THE BUZZ: Post Portraitgate

By on June 21, 2017

Community remains divided as council votes to return presidential portraits to town hall.

Why can’t we be friends?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – If a photo hanging on a wall isn’t news, the overflowing room at last night’s town council meeting suggested otherwise. After nearly an hour of discussion and public comment, Jackson Town Council voted 3-2 to return President Donald Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s portraits to town hall. Councilors also voted 4-1 to make all future decisions about public displays of art in council chambers in public session. The evening illuminated that, like the country, Jackson Hole is an increasingly divided place.

Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson introduced the motion, arguing that town council chambers, and the lobby, should be a non-partisan space. In the wake of national news coverage from left- and right-leaning media outlets and a flood of emails from people around the world, she said to leave Trump’s portrait off the wall would be seen as inherently partisan.

“I represent not only my views, but the views of different constituents in the community,” she said. “I ask ourselves and our community to make an effort to understand different viewpoints.”

Mayor Pete Muldoon took full responsibility for removing Trump’s and Pence’s portraits, and apologized for having used the opportunity to make “politically charged” statements. Removing the photos was defensible, he said, but making a unilateral decision and politicizing it was not. “Having made the indefensible error to use the occasion to make a politically charged statement to the press later, turned town hall partisan,” Muldoon admitted. “For that I take responsibility.”

Still, Muldoon said, it is a strange time to require a local municipality to display presidential portraits.

“I think we’re probably the only municipality in the state that has ever required hanging a presidential portrait,” he told PJH. “We’re setting new ground, and it’s a very curious time to do it. Of all presidents.”

It is tradition to display presidential portraits in federal buildings. Local public buildings, however, are not bound to such tradition. And even in federal buildings across the country, Trump’s portrait has sparked disdain—employees at a VA medical center in Florida took Trump’s photo down shortly after it was displayed.

Two public commenters observed there is no such photo in the county commissioner chambers, and even suspected it was removed during Barack Obama’s presidency.

“I don’t remember seeing President Trump and Putin—I mean Pence—in the county chambers,” Luther Propst said. He did, however, have a vague recollection of Obama’s portrait hanging during his presidency. “I asked five county commissioners and one former county manager,” he said. “Their impression was yes, there was.”

But it disappeared sometime during Obama’s presidency, when County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim, who launched the petition to return Trump’s portrait to town hall, was serving as commissioner.

“I’m blown away by what I can only interpret as unbelievable hypocrisy,” Propst said.

Teton County Democrats Vice-Chair Michael Yin echoed Propst’s concerns and reminded councilors that there is no presidential portrait displayed in the Capitol building in Cheyenne. There isn’t even a portrait of the governor. “The GOP doesn’t seem to have any issue with that either,” Yin said. “It’s not a tradition, and it was not voted in by resolution. It was exactly like the current decision: an interior decorating one.”

Tote Turner of the Teton County Republican Party said that Muldoon’s decision to remove the portrait contradicts community values. “Jackson is celebrated for its beauty, character and openness,” he said. “The recent decision to remove the photos …  sends a very different message, not only to valley residents but to the country and the world.”

Indeed, Teton County and its residents live in a global community—which is precisely why they should stand by Muldoon’s decision, some said. It’s about the message we send to the rest of the world, they argued, and whom we invite into, or exclude from, our community by endorsing such a divisive president.

Anne Marie Wells asked that the council focus specifically on the current president. Presidential portraits, she argued, are more than decoration. They are symbolic—of tradition, of government overreach, of defiance. “I come to my own symbolism,” she said. “For me, the photograph is symbolic of the blind respect and honor demanded for a man whose only merit of such is that he holds a high political office.” The president, Wells said, not only admitted to “touching the genitalia of individuals against their will,” he also bragged about it.

She noted that Trump also admitted to using his celebrity status to coerce women into submitting to him sexually. “The president has had so many other assault allegations levied against him, there is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated solely to documenting these numerous allegations of sexual misconduct.”

“Those fighting to have the photograph reinstalled with full knowledge of the allegations against this man,” she continued, “are sending a very clear message that they do not know what it feels like to be forced to satisfy someone else’s desire for power with their body, that sexual assault is not abhorrent enough to merit displacement of a photograph, and that a self-admitted sexual assailant is deserving of a symbolic place of reverence because his political title is high enough.”

Councilman Jim Stanford tried to shoulder some of the blame for the decorative change. He was the one to suggest replacing Trump’s portrait with Chief Washakie, he said.

“I first brought it up last year, when President Obama was still in office.” The only tradition the town hall really upholds, he said, “is displayed on the walls behind you.” Stanford gestured to the 22 portraits of mayors past on the back wall in council chambers.

His was a “sincere desire that town hall be neutral. That we come and talk about local issues, and not be confronted right here with national partisan politics … Leave town hall as a neutral place, and honor those who have served.”

But Muldoon took the blame back. “The buck starts with me,” he said. Throughout the meeting and despite his apology, Muldoon did not waiver on his position. Voting to display Trump’s portrait now, he said, sends a message that he succumbed to bullying and intimidation.

“I’m concerned that the message we’re sending is, you should bully Jackson, threaten to murder its mayor, because it works.” One person, Muldoon explained, threatened to come to Jackson and slit the mayor’s throat. “I feel like I’ve been given an inkling of what it’s like to be a woman, a person of color, LGBTQ … it’s bullying, pure and simple. It’s not designed to convince, it’s designed to intimidate.”

Councilor Don Frank also defended Muldoon, but still voted to have Trump’s picture returned. He called Muldoon’s decision a “credible argument handled in a less-than-optimal way.”

“I know the mayor we have right now is a man of conscious and virtue,” Frank said. “He has profound beliefs, and the courage to express them.” But, he continued, “Understanding is not always agreeing.”

He emphasized that he is not swayed or impressed by “profanity, tempered threats or mean-spirited ranting. That’s not how civil societies conduct civil conversations.” His vote to reinstate the portraits, he said, is a call for unity, “irrespective of party.”

Muldoon suggested an amendment to Morton-Levinson’s motion: to hang Trump’s portrait alongside a copy of the first page of the constitution, and pictures of the leaders of the other two government branches—and Chief Washakie. Council members declined the amendment.

“I’m not necessarily opposed,” Morton-Levinson said. “I’d like to discuss it at a later date.” PJH

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