INVERNESS — The culture war came to Citrus County on a Tuesday.
It was 84 degrees and cloudy, but inside the county commission chambers, there was only air-conditioned chill, the pale glare of fluorescent lighting and simmering anger. Two weeks earlier, the commissioners had announced they would not pay for New York Times digital subscriptions for local library cardholders. Their words spiraled far beyond this West Central Florida town of 7,000. Now they were staring down the backlash in a nearly full meeting room.
They began with an invocation.
Commissioner Ron Kitchen bowed his head to call upon God. Among the progressive protesters in the crowd, wearing sunshine-yellow shirts that said “vote,” someone scoffed: “A prayer?”
Kitchen didn’t seem to hear.
“We can no longer have a conversation between one another,” he said from the dais. “We can no longer have a discussion. It’s come down to hate and vitriol.”
One year until Election Day 2020, four months from the Florida Presidential Primary, and seemingly no one in Room 100 at the Inverness courthouse had any doubt about where they stood. On the library issue, but also on everything else.
What was all the fuss really about?
Dale Pray, 64, a protester at Tuesday’s meeting, said the outrage from the library decision was about so many things: caging children, stifling women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality.
Gloria Hannemann, 76, piped up at his side: The environment, she added.
“Dump Trump,” Pray said.
All these problems were why about 100 Citrus residents had banded together earlier this year in a “Coffee Coalition” to support progressive causes, Pray said. It was why some of them were there Tuesday, the first meeting since the commissioners, who are ostensibly non-partisan, spoke on the library issue Oct. 24.
Presented with a request to sign on for a $2,700 annual digital subscription to the New York Times for about 70,000 library cardholders, they had all balked.
“Fake news, I agree with President Trump,” Commissioner Scott Carnahan said then. “I don’t want the New York Times in this county. I don’t agree with it, I don’t like 'em, it’s fake news and I’m voting no.”
The commissioners didn’t vote that day. But they made their opinion clear.
“Why the heck would we spend money on something like that?” said Commissioner Jimmie Smith.
The story hit the local newspaper, the Citrus County Chronicle. It spread to the Tampa Bay Times by Monday. The next day it was in the Washington Post. New York Times staffers tweeted about it. State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, who had his own scandal earlier this year when old photos surfaced of him wearing blackface, tweeted: “Great job Citrus County Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith! Lake County Commission should do the same!”
Late Tuesday morning, little more than an hour before the commission meeting, downtown Inverness was quiet as usual. People walked from work to Coach’s Pub and Stumpknockers, next to the offices of the Chronicle and the local Chamber of Commerce. Historic placards boasted about the area’s past, about how Citrus separated from Hernando in 1887, about the copper cupola on top of the old courthouse, now a museum. “Historic Olde Town,” the official Inverness sign read, under a painting of an egret at sunset. Signs pointed to the Withlacoochee Trail and Liberty Park and, in the colors of the flag, labeled Inverness: “Land of the Free.”
Sitting on a bench outside their clothing store, Ritz And Glitz In The Square, Brenda Gardner and Dorothy Fitzgerald were shocked to hear their home was the subject of online ridicule.
“We do shopping and therapy,” said Gardner, 70. If people were gossiping, they would hear about it. Both women voted for Trump, like 68 percent the residents of Citrus County — but to limit the New York Times?
“I still think you ought to hear from all sides," Gardner said. “That’s like burning books. I don’t like it.”
Fitzgerald, 69, said it sounded like something from the Democrats’ playbook.
“They’re the ones who want to take everything away from people,” she said.
Don McKinney, 52, scarfed a turkey sandwich from Subway at a picnic table nearby. He had read a little about the issue in the Chronicle.
“Ten to 15 years ago, it wouldn’t have made a blip what little Scott Carnahan and little Citrus County would have said about the New York Times,” he said.
Viral news, though, “looks for a reason to breathe and to flourish.” This week, that reason was in Inverness.
McKinney, a conservative, thought it didn’t matter much if the New York Times was available in the library, but the dust-up was all part of a greater conservative awakening.
“We’ve got to sound the horn so that the casual observer at least realizes, ‘Oh the New York Times could be fake news.’”
The “Coffee Coalition” members were starting to gather in front of him, chit-chatting before walking in.
Some were longtime Floridians, others couldn’t hide clipped accents from pasts in New York and Maine.
When the meeting opened up to public comment, the protesters stepped to the lectern to dish cheeky civics lessons about the First Amendment and government censorship.
"I am a retired teacher with 43 years of experience,” said 88-year-old Jodie Henderson, angling the microphone down in front of her walker. She wagged a finger at the commissioners: "This isn’t the first time I’ve had to tell young scallywags to stop talking and do your job.”
"You were parroting a position of Donald Trump who, like yourself, does not even read the newspaper,” said Christine Crabtree, 49.
Nancy Tomaselli said she was humiliated and ashamed when she read about the commissioners' comments. "What family will move here to raise their children under the umbrella of an administration that practices medieval censorship?"
Others brought up white male privilege run amok, plans to vote the commissioners out, Mein Kampf and Das Kapital and all the other works of information that were bad but not kept from people. Sure, the library still received paper copies of the New York Times, the Tampa Bay Times, the Citrus County Chronicle, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, but what about shut-in people with disabilities? Why not increase access?
Besides, this debate really wasn’t about all that. It wasn’t about context — that a county cannot be painted in red and blue or even white (that portion of the population is only 88 percent in Citrus). It wasn’t about whether a newspaper is greater than the sum of its push alerts.
This was about America, now.
One woman spoke in support of the commissioners. Protesters booed her down.
About half of them left before the commissioners took their turn speaking.
“I’m supposed to apologize for being male, I won’t. I’m supposed to apologize for being white, I won’t,” Kitchen said. “That’s the way God made me. The only privilege I have is to have been born and raised in the United States of America, which I stand behind fully.”
Carnahan, who had spent most of the meeting taking notes, swiveling in his seat and occasionally smirking when people mentioned Trump, said he respected other opinions but the opponents didn’t respect his. Print copies were staying in the libraries, he said; there was no censorship.
“I pay for mine, what I want to read. And I do read the newspaper,” he said. “I can read.”
The commissioners said they would discuss the issue again at their next meeting Nov. 19.
All but a few of the protesters left before the board delved into its usual business, like item H1, whether forfeiture funds should go to the Boys and Girls Club and the Anti-Drug Coalition. At the back of the room, the door swung open and closed.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.