86

Couple Targeted, Mocked, for Holding Far-Right Board Majority Accountable

Benjamin Nowain and Jenny O’Connell snap one of many selfies taken before a Board of Supervisors meetings over the last four years of Shasta County turmoil.

Ever since the spring of 2020, when Shasta County government was targeted by far-right extremism on steroids and overtaken by an ultra-conservative board majority that makes Ronald Reagan look like a liberal snowflake, I thought I’d seen, heard and adapted to the worst of the worst at Shasta County Board of Supervisors meetings.

Profanity. Death threats. Insults. Taunts. Hissing. Yelling. Slammed gavels. Lies. Gas lighting. Doxing. Booing.  Disrespect. Misogyny. Sexism. Blackmail. The N-word.

Tuesday’s meeting had some of the above.

But nothing prepared even the most seasoned supervisor meeting spectators for the moment on Tuesday when Jenny O’Connell — a frequent public commenter — approached the lectern for the third time that day to speak. On this day, the diminutive O’Connell looked especially frail. Her voice was nearly a whisper. Her eyes and nose were red. A few seconds into her statement she began to cry as she tried to speak.

Frequent public commenter/thorn-in-the-flesh-of-the-board-majority Dolores Lucero stood at the lectern in support of the weeping O’Connell. Supervisor Mary Rickert came down from the dais and placed tissues on the lectern for O’Connell.

Many people in the audience were clearly moved, and had tears in their eyes as they watched and listened to O’Connell.

However, there was no  expression of remorse or empathy upon the face of Jones — the supervisor who’d called O’Connell stupid.

Back story: Within a few weeks of one another, O’Connell and her husband Benjamin Nowain were both recent victims of two different supervisors who’d written or said cruel things about them, apparently unaware that their words would eventually become public.

First was a whistleblower’s release of District 5 Supervisor Chris Kelstrom’s text messages about Nowain, accentuated with vomiting emojis.

“That guy is such a douche bag. I’d love nothing more than to beat his ass and take his lunch money. Lol” Kelstrom wrote in one text.

“Thanks. Now I’m throwing up … Not to mention I voted to give that little piece of shit a raise,” Kelstrom wrote in another.

At the same board meeting where Kelstrom was called on the carpet by Joe Dokes about the texts, District 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones whispered to District 1 Supervisor/chair Kevin Crye into a hot mic about “stupid Jenny”.

Tuesday, O’Connell tried to talk about how difficult it was for her and her husband to be publicly humiliated that way. She wept as she described how she’d tried to be open to talking to people across the aisle.  She told how people close to her cautioned O’Connell to not attend Crye’s coffee meetings, but she went anyway. She said she’d been involved in politics since she was a little girl, and always thought she could make a difference. She now had doubts. She said she was tired. She was literally sobbing at the lectern.

She said Jones was right. She was stupid to think she could make a difference.

Crye butt in and hijacked O’Connell’s emotional meltdown even before her three minutes was up. He told her to go ahead and collect herself. As she caught her breath, Crye pontificated at length about the awesomeness of his Friday Coffee With Kevin gatherings at a Redding coffee house.

“Everybody’s respectful cause there’s no cameras,” Crye said. “There’s no opportunities for sound bites … There’ve been a lot of wonderful people, right?”

He said people like Crye and O’Connell shouldn’t give up. Crye got the last word, and O’Connell returned to her seat, without finishing her train of thought. She didn’t talk about how many times some people in the board of supervisors audience routinely heckle and hiss at her, or call her Strawberry Shortcake (she often wears pink and red, or clothes decorated with strawberries).

She didn’t talk about the hateful passages written about her and her husband on social media. She didn’t describe the negative reception she’d had moments earlier outside the board chambers when trying to talk with some ultra-conservative women, including Leslie Sawyer, a Crye supporter and Mountain Top Media radio show host, who frequently yells out from the lectern or from her seat at District 3 Supervisor Mary Rickert.

From left, Leslie Sawyer and friends’ laughter and rude comments toward Rickert turned heads during Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting.

Tuesday, inside the chambers, Sawyer and two of her companions cackled, mocked and commented loudly about Rickert, and applauded Crye’s sarcastic quips, such as when he smirked and said, “let the flogging commence”.

Rather than use O’Connell’s sadness as an opportunity to boast about his Coffee With Kevin gatherings, there were far more important things Crye could have said.

For example, as chair, Crye could have denounced colleague Jones for referring to O’Connell as “stupid” in the first place. Crye could have suggested Jones and Kelstrom apologize. Crye could have made a motion to censure Jones and Kelstrom for their bad behavior.

Supervisor Jones’s hot mic picks up when he refers to Jenny O’Connell as stupid.

