When Pinellas County extremists cannot win a public policy debate on the merits, they turn to Adolf Hitler. A website operated by a prominent opponent of the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum featured a doctored movie video clip Friday of Hitler screaming at Pinellas County commissioners and other Greenlight supporters. The video was taken down after the media started asking questions, and no one accepted responsibility. These are the smear tactics of desperation, and they say more about the integrity of the Greenlight opponents than about supporters of a bold transit plan that would transform Pinellas and the region.
The Hitler video appeared on the website operated by Dr. David McKalip, a St. Petersburg neurosurgeon and vocal Greenlight opponent. It featured a movie scene of Hitler ranting to his officers, and subtitles were added to identify them as Pinellas County commissioners Ken Welch and Susan Latvala, former St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner and Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Welch is chair of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, Steinocher co-chairs the political committee promoting Greenlight and Danner is one of the committee's featured advocates for the Nov. 4 referendum. McKalip called it a parody that was intended to be funny, but there is nothing funny about comparing elected officials and Greenlight advocates to Hitler's officers.
McKalip said on his blog that the creator of the video was Tom Rask of Seminole, another outspoken Greenlight opponent. Rask declined comment to the editorial board Monday. McKalip and Rask are closely tied to the group opposing Greenlight, No Tax for Tracks, although Rask previously has told the Times editorial board he has done work for the group but is no longer a member. The two men are also closely associated with Pinellas Patriots groups, the tea party groups that oppose Greenlight and work closely with Barb Haselden, who chairs No Tax for Tracks and said she was not aware of the video. While the web of formal connections can be difficult to untie, many of the characters in this campaign of misinformation and scare tactics are the same.
Pinellas voters have demonstrated they will reject such destructive political appeals aimed at spreading fear and distrust. Hitler was invoked by opponents of adding fluoride back into Pinellas County's drinking water. The voters spoke loudly in 2012 by embracing public health and sound science, ousting two county commissioners who voted to take fluoride out of the water and replacing them with two who pledged to resume adding it. They can be counted on to rely on facts to decide the Greenlight referendum, reject fear-mongering, and consider the reputations and records of those on both sides of the issue.
Greenlight has broad support from Republicans and Democrats, elected officials and business leaders from throughout the county who have a history of public service. McKalip and Rask have records of intemperate, demeaning public statements and extreme views. In 2009, McKalip apologized after sending a racist email depicting President Barack Obama as a witch doctor and resigned as president-elect of the Pinellas County Medical Association. And voters have recently rejected their version of far-right conservatism. McKalip lost a race for St. Petersburg City Council last year, and Rask lost a Republican primary race for County Commission in August.
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There is a temptation to ignore such gutter politics as a Hitler video and brush it off as more Internet noise from a small fringe group. That would be a mistake. McKalip, Rask and their fellow Greenlight opponents have pushed their way into the public debate on a defining issue for Pinellas County. They should be held accountable for their actions.