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Polarized politics pulls Stonington first selectwoman into its orbit

If you had asked me to name the local elected leaders least likely to get caught up in the politicizing of the pandemic, Stonington First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough could well have been at the top of the list.

You know the politicizing I am talking about — slowly open up versus liberate; wear a mask for the good of all versus don’t tell me what to do; this is deadly serious versus this has been a huge overreaction that’s killing the economy.

After some unity seen at the start of the pandemic, the tribes have carved their idols.

With 100,000 dead and counting, dismissing the seriousness of this public health threat is to ignore reality. Trying to paint the steps taken to inhibit the spread of the disease as some contrivance to damage President Trump’s reelection should qualify you for the tinfoil hat society.

On the other hand, a case can be made that some steps taken via executive orders were an overreach or inconsistent. And the economic damage is real, the goal of trying to undo it as soon as safely possible an appropriate one.

It has all gotten quite emotional. And into it walked Stonington’s first-year first selectwoman.

Cat Thibodeau, owner and operator of the Modern Barber and Shave shop on West Broad Street in Pawcatuck, the working-class section of Stonington, had announced she was opening May 20 in defiance of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order.

Lamont has generally done a good job dealing with the crisis. The curve was bent, hospitalizations for COVID-19 are declining and the process of reopening has started.

But the governor botched the barber shop and salon reopening. Initially, they were a go for the May 20 first phase of reopening. Many owners invested significant time and money in an effort to meet the state’s criteria for safe operation, including Cat Thibodeau. But two days before the opening date Lamont, citing reports many shops could not be ready, delayed the permitted restart until June 1. He should have let those ready to operate do so.

Thibodeau announced she was opening as planned.

Cat’s tribal proclivities are as clear as the red “Make Haircuts Great Again” shirt she displayed for the TV news cameras that showed up to record her defiance. And over the course of a week, with protests and news updates, she got plenty of publicity for her tribe.

On the morning of May 20, Chesebrough told me the Ledge Light Health District, with which the town contracts for health services, faced the reality Thibodeau was going to be cutting hair.

“Persuasion to stay closed was not working,” Chesebrough said of the discussions with Thibodeau.

There was confusion over who would be responsible for enforcing the governor’s order and how.

At that point, Chesebrough had been on the job for five months. Dealing with a pandemic and figuring out how to conduct town business via virtual meetings had been layered over the usual challenge of learning the ropes as chief executive of a town of 19,000 people, with major tourist attractions, and enclaves ranging from the tony to the blue collar.

Age 36 when elected, Chesebrough followed as first selectman the former congressman and decorated military veteran Rob Simmons, “the colonel.” They could not be more different. The Republican Simmons loved the attention and the give and take. Chesebrough seemingly tolerates it as part of the job. Simmons charged forward with ideas, Chesebrough seems more about consensus.

A former analyst of investor relations at the United Nations, Chesebrough insisted on maintaining her unaffiliated status even when endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee. Her election with two other women, a Democrat and a Republican, to form the town’s first all-women Board of Selectmen (selectwomen?) was a feel-good story.

But back to the barber shop.

On May 20, the health district, recognizing the shop would be in operation at least for a time until enforcement was clarified, sent inspector Katie Baldwin to take a look. Knowing the passions surrounding the situation, and that this was no ordinary inspection, Chesebrough went along.

“I felt that was my duty and my role. So, I went with Katie to make sure everything was safe and secure and make sure she, as our health partner, was not being put in an unsafe situation,” she told me.

As it turned out, Thibodeau was largely prepared to conduct safe pandemic hair trimming. But she did not have a face shield. Chesebrough went to retrieve one from the town’s personal protective equipment supply, recently augmented.

In the opinion of some, she had crossed a tribal boundary, supporting Thibodeau’s rebellion. Criticism followed. So did some verbal back slapping.

None of that, she insists, ever crossed her mind. I believe her. I’ve talked to enough politicians to know when they are trying to reinvent history to return it to a more politically palatable place. This wasn’t that. Chesebrough seemed genuinely flabbergasted that she had become a villain to some in the go-cautious crowd, a hero to the “set us free” tribe.

“You want people to be safe. I was in a position where I thought I could provide added protection,” she said of her decision to retrieve the face shield. “I wanted to help.”

On May 21, Modern Barber and Shave shop received the order to shutdown. Protests and court filings followed. Thibodeau, having gained plenty of publicity, announced Wednesday she would wait for the June 1 Lamont-approved opening after all.

If Chesebrough is guilty of anything, it may be political naïveté.

“I was really surprised the way the day, and week, unfolded. I don’t think these things should become political and polarizing,” she said. “I think if any one of us can do something to protect our community we should be doing it, whether that’s wearing a facemask when you walk into a store or offering someone protective equipment which, whether you agree with them or not, they can use to protect themselves and members of our community.”

Yeah, fine, but what tribe are you in?

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.


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