Likewise, Crye could have called out Kelstrom for threatening to beat up Nowain, for calling Nowain a “piece of shit”, and for bringing up the union-negotiated raise for Nowain and other county employees, as if he didn’t deserve it.

Community activists, believers in democracy

What makes Jones and Kelstrom’s attacks upon O’Connell and Nowain especially egregious is that the couple is arguably one of the most informed and involved pair to attend supervisor meetings. Combined, they’ve spoken hundreds of times during the public comment periods.

They often post on social media selfies of themselves at board meetings. They write things on their Facebook posts like, “We’re here fighting for democracy”.

For years, meeting after meeting, O’Connell has approached the lectern, smiled, and referred to the elected leaders before her as, “beautiful supervisors” – a statement many people in the audience have difficulty swallowing, but nevertheless can appreciate coming from O’Connell, with a soft-spoken countenance that often gives the benefit of the doubt to even supervisors with whom she doesn’t always agree.

It’s ironic that Jones of all people would dare call O’Connell stupid, since he is not known for having a keen intellect, even though he was once Redding’s “mayer” (sic).

O’Connell presents as an intelligent, articulate and kind person.

Jones, on the other hand, has a reputation for telling lies, and using his board seat to promote his pet projects. He has difficulty keeping his cool, which is why so many meetings under his previous chairmanship erupted into complete chaos.

Speaking of mental deficiency, during Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, Jones tried to pass off an overhead image as originating with the Secretary of State’s website, when Supervisor Rickert confronted Jones with the fact that the image was actually created by election-denier Doug Frank. Plus, Jones said the slide was about voter rolls, when it stated on the top of the image that the graph was about voter turnout.

Guess who looked egg-on-his-face stupid in that particular moment? Jones.

For a study in contrasts, watch O’Connell deliver this passionate, articulate comment last year, addressed to Jones specifically.

For more than four years — work schedules permitting — O’Connell and her husband Benjamin Nowain have not just attended nearly every Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting, but they’ve been frequent speakers during the public comment period.

Why the hatred toward Nowain and O’Connell?

Some hard-right followers may believe that Nowain and O’Connell deserve for the supervisors and their followers to make the couple the object of their verbally bullying and profane wrath.

After all, during last year’s county union workers’ strike, Nowain created hand puppets that depicted the likeness of Jones and Crye.

Over the last few years Nowain has also produced a number of polished, informative video broadcasts, North State Breakdown, published here on A News Cafe. In these well-researched, factual short films, Nowain consistently holds the far-right board majority accountable. He points out hypocrisy, conflicts of interest, Brown Act violations, and other behaviors unbecoming and even illegal for supervisors.

No wonder Nowain and O’Connell are so disliked by the far-right majority.

Since Tuesday’s meeting, community activist Nathan Pinkney created a spotfund online fundraising page to collect money to purchase body cameras for the couple.

By now, the donations to Nowain and O’Connell have exceeded the original target amount, $179 more than the $2,000 goal.

A sample of the comments on the fundraising page express love, appreciation, encouragement and admiration for O’Connell and Nowain:

Thank you both for your truth and courage!
I admire your work, your effort and your courage.
Hang in, & bravo for your courage in standing up to the cabal.
Thank you for being a voice for many of us in the community.
Stay strong.
Thanks for speaking truth.
Sorry these jerks have been harassing you. I hope things get better. Maybe they could get arrested; that would be nice
We hear you.
Hang in there. Right People – Right the World!
We love you guys! Stay safe!
Brave girl – don’t let small minds overpower a big heart.
I’m sorry this happened to you, and it’s not right. Thank you for standing up and speaking out as you do. 🙂
The harassment is unacceptable!
We will stand strong with you!!
Standing up to bullies is so brave. Thank you for all you do.
Stay strong friends!
We are all behind you guys. We will not let hatred win.
I’m so grateful for Ben & Jenny. Hoping this small donation is just one more piece in the armor that helps protect and shield you from any future bullshittery.
Ben and Jenny are heroic.
Thank you for your bravery and leadership during these tough times.

All those positive, uplifting comments far outweigh and outnumber Jones and Kelstrom’s cruel words. With this show of support, Nowain and O’Connell can arm themselves with those affirmations as fortification at future board of supervisor meetings.

Even so, it may take a while before Nowain and O’Connell feel comfortable enough to return to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors chambers for a meeting.

That’s OK. It gives the board majority more time to prepare and practice their public apologies to Nowain and O’Connell.

They can start with, “I’m sorry,” and “Please forgive me,” and work up from there.

Click here to visit the spotfund site for Benjamin Nowain and Jenny O’Connell. 

###

If you appreciate Doni Chamberlain’s reporting, please help support A News Cafe with your contribution and belief in local, grassroots journalism.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

86 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments