Ely is the kind of place where people normally escape the rancor and contentiousness of everyday life. They go for the lakes and loons and solitude of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, an area the local radio station WELY calls “the end of the road.”
Well, the lingering acrimony over the presidential election has reached the end of the road in Minnesota, thanks to comments posted by a newly elected member of the Ely City Council on a private Facebook page for Hillary Clinton supporters.
The post, which suggested members of the group consider suicide, has angered people in Ely and across the state, with some even calling for a boycott of the tourist town. People on both sides of the issue plan to attend the City Council meeting Tuesday evening in Ely for what promises to be spirited discussion.
Dan Forsman, 28, was elected to the council in November. Three weeks ago, Forsman was somehow able to access a private, invite-only Minnesota Facebook page called “Pantsuit Nation,” where mostly female Clinton supporters discuss the election and plan future political activities.
Forsman posted a photo of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a doctor who helped terminally ill patients take their own lives, with the words, “Do you suffer from Trump Acceptance Rejection Disorder (TARD) Ask your doctor if suicide is right for you.”
Members of the group were outraged, and last week demanded an apology and asked for Forsman’s resignation during the Nov. 29 council meeting. According to the local newspaper, the Timberjay, more than a dozen people attended the meeting and many spoke of how the hateful comments invaded their privacy.
Calls for censure
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak said at the meeting that he had received more than 50 e-mails calling for censure of Forsman, but told the audience that neither he nor the council had any power to punish him.
Neither Novak nor Forsman responded to e-mails or phone calls seeking comment.
Peta Barrett, owner of Women’s Wilderness Discovery in Ely, was one of the women who spoke out last week. Pantsuit Nation “has become this safe place to talk about what women are going through,” she said in a telephone interview. As news spread of Forsman’s post, people began to talk about boycotting the town. One couple thinking of moving to Ely from Delaware is now reconsidering, Barrett said.
Barrett, whose business relies on women who visit the area to participate in wilderness tours that she guides, is against a boycott. “Please,” she said, “the majority of Ely is not like that.”
Yet, Barrett admits that “he’s gotten a lot of support” around town. The Ely Echo, in fact, stood up for Forsman’s right to free speech in an editorial, failing to mention that free speech calls for responsibility and has consequences.
Barrett said many women both inside and outside Ely saw Forsman’s post as a willful violation of a private group to spread the kind of coarse rhetoric that Donald Trump used during his presidential campaign. She said the women saw a need to call him out on it rather than stay silent or ignore it.
“What makes him think this is OK?” she said. “The line of decorum has been erased. People all over are just going nutso.”
“I am a business owner in Ely,” Barrett said. “I am intensely concerned about my fellow human beings. All of us have friends and family on both sides of the spectrum. We have an obligation to demand that we be civil to each other.”
Sarah Hansen of Ely copied me on a letter she has sent to the local newspapers.
“When it comes to our differences I choose a path of love over hatred and fear,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Unfortunately, our City Council member Dan Forsman has opted to not be a role model for our community or children. His recent comments on social media were hurtful words lacking respect and responsibility. Being a bully is not to be tolerated in Ely. I hope he considers that the repercussions of his actions are greater than one day and will quite possibly have a broader impact on Ely tourism.”
Hansen pointed to the local elementary school’s program, Paw Pride, an effort to stop bullying: “Paw Pride reminds me that our school and community also chooses respect, safety, responsibility and cooperation for all people,” Hansen wrote.
Welcome to 2016, when elected officials have to turn to elementary schoolchildren to find their moral compass.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin