OSWEGO – The day was off to a pretty normal start as the Kendall County Democratic Party float was trying to find its place in line before the PrairieFest parade began Sunday, June 16, Robyn Vickers, Kendall County Board member representing District 2 and a member of the local Democratic party, said.
Vickers said the Democrats on the party's float were waving at Republican elected officials from the county as they passed the Kendall County Republican Party float. She said there was typical friendly banter back and forth between the two floats. But when Democratic party members passed by the front of the Republican party float, they saw a man in a James Marter U.S. House District 14 campaign T-shirt put his feet together, raise his hand in a Nazi salute toward the Democratic Party float and yell, "sieg heil."
“And honestly, we were all kind of dumbfounded," Vickers said. "And we were all looking at each other like, did you hear that? Did that really just happen?”
CNN Legal Analyst Renato Mariotti, who was following Democratic 14th District Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, first tweeted about the incident, asking if those kinds of actions are what the Kendall County Republican Party stands for. The initial tweet sparked several hundred reactionary tweets, including tweets from Underwood.
"I want to be very clear: hate has absolutely no place here," Underwood tweeted. "PrairieFest has been a family friendly, fun and welcoming event in Oswego for many years and we refuse to let this action define us."
Kevin Schramek of Aurora said he was participating in the parade as part of the Kendall County Republican Party and that the incident happened in a matter of seconds. He said he wouldn't have considered the banter between both parties being that friendly, with Republicans shouting “fake nurse” at Underwood on the Democratic float and Democrats shouting “racists” at Republican officials.
Schramek said he didn't actually see the individual from the Republican float give the salute or shout "sieg heil," but when the man was confronted by other Republican Party members, the individual admitted to the actions and claimed it was in response to someone "flipping him the bird" from the Democratic float, Schramek said. Contrary to reports from other news and social media accounts, he said the act from the individual wasn't unprovoked.
“It’s probably not a good reaction from that person, but that’s what he had told us,” Schramek said.
Vickers said Democratic officials that were on the float didn't get photos of the act itself, but caught photos of the man who performed the act. She said she heard rumors of who was allegedly identified as the man who made those gestures and yelled, but she declined to give the alleged name of the man.
Official statements from both parties followed the Twitter comments and spurred further social media conversation shortly after the event.
Julie Gondar, chairwoman for the Kendall County Democratic Party, said in a statement written shortly after the incident that she called on the Kendall County Republicans to issue a formal apology and asked them to denounce and distance themselves from the individual.
"Kendall County is a growing community," Gondar wrote. "There is room for discussion and disagreement. But this hateful rhetoric is inexcusable and must be addressed immediately."
Joe Gillespie, chairman for the Kendall County Republican Party, said in a Sunday, June 16, statement that the individual is not a precinct committeeman nor holds any office within the Republican Party. He wrote that he apologized to anyone who witnessed the incident and that type of behavior and ideology has no place in the Republican Party.
"For this reason, this individual will no longer be permitted at the events of the Kendall County Republican Central Committee or any of our affiliates," Gillespie wrote.
Marter said in a Sunday, June 16, statement that he apologized for the person's bad behavior as the immediate former chairman for the Republican Party. He also wrote that his campaign and the party will no longer be affiliated with the person.
"In the heated environment in politics these days, we cannot tolerate this type of behavior on either side and I regret it happened before the event," Marter wrote.
While the man in question was definitely associated with Republican candidates and walked the entire parade, Vickers said, she is 100% certain that the Republicans that she knows would not behave this way or condone that kind of behavior. She said this isn't a party thing for her and the man just happened to be with the local Republican Party during the incident.
“It’s not representative of the Republicans I work with every day, and it’s a shame that it happened," Vickers said. "It’s just awful.”
Gillespie said on Monday, June 17, that bigotry is not and cannot be accepted, regardless of party affiliation.
"It was an unfortunate situation and obviously not tolerated, and we will move forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again," Gillespie said.
Gondar said she had called Gillespie to thank him for his prompt and tactful response on behalf of the county's Republican Party. During the conversation, she said, he reminded her about conversations the two of them began about a year ago about hosting a joint party event such as a food pantry fundraiser or perhaps a community cleanup event.
In light of recent events, Gondar said, the two of them are planning on getting together in near future to finally solidify those plans.
“Our goal is to have members of both parties to come together and take care of the community that we all live in,” Gondar said.
Vickers said the incident makes the community look bad and that she doesn't like when it looks that way when she knows that's not what Kendall County stands for. She said she hopes Republican Party members will follow through with their statements and that the man won’t be allowed to participate in future party events.
“This is a chance for both sides to unite and say that behavior isn’t acceptable in our communities,” Vickers said.