Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora says two members of the city council have apologized for using or defending an anti-Semitic phrase, although they did not do so publicly and could not be reached for comment.
Council President Kathy McBride has been under fire for allegedly saying a city attorney negotiating a woman’s personal injury lawsuit was “able to wait her out and Jew her down” for a lower settlement amount.
The comment came during a closed-door council meeting on Sept. 5. A recording of her remark was published Monday by The Trentonian.
Council members George Muschal and Robin Vaughn inflamed the situation when they came to McBride’s defense and appeared to downplay the phrase, which stereotypes Jews as swindlers and greedy.
Muschal said in an interview with the website New Jersey Globe that he has heard the term “Jew them down” many times and thinks it is “just a statement of speech.”
Vaughn wrote on Facebook that the phrase is “inappropriate in today’s PC culture absolutely, but to Jew someone down is a verb and is not anti-anything or indicative of hating Jewish people,” according to a screenshot published by The Trentonian.
Gusciora said he learned of the comments after they were reported by a member of the city’s legal department who was present at the meeting. Last Friday, he asked McBride to apologize in an email that was subsequently leaked to the press.
Councilman Jerell Blakeley has gone further, calling on McBride, Muschal and Vaughn to resign.
According to Gusciora, both McBride and Muschal on Monday morning visited the city attorney who worked on the settlement to apologize. The councilmembers did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Gusciora said he’d now like to move on from the incident, although it would be helpful if Vaughn also apologized.
“This is a teachable moment that people should [be] more tolerant and at the end of the day words do matter, and that if they’re hurtful they should be either retracted or apologized for,” the mayor said.
In an interview Monday, Vaughn said McBride should not have used the phrase she did. In her Facebook post, Vaughn said, she was trying to defend McBride from accusations that she was a racist or hated Jews.
“Her comments did not target any person or any group, and for that I believe she was using it as a verb, and it is a derogatory verb, but it’s not indicative of her being a racist or hating Jews or being anti-Semitic.”
Vaughn said she’s especially sensitive to demeaning language as a black woman.
“I don’t condone any type of demeaning of anybody for their race or ethnicity or their religion or their gender or whatever,” she said. “If one of my colleagues used the N-word in an executive session, I would step to them immediately.”
But Vaughn suggested at least some of the outrage voiced by Gusciora and Blakeley was motivated by politics. Blakeley has his eyes set on the council presidency, and potentially the mayor’s office, should Gusciora run for the congressional seat now held by U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Vaughn said. Coleman received treatment for cancer last year but made a full recovery.
“The law says that if the mayor of the city of Trenton vacates his seat, the president of council becomes the mayor,” she said, adding: “Not to say that the issue of the racial slur is not material in this whole scheme of things, but we should not lose sight of what is the intent here.”
On Tuesday, Blakeley rejected Vaughn’s statements “absolutely baseless” and called her a “conspiracy theorist.”
“It’s a reach and she should be embarrassed of her embracing of anti-Semitic tropes and slurs,” Blakeley said. “The more she speaks the more she reveals she’s an absolute embarrassment to the voters of the West Ward, who really are disturbed by her erratic nature.”
McBride is the third New Jersey official in a month to come under fire for anti-Semitic statements.
Jeffrey Dye, a staffer in the Gov. Phil Murphy administration and head of the city of Passaic’s chapter of the NAACP, was fired last month after numerous anti-Semitic Facebook posts came to light.
And Michael Jackson, a councilman in Paterson apologized last week for using the phrase “Jew us down” when referring to negotiations with a developer.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that a recording of Kathy McBride’s remarks was posted online, and to add a response from Jerell Blakeley.