The story of Swampscott selectman Don Hause has a Cliffs Notes version pretty much everyone can agree on. At a local restaurant last month, he criticized Black Lives Matter and the idea of white privilege. A server took issue with Hause’s comments on Facebook. The restaurant fired the server, but then offered him his job back, and banned Hause. And now, a group of Swampscott residents wants to recall Hause from office.
Go beyond that, though — into the finer points of what happened, the emotions the controversy has generated, and what the episode actually means — and things get murkier.
The recall drive is being led by Nick Scibelli, a lifelong Swampscott resident who recently graduated from UMass Amherst. Scibelli says that while he wasn’t happy when he first read about Hause’s comments, a couple of other factors pushed him to act.
In early June, when other selectmen signed a proclamation to honor George Floyd's memory and reflect on his murder, Hause initially didn’t. Instead, he wrote a letter to the local paper, the Swampscott Reporter, praising the town’s police force and urging people “to not simply get caught up in the rhetoric of the day.”
“[There’s] nothing wrong with supporting police officers, but given the timing of the situation, some of the comments he made in the article, it was pretty concerning,” said Scibelli, 22, who works in clean energy. “So it became pretty clear to me that he wasn’t properly equipped to be a leader in this town for persons of color.”
Removing Hause from office won’t be easy. Recall supporters need to obtain and submit signatures from 15 percent of the town’s registered voters by the end of the day Wednesday. That means getting the support of more than 1,700 people, during a pandemic that’s taught us to keep face-to-face interactions to a minimum.
In addition, Hause topped the ticket the last two times he was elected. And right now, he’s talking like someone who’s learned a lesson — or, is actively trying to.
“I need to be a little more judicious, perhaps, in terms of what I say, or how I say things,” Hause said during an interview with WGBH News.
People of color represent a minority of Swampscott residents. According to U.S. Census data, just 3 percent of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, and just 1 percent as Black or African-American.
Tamy-Feé Meneide, who moved from Roxbury a year ago, is part of that small group.
“As a newcomer to Swampscott, I’m very much looking forward to holding my town accountable for making me and my family, and all families, feel welcome, safe and affirmed,” said Meneide, 37, who is a charter school educator.
In particular, Meneide said, she’s thinking about her young son as she works for the recall. He might attend Swampscott schools in a few years — and recently, she’s heard local students of color describe being treated differently from their peers.
“The students speaking out really made me engaged in the work a little bit more,” Meneide said. “That’s going to be my son's experience, and I need to lean into that.”
When asked about that now-infamous restaurant discussion on June 11, Hause admits asking how he could possibly exemplify white privilege, given his rough upbringing and ongoing fight with cancer.
Now, Hause says, he has a different take.
“I think many people that don’t understand what white privilege refers to, it’s people saying, 'Wait a minute! I wasn’t given anything. I had to work hard. I’m not privileged,'" said Hause, 60, who works in real estate and finance. “And as I’ve come to understand — and I still need to learn more, obviously — that’s really not what that term is meant to connote.”
But Hause insists he never took issue with the entire Black Lives Matter movement — just “radical factions” he said he believes are undermining its message. He stands by his support of the town’s police, who he says have been unfairly denigrated in recent weeks. And he says his initial delay in signing that proclamation about George Floyd's death was justified.
"Any time, as an elected official, we’re making a proclamation on behalf of the town, I need to review it carefully and think about it, because it’s not my voice — it’s the voice of everyone that elected me,” Hause said.
“In retrospect, could I have taken the next day perhaps to review it and say I support it, or make some tweaks? Sure. I should have done that.”
Instead, Hause ended up signing the proclamation a month after his colleauges did.
Now, as a possible recall looms, Hause says a lot of residents are supporting him. But he admits others aren’t — and says it’s deeply frustrating to be condemned, in the harshest terms possible, by people he’s never met.
“Many of them have said, publicly, ‘Oh, it’s not personal,’” Hause said. “But it is personal. Because when you’re publicly calling someone a racist and a bigot and a white supremacist, really hateful, deragotory, inflammatory and dangerous terms, yet you’ve never even spoke to them or met them — I find that shameful.”
It’s also painful, he added, to be frozen out by people he’s known for years.
“If the shoe was on the other foot, the first thing I would have said, having known many of them as long as they’ve known me, is, ‘Gee, I’ve known so and so for years. I’ve never heard them say or do anything that they’re being accused of. I wasn’t there that evening, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt,’” Hause said. “And the fact that that hasn't happened is really disappointing."
As the recall proponents see it, though, the time for giving Hause the benefit of the doubt has come and gone.
“People have absolutely been saying, ‘Don’s a great guy, you shouldn’t be doing this,’” said Nick Scibelli. “And that's fair. Don might be a great guy. I don’t know.
“It’s not a question of whether or not he’s a great guy,” Scibelli added. “The question is whether or not he’s equipped to uphold the civil liberties and safety of persons of color in Swampscott. And he’s demonstrated a pattern of being unable to do so.”
If Scibelli, Meneide, and other recall organizers submit the requisite number of signatures by 5 p.m. Wednesday, the town will hold a recall election this fall.