BRUNSWICK — A war of words between former School Board Chairman Byron Watson and a member of the state’s Legislative delegation escalated this week, just days after the board stripped Watson of his leadership role.
The board’s 6-3 vote came during a heated March 10 meeting, where Watson said the effort to remove him was a political smear campaign orchestrated by the delegation.
The board’s decision followed Watson’s public criticism of the town’s state legislators and his transmission of what some said was an inappropriate and sexist e-mail message to House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.
Prior to the board’s decision, Watson, a Republican, called the furor over his Feb. 5 correspondence a political power play by the town’s all-Democratic legislative delegation.
Last weekend, Watson stepped up his attack, circulating a video of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell describing Pingree as “the best looking speaker in all of the 50 states” and a “cute little gal with long blond hair.”
Mitchell’s comments are about five minutes into an October 2009 speech to supporters at the Mitchell Institute.
Watson circulated the video to reporters, supporters and some town officials. He titled the e-mail “Gross Double Standard.”
“Does anyone think that there will be a political smear campaign launched against George Mitchell by our Delegation?,” Watson wrote. “Does anyone think that a small group of extremists will label George Mitchell a sexist?”
This week, Watson said the video proved that the effort to remove him had been spearheaded by the delegation.
Watson’s leadership came into question following the Feb. 5 e-mail he sent to Pingree. The e-mail message, which Watson said he wrote to seek help in reviewing a $3 million loss of state aid, began, “Let me start off by stating you are the most gorgeous member of the Legislature.”
He ended the first sentence with a smiley-face emoticon, then told Pingree he wasn’t writing to “hit on her.”
School Board members seeking to remove Watson from leadership said the remarks were inappropriate, embarrassing to the board and an ineffective way to communicate with the House speaker.
Two members, Corrine Perreault and James Corey, said they originally would have stood behind Watson had he not continued to publicly criticize the legislators.
“Byron, we’re friends, but I’m concerned that you’re so angry about this,” Perreault said during the March 10 meeting. “You’re hurt now. … I’m afraid your anger is not going to go away.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, refuted Watson’s claim that the Mitchell video demonstrates a double standard.
“Sen. Mitchell has known Hannah since she was a little girl,” Gerzofsky said. “He’s had a personal, long relationship with her, and he’s a friend of the Pingree family. … He wasn’t writing a letter out of the blue to someone he had never met before and (who) wouldn’t know him from Adam.”
Gerzofsky also denied Watson’s allegation that the delegation met with School Board members to organize his ouster.
“I haven’t met with anyone,” he said. “I’ve sat back and let this stew in its own juice. … (Watson’s) brought this mess on himself, being the victim and blaming other people.”
Watson and his father, Town Councilor David Watson, have compared the younger Watson’s removal from the chairmanship to a political hit by the all-Democratic delegation on a Republican prodigy.
“They saw him as an up-and-comer, a threat,” the elder Watson said on March 10. “And they took him out.”
“(Watson’s) a legend only in his and his father’s mind,” Gerzofsky said. “I’ve never thought he was a statewide player, not even a townwide player.”
Gerzosfky said he was too busy with legislative matters in Augusta to meddle with town politics.
“I’ve been a little too busy to notice (Watson’s) rantings,” he said.
Watson, in an e-mail, claimed Gerzofsky’s remarks were “proof beyond a reasonable doubt that this was an orchestrated political smear attack.”
“It is clear that Gerzofsky continues to play politics with our children’s future,” Watson wrote. “He should apologize for his comments, misleading specific Board Members and the public and get back to Augusta focusing on Brunswick rather than himself.”
He added, “the small group of extremists that aided Sen. Gerzofsky’s character assassination games entire argument was that sexism has no place in today’s society. Sen. Gerzofsky’s remarks do not even come close to passing the straight face test. You cannot pick and choose based on party identification who should abide by certain standards otherwise you have a gross double standard which is (sic) what we have here.”
The School Board is scheduled to meet March 24, when it is expected to elect a new chairman.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Forecaster reporter Steve Mistler explains the Brunswick School Board controversy during a March 21 appearance on WMTW Channel 8. Click here to view the segment.