Most water board meetings don’t make people cry. But when the board of Marina Coast Water District met on July 16, emotions ran high. The agenda itself was stacked with the ordinary business of a water district – sorting out easements, an annexation agreement with a neighboring district. But the audience was stacked with people who had shown up to spend part of their Monday night speaking up about racist tweets sent by one board member, Howard Gustafson, some of which appeared in the Weekly’s Squid column on June 25.
This far into Donald Trump’s presidency, we’ve become dangerously accustomed to offensive tweets. Even if vulgarity and insults are the norm on the national stage, when a local elected official expresses hate, it still has the ability to cut to the quick.
Gustafson’s Twitter feed is relentlessly pro-Trump (which should bother no one) but it’s also anti-everyone else (which should bother everyone). His feed is a textbook example of the type of vitriol that’s moved from the fringes to the mainstream since Trump emerged politically.
“The parents of these children are hurting their kids,” he tweeted June 20 in response to the zero-tolerance border policy that led to separating children from their parents. “GET RID OF THEM NOW OR THEIR WILL BE PROBLEMS LATER” (sic).
On June 4: “Justices side with Colorado baker on same-sex wedding cake; Sue the crap hell out Colorado scumbags and their little wee-wee complaints. You scumbag little queers, go somewhere else, most people in USA DO NOT ACCEPT WHAT YOU DO.”
On May 15: “Brawl Breaks Out at Mt. Olympus Resort in Wisconsin Dells; That is what happens with human debris, white BLACK and MEXICAN, human fn’ debris, we do need a civil war to take care of this and government scumbags.”
Five members of the public showed up at Marina Coast’s meeting to express their concerns – and five is a lot for a small water district, comprising about half of the audience.
“It was easy for Mr. Gustafson to tweet his hate messages. It is difficult and courageous for those members of the public who came today to speak out about this,” Harvey Biala said.
“How is it possible that someone in a public leadership position can speak so disparagingly about the population he represents?” Lisa Berkley said.
As water activist Kathy Biala quoted a tweet, she broke down as she read Gustafson’s term for Barack Obama: “black bitch.”
“I am not merely opposed to racism, sexism and xenophobia from an intellectual standpoint,” Biala, who is Japanese-American, continued through tears: “I am deeply hurt at my very core as a person of color and as a woman.”
When members of the board responded, they were courteous. They’d clearly understood that they could not forbid Gustafson from exercising free speech on his personal social media account. Board president Tom Moore acknowledged that despite their differences, he and Gustafson – a geologist who formerly worked for Salinas’ Public Works Department – generally agree on water issues.
When it was Gustafson’s chance to speak, he could’ve apologized to his constituents. Instead, he doubled down. “Those tweets are my views,” he said. “What’d you go search it out for?”
He went on to offer up a brief personal bio as if it’s a reasonable excuse, citing a childhood as an Army brat. “I talk about people differently than you do, because many of you come from maybe somewhere in the United States that’s a little more protected. In the Army, the only color we knew was red. And that was blood.”
He then pulled out some Trumpian math: “I have 4,400 followers, including the president of the United States.” (As of July 25, he has 20 followers, not including the president.)
“What I believe is what I believe,” Gustafson added. “I believe 75 percent of Marina believes as I do.”
It’s up to voters to prove him wrong. The board has instructed district staff to craft a social media policy, but given First Amendment protections, that policy is unlikely to prohibit Gustafson from tweeting whatever he wants on his own time.
Three board members, including Gustafson, are up for re-election this November. He’s already filed papers to run.