WALLINGFORD — The fallout continued locally this week over state Rep. Craig Fishbein’s retweet of a racist meme.
Fishbein, who represents the 90th District and is a town councilor, retweeted a meme on May 30 showing an image of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden giving a speech with the words "If you aren't setting fire to buildings then you ain't black" on top of the image.
Fishbein apologized and took down the post on June 1 after a public outcry. The Town Council voted to censure him the next day during a meeting.
The leaders of both local political parties have since weighed in on the controversy with public statements.
In a closed-door meeting Wednesday that lasted for nearly two hours, the Wallingford Republican Town Committee voted to endorse Chairman Chris DiGenova’s statement, which he shared on social media Sunday, as the official response by the RTC and did not take further action regarding Fishbein.
The statement called Fishbein’s actions “highly offensive, and completely contrary to the (committee’s) values.”
“Our committee strives to make Wallingford a town where all feel welcome and safe,” the statement said. “We expect this of all our members, and especially of those who represent us in elected office. Representative Fishbein's tweet was antithetical to the efforts of our membership to uphold these values.”
The statement concluded with a call for Fishbein “to strongly consider the damage this action has done to his town, and to the faith of his constituents in his ability to represent them.”
Alida Cella, chairwoman of the Wallingford Democratic Town Committee, issued a statement on June 4 in which she said the committee is “extremely concerned” that Fishbein “would be as tone deaf as to retweet something as inflammatory and racist ... in a Twitter account that clearly identifies him as a state legislator.”
“From his comfortable position, it is not clear that he understands the seriousness of the divide in this country, in this state, and in our town,” the statement said. “Those of privilege, and in positions of responsibility, must recognize and work to change the situation, not mock it. Elected officials must be held accountable for their actions, their words, their tweets, and re-tweets. Rep. Fishbein is no exception.”
Fishbein declined to comment on the statements Thursday.
Calls to resign, Democratic challenge
The 90th House District includes parts of Cheshire and Wallingford, including Yalesville.
Fishbein was first elected as a state representative in 2016 in a special election after the death of Democrat Mary G. Fritz created a vacancy. He’s currently vice chairman of the General Assembly’s Conservative Caucus.
The calls for Fishbein to resign as state representative started as soon as the retweet became publicly known. An online petition started June 1 by an anonymous person had nearly 5,000 signatures as of Thursday.
Democrat Jim Jinks, a Cheshire town councilor, announced Thursday that he turned in more than 500 petition signatures to secure his place on the November ballot to challenge Fishbein for the 90th seat.
Jinks said of the more than 500 petition signers, close to 300 were in-district Democrats. He needed 143 signatures for ballot access.
“We cannot allow racism like this to go unchecked,” Jinks said in a statement. “We are going to run a campaign that looks forward, to rebuilding Connecticut’s economy, investing in jobs, enacting healthcare protections, and focusing on issues that matter to the people of our towns. We’re going to work to make the lives of Connecticut residents better.”
After last week’s local protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the event organizers are planning a rally calling for Fishbein’s resignation from the state House of Representatives.
The event is scheduled for 6-7 p.m. today at Town Hall, 45 S. Main St.
The organizers, who have so far declined to identify themselves publicly, have planned a petition signing and speeches from political leaders.
They said in a statement Wednesday that they anticipate a turnout of about 100 people.
Fishbein has been criticized over previous social media activity and statements in the legislature.
In 2016, two months before being elected state representative, Fishbein got into a public spat on Facebook when a mannequin dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes appeared on top of an abandoned building visible from Route 5.
Fishbein commented on a post containing the photo by Wallingford resident Robert Glaspy that while it was "quite a horrible site in our town,” it looked photoshopped.
After some back and forth, Fishbein shared a link to the divorce case of his client, Glaspy’s ex-wife, which drew public criticism.
In May 2018, Fishbein said during a House debate on a bill to end the state’s so-called dual arrest policy for domestic violence calls to police that he believed “sometimes domestic violence is arranged.”
He said afterward that, as a private attorney with experience in family law, he has dealt with cases in which one party tried to frame a spouse for domestic violence.
Fishbein was the only lawmaker in either legislative body to vote against the bill.
In February, Fishbein participated in a meeting on the Crown Act, which would prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on ethnic hairstyles associated with race, during which he used the phrase “monkey see, monkey do.”
A video posted to YouTube by an anonymous user captured part of the incident. Fishbein said Thursday that the video does not show that he “immediately apologized, because I understood somebody would take offense to it.”
As an advocate for small government, he was seeking clarification on whether existing federal protections against racial discrimination covered hairstyles, he said, and was wondering out loud if whether New York had just passed the bill meant that Connecticut should.
“As soon as I said it, I heard murmurs,” and it dawned on him that it was an inappropriate phrase to use, he said.