GOP candidates dismiss importance of having their elections signs in a yard with a Confederate flag

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

A Confederate flag reads “heritage not hate” at the home of Paula and Kevin Dunnells. Paula Dunnells said that her teenage son requested that the flag be put up to honor history. The controversial symbol is flying in the same yard as Republican election signs.

BERNE — As elections approach, a controversy has arisen over a Confederate flag flying in a yard in Berne alongside campaign signs for candidates for the Republican party.

“Why would you choose to have your name associated with a hateful symbol?” asked Susan Hawkes-Teeter in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week. She lives in the Berne hamlet near the home with the flag and the election signs.

Hawkes-Teeter wrote that the flag was not only a racist symbol, but also was against the United States soldiers who fought in the Civil War as well as other wars.

The GOP candidates say the flag and its placement has nothing to do with the election.

Paula Dunnells, who owns the home with her husband, Kevin, said that her teenage son requested that the flag be put up to honor history. The controversial symbol was once flown unofficially by some factions of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War and was revived in the 1950s and 1960s in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement; it has since been used by white supremacy groups.

Dunnells said their flag has been up since June.

“No one’s had an issue until election time,” she said.

When campaign signs were first put on her lawn for five days by the Republican Party during the primaries in September, Dunnells, an Independence Party member, said that she had been told that there had been remarks on social media about the flag from a woman whose husband works for the town, who described Dunnells as “another redneck in the town of Berne.”

Dunnells said the campaign signs came down immediately after the primary elections were over. When Republican campaign signs for the general election came up again, about a week ago, Dunnells said this again led to political blowback.

The three campaign signs that were recently put up include incumbent Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, and two challengers for town justice, Richard Otto and Mary Alice Molgard. Bashwinger and Otto are Republicans, and Molgard is a Democrat; all are running on the Republican line.

Dunnells said that she cannot recall who put the sign on her lawn, but said that she supports all three candidates.

“And I’ve known them for years,” she added.

She said none of the candidates spoke with her about the flag, and she was never approached by anyone about it.

Dunnells said her son is simply interested in history. The family will go on camping trips to see historical sights such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“He likes history, he likes culture — he doesn’t like the violence,” she said, of recent political protests. She said her son had been upset about Confederate statues being torn down, something she described as “destroying history.” She added that flying the flag “supports his right to say ‘heritage, not hate.’”

“Now some will argue that because the flag says ‘heritage, not hate’ it does not convey the same message as a regular confederate flag. This, of course, is nonsense!” Hawkes-Teeter wrote. “The message of the confederacy was hate – both of people of a different race and also of the United States as an entity.”

The flag, while not the official flag of the Confederacy, was one of several battle flags flown during the Civil War. A century after the Civil War, just when many statues to General Robert E. Lee were erected, the Confederate flag became popular in the South, in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, and was flown in public places in the South as well as adopted into some Southern-styled pop culture.

The Confederate flag was flown by the segregationist Dixiecrat political party and sometimes used by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups. The flag was seen this summer during protests of the tearing down of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville Virginia that included white supremacy groups and led to the death of one counter-protester.

In the Hilltowns, where Democratic enrollment is double or more the Republican enrollment, voters crossed party lines in the last presidential election to support Republican Donald Trump, who said after the Charlottesville protest that removing Confederate statues is “changing history.”

“I’m not concerned,” said Dunnells, of the fact that the flag has been flown by white supremacists. “Because those groups have taken it to the extreme … They’re just going to take a symbol.”

Dunnells’s husband has family living in Tennessee, and she has family who live in South Carolina and Florida. She and her son are white, but she said that she has black family members in her immediate family, who she said accepts the Confederate flag her son put up.

“They understand that he likes history and … they talk about history,” she said.

She feels that the flag doesn’t have any connection to the election.

“My son’s flag has nothing to do with politics,” she said.

Candidates respond

Molgard, Bashwinger, and Otto each said that there is no connection between the flag and their campaigns.

“As far as where my signs go has nothing to do with a flag … ” said Bashwinger, who emphasized that the signs were on the far side of the lawn away from the flag. “I’m kind of curious of how it has anything to do with the confederate flag.”

Bashwinger accused the letter writer of playing politics right before the election.

He said he was raised to respect other races, and does not agree with white supremacy. But he said he feels the Confederate flag does not stand for racism, but for heritage. He recalled growing up and watching the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard” and is disappointed that the show is no longer aired because of criticism of the Confederate flag.

The channel TV Land pulled the show in 2015 after controversy over the Confederate flag arose that summer when white supremacist Dylann Roof, who had been pictured with the flag, murdered nine black churchgoers.

Bashwinger said he is not sure who put his election sign up, but recalls the property bearing the Confederate flag.

“I really didn’t pay attention to it,” he said, of the flag. “I was paying attention to the sports sign.” The Dunnells also have a Tennessee Volunteers flag for the college football team.

Molgard said that she was aware of the Confederate flag and her campaign signs in the Dunnells’ yard.

“But the flag is just not simply the Confederate flag,” she said, noting the words “heritage not hate” printed on it.

Molgard, like Bashwinger, stressed the distance between the signs and the flag. The two both noted that the flag belonged to a teenage boy interested in history.

“He has no connection to any supremacy groups, nor does anyone in his family,” said Molgard.

She said that, while she does not support white supremacy, the flag has no connection to her or her running mates. She described how her campaign signs sit in a yard with a black and blue flag flying in it as well, a symbol supporting law enforcement.

“What someone chooses to put up in their yard absolutely has no connection to our people,” she said.

Molgard also noted she has been recognized for her work against prejudice by the organization Holocaust Survivors and Friends.

“I’m not going to get into any kind of debate over my view of the Confederate flag,” she said. She acknowledged that it has been used as “a tool of white supremacists” but said that the recent concerns brought forth in the letter were “a tempest in a teapot.”

Otto said that he wasn’t aware of the flag or the campaign signs.

“If somebody wants to put up a Nazi flag, I’ve got no control of it … ” he said. “What somebody puts on the front of their house really has nothing to do with me.”

Otto said he was not concerned by the flag, and said that people are “entitled to have two opinions.” He said that concerns should be focused on issues affecting the town of Berne.

“It’s not an issue in the campaign,” he said, of the flag.

While he did not come out against the flag, Otto said, “If anybody wants to see what my allegiances are … you can see an American flag flapping in the breeze…” by his home.

More Hilltowns News

  • A Black Lives Matter rally planned by Berne resident Laurie Searl has drawn strong criticism on Facebook, leaving some would-be attendants worried about a counter-protest that could turn violent, as has happened both locally and across the country.

  • A state audit has revealed that Knox Town Clerk Traci Schanz failed to deposit more than 300 fee collections within the legally required timeframes and made reporting errors that left the town with an unremitted cash balance of more than $3,000, according to a report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller. Schanz said she is grateful for what she learned from the audit and new procedures have been put in place.

  • Berne’s town attorney Javid Afzali informed the town board at its July 22 meeting that the controversial Switzkill Farm property may have been acquired illegally because the 2014 town board did not allow for a permissive referendum following the purchase authorization. Then-supervisor Kevin Crosier tells The Enterprise that no referendum was required.

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