governor Pete Wilson committed his party to institutional rabble-rousing by way of Prop 187, a proposed clampdown on undocumented immigrants.
(This really goes back to Barry Goldwater in 1964 and continues through Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Reagan’s dog-whistling right up to the Tea Party and conservative media. The sad thing is, a lot of immigrants — including a whole lot of Muslims — are conservative by nature and would be dependable Republican voters if the party hadn’t done so much to drive them away.)
In a comment regarding my original post, Sen. Joe Benning asked why I thought this was a uniquely Republican issue. Well, I’ve just explained why. Not all Republicans are nativists, but they’ve repeatedly stoked anti-minority sentiment for their own short-term advantage. He wonders why I target the VTGOP when, he asserts, none of Vermont’s three major parties have “been involved in this discussion at all.”
Well, the VTGOP didn’t address refugee settlement at all in its platform, but the Democrats did:
We welcome refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants to our communities and value their contributions to local economies.
So yeah, the Dems are on record. They didn’t specifically mention Rutland, but they made it clear where they stand. As for the Progs, there is nothing in their track record to indicate anything other than strong support for refugee settlement.
Benning and various Rutlanders also object to any nativist or racist characterization of the opposition. They are merely concerned about Mayor Louras’ non-inclusive process, and earnestly seek more information about the plan.
Which I could buy, if they didn’t say something patently racist every time they open their damn mouths. (See Paul Heintz’ “Fair Game” column for some priceless examples.) And if they didn’t seem less interested in real information than in rabble-rousing at every turn.
While one can contest the Mayor’s approach, nothing was settled at the time and the process has been wide open for a while now. There have been opportunities galore to get real answers to any valid questions. The problem is, the opponents won’t accept any information that doesn’t validate their prejudices.
City Treasurer Wendy Wilton has assured us that she is not running for mayor. Whether it’s her or not, two things are clear. One, there will be an anti-refugee candidate challenging Louras and some incumbent Aldermen. Two, Wilton has been energetically demagoguing the issue. Her claim that 100 refugees would create a massive burden on Rutland taxpayers is based on exaggerating every possible worst-case scenario. It appears to assume, for instance, that none of those refugees will find jobs or create new opportunities.
In fact, the vast majority of refugees want nothing more than to create a new and productive life in America. They are grateful for the opportunity. The newest Americans, indeed, are strongly entrepreneurial. Rutland would be more likely to see a falafel truck on every corner than bands of idle Syrians roaming the streets.
Try this. Cairn Cross, Vermont’s leading apostle of entrepreneurialism, Fresh Tracks Capital partner and founder of the Road Pitch series, sent me this comment by email:
“I find it interesting that when Road Pitch stopped in Rutland this year we listened to pitches from three entrepreneurs. Two appeared to me to be started by immigrants and the other was started by an American who has recently returned from living for more than a decade overseas.”
Small sample size, but the point is, most of those refugees will be economic assets for Rutland. If Wendy Wilton was interested in real information, she’d take that into account.
Closer to home, she could heed the words of her own police chief Brian Kilcullen, who says the refugee plan is “a nonissue” for public safety. He should know, he’s a former police chief in Schenectady, New York, which has re-energized its Rust Belt economy by welcoming immigrants from Guyana and refugees from Afghanistan.
The unsupported arguments are repeated loudly. The mounting evidence that Rutland would see a net gain from the Syrian refugees is ignored. Fears are stoked.
The Rutland Firsters are a stain on Vermont’s reputation for tolerance, a reputation that goes back to the days of slavery. Sooner or later, the Republican Party will have to take a stand. If for no other reason than the fact that powerful figures like Wilton are involved, and the area’s many Republican lawmakers will be forced to weigh in.