Heated and racially charged rhetoric has distracted from the process of confirming Shelia Stubbs as the new Dane County Department of Human Services director, Stubbs said, while County Board members and other officials have said Stubbs hasn’t done enough to condemn the comments of her supporters.
County Board Supervisor Dana Pellebon, a member of the Dane County Board Black Caucus, said she learned that County Executive Joe Parisi had appointed Stubbs to the position through a media release on Thursday, April 13, and immediately began receiving a deluge of emails in support of the appointment. Pellebon and other members said some of those emails said that the County Board should confirm Stubbs to the position immediately, “or else.”
“As someone that works with and is a survivor of violence, I don’t accept threats of any kind from anyone,” Pellebon told Madison365.
Still, Pellebon said she intended to vote in favor of the confirmation, and had communicated with Health and Human Needs Committee Chair Heidi Wegleitner to voice support and make sure Wegleitner intended to sponsor the resolution confirming the appointment.
Wegleitner did sponsor that resolution, but only after requesting the applications of all four finalists – something Parisi called “unprecedented.”
In an interview with Madison365, Wegleitner countered that the appointment itself was also unprecedented, with only one round of interviews, limited reference checks and no evaluation from County staff.
“What (Parisi) did was totally unprecedented, and out of what anyone would expect to be a legitimate, serious recruitment process and hiring process,” Wegleitner said.
“I will say that rigorous vetting of department heads of the largest department in the county should be expected,” Pellebon said. “If this has not been something that has happened before, that is not my issue.”
Several members also expressed concern that Stubbs indicated that she intended to keep her seat in the State Assembly while working full-time as DHS director, a job they said requires one’s full focus. Stubbs has since said publicly, including directly to Madison365 in an interview, that she will resgn from the Assembly if confirmed.
The scrutiny on the appointment prompted a group of local Black leaders, led by the organization Blacks for Political and Social Action Dane County (BPSA), to write a letter to the board and an editorial accusing Wegleitner and others of refusing to sponsor the resolution, something she denied.
Pellebon said a prominent Black member of Stubbs’ church called her a “house n—-” in a private phone call – using the actual word – and the same supporter referred to Black county board members as “house n-words” in public comment at last week’s Health and Human Needs Committee meeting.
Supervisor April Kigeya also said she was targeted in social media posts that included incorrect information.
“Attacks have become personal targeting myself and other members of the Black Caucus. Attacks which started as phone calls, Facebook messages and emails from members of Representative Stubbs church, and then escalated to verbal attacks made directly to me during last Thursday night’s Health and Human Needs Committee Meeting. Further attacks against me have ensued since that meeting. I have been tagged in Facebook posts stating that: I am leading the County Board in playing the race card; my body language during the meeting was inappropriate and so on,” Kigeya wrote in a statement to Madison365. “I was elected to serve Dane County to the best of my ability and that is what I am doing. It is very disheartening that there is division amongst the Black community over who to support, and that the attacks and racial slurs have not been denounced. I do not feel seen, safe, or protected as a Black Woman in this community.”
“Only certain Black women in our town get to be protected. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow people to speak to my colleague in public the way that they did,” Pellebon said. “I did want to support a Black woman. Absolutely. But when we are not afforded that back when bullying tactics are used and threats are used, how can I bet that their tenure will be any different if we disagree? That puts me in an untenable situation.”
Pellebon said the rhetoric has caused her to change her mind on voting yes for Stubbs’ confirmation.
Stubbs, Parisi and supporters argued Monday that the focus on rhetoric is a distraction.
“It is unfortunate that rhetoric is caught in the process of this confirmation hearing,” Stubbs said in an interview. “This confirmation hearing is supposed to be focused on my qualifications, my experience, the vision I have for the department … but I want to go on record that I don’t practice hate. I love everybody.”
She said she did not condone the racially charged or threatening rhetoric, but couldn’t necessarily control it either.
“I’m responsible for myself. I’m responsible for what I say,” she said. “And what other people say has nothing to do with Shelia Stubbs … I’m really focusing on getting to work at the county and building the collaboration with this community and building trust between the County Board and the department and trust between the county board and county executive … No one should be threatened. I apologize if anybody has said anything to be threatened because that is not my viewpoint. I apologize. I don’t know what else people want me to do.”
The 34 non-Black members of the County Board issued a statement Friday in support of the three Black members – Kigeya, Pellebon and Anthony Gray – condemning the use of racial slurs in public discourse. Several state Senators and Representatives also made public statements in support of the Black members through press releases and social media posts.
In a statement issued Monday, Parisi did finally address the racial language used at the HHN committee meeting, and drew an equivalence to a comment made by Board Chair Patrick Miles. In an interview with News 3 Now, Miles said Stubbs’ language used in her church, made public through a social media video, was “dangerous.”
“The words directed at Supervisor Kigeya by a member of the public at the recent HHN committee hearing were unacceptable and wrong. She is owed an apology. Supervisor Kigeya is a public servant and a parent. She should not be subjected to this, nor should her family,” Parisi wrote. “I am also deeply concerned by the language employed by Chair Miles last week when he used words like ‘dangerous’ when referring to Representative Stubbs—a statement witnessed by her 12-year-old daughter on the evening news. At a time when our nation’s political discourse has degraded to unprecedented lows, and civility seemingly thrown out the window, we must do better here in Dane County.”
In a letter to the Board Monday, BPSA reiterated its support for Stubbs.
“We acknowledge that, amid these unprecedented proceedings, there has been confusion, rancor, and mis-information that has created hesitancy to support Shelia Stubbs’ nomination,” they wrote. “This is regrettable and unfortunate. However, we urge you to continue to focus on Stubbs’ lengthy career and proven track record as a steady and competent leader, a unifier with an even-handed temperament that has served her well as a state legislator, as a community leader and as a county employee.”
The Health and Human Needs Committee voted unanimously to recommend the full board reject the confirmation. The Personnel and Finance Committee will take it up at 5:30 this evening, and the entire board will vote on those recommendations on Thursday.