By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
JANESVILLE, Wis. — Edmund Halabi learned in the click of a mouse that community pride can be costly in a highly partisan presidential election year.
Halabi, who came to the U.S. from his native Liberia more than 25 years ago to eventually open his Italian House in Janesville, posted on Facebook the restaurant’s warm congratulations to Janesville’s own Paul Ryan in August, the morning the congressman was tapped to be GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s running mate.
“Congratulations to Paul Ryan!!! We are proud to have someone from Janesville Wisconsin to represent the USA …he is a big fan of the Italian House and his signature is on the “wall” Best wishes to Paul and his Family!!!” the Facebook site declared.
Within minutes, the seemingly innocuous post generated a barrage of angry comments from some of the restaurant’s Facebook page’s fans who do not ‘like’ the Republican Ryan. Beyond directives like, “Stay out of politics, crawl back into your kitchen,” others threatened to take away business.
“I really do like the Italian house, but if they are for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, then I won’t go there again, sorry, you are a business, dont mix it with politics,” one commenter said.
Halabi, who tried to calm the politically aggrieved, said he wasn’t making a political statement, just expressing civic pride. Some of his customers got that, one suggesting Halabi run for president. But others didn’t and the misunderstanding cost the Italian House business, the owner said.
What was most galling, Halabi said, is that he had been down this road a few months ago, arguably on the other side of the political divide.
A group of Janesville Democrats pushing their end of the recall campaign against Republican Gov. Scott Walker asked Halabi if they could use his restaurant for a staging area for their petition drive. Halabi agreed, offering his empty parking lot for a couple of hours on a Sunday, when the Italian House is closed.
He quickly heard an earful of criticisms, some on par with the hateful posts following the Ryan post, from angry Republicans who felt he had crossed the line.
Halabi said he was just doing what he has done for the past quarter century in Janesville — help customers when he can, no matter who they are.
“If I said no to them, I appear like I’m on the other side. I want to be fair to both” he said. “I got the phone call from Republican customers of mine. I got totally bitched out.” He likened the experiences to having “acid under my fingernails.”
A Facebook post during the Paul Ryan flap summed up the sentiments of some on the right.
“This coming from a place that supported “recall walker” is now jumping to the FAR FAR right??? I’m confused, the owner must have ben born with the same silver spoon ryan has….. Whoever is handing out the silver platters please stop buy my house!” the commenter said.
Halabi’s experiences underscore the partisan fires that burn in battleground Wisconsin, stoked by a year of recall campaigns and flaring once more in the heat of a contentious presidential election. It’s a politically charged lesson in damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The acrimony comes as little surprise to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Charles Franklin, who directs the Marquette Law School poll.
A Marquette poll in mid-June, more than a week after Walker defeated Democrat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the recall election, found nearly one in three of registered voters surveyed had stopped talking to someone about politics “due to disagreements over the recall elections or Scott Walker.”
The poll of 707 respondents, had a margin of error of 3.8 percentage point, and was on par with a similar poll in late May that found 34 percent of registered voters had stopped discussing politics with someone.
While Franklin said he hasn’t repeated the question since June in the periodic polls, his guess is that Wisconsin is “still very polarized as partisans.” That’s evident in the poll’s findings that show about 95 percent of Democrats, and the same for Republicans, will vote for their party’s candidates. The cross-over vote has dwindled to as high as 4 percent, and as low as 1 percent.
Still, Franklin said there may be hope, anecdotally speaking.
“I don’t remember hearing that someone has stopped talking to someone because of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama,” he said.
The storm has passed at the Rox Bar and Grille since April, when the Pewaukee pub and restaurant made national headlines over a politically charged T-shirt.
The shirt declared “I support Scott Walker” on the front. On the back it said, “He’s got nads.”
Dino Giacomantonio said he didn’t care for the message the shirt sent, worried that other patrons would find it offensive – politically and otherwise. He told the bar’s bouncer to inform the patron that kind of shirt would not be acceptable in the future.
The next day, a Facebook post by the disgruntled patron, who claimed he was kicked out of the bar for being a Walker supporter, launched a comment war on the Rox Bar and Grille’s Facebook page. The heated debate was picked up by Wisconsin conservative radio talk show hosts.
The Rox, which had been opened a couple of months, was painted as a partisan speech crusher, something Giacomantonio, who says he’s as apolitical as they come, asserts that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Beyond idle talk of a restaurant boycott, Giacomantonio said he received two death threats. Others threatened to burn down the restaurant, or, Giacomantonio claims, release cockroaches into the eatery, among other scares.
The worst of it, he said, occurred over three days.
“Those three days, it was the equivalent of watching your child being assaulted and not being able to do nothing about it,” he said. Cooler heads prevailed, when the disgruntled patron, Santo Ingrilli, and Giacomantonio’s friend Nathan Sass issued a joint statement asking for calm on Sass’ blog, “A Shot of Truth, On The Rox.”
But the incident cut into profits, something a new restaurant doesn’t need, the establishment’s manager said. Some have worn political shirts into the bar since. Giacomantonio has let it go.
Franklin said there’s no escaping the bitterness spilling over from politics into other spheres.
The impacts ripple throughout today’s favorite forms of communications.
A Pew Research Center survey earlier this year found one in six social network users post about politics. Of the nearly two-thirds who don’t post political content, about one in five decline to do so because they worry about offending someone.
Halabi learned even the most innocuous comment can have sweeping implications to sensitive viewers.
But in the end, the restaurant owner said he’s got one constituent, in a bipartisan business.
“I am whoever my customers are,” he said.
Contact Kittle at firstname.lastname@example.org