Administration says Mikie Sherrill welcome to visit after election
By Brett Friedensohn
Less than 24 hours before her scheduled appearance in professor Mark Washburne’s history class, New Jersey 11th congressional district Democratic Candidate Mikie Sherrill was disinvited by County College of Morris administration. As for why, the reasons vary depending on who is giving them.
Dr. Bette Simmons, vice president of academic affairs, sent an email to Washburne, the Democratic candidate for mayor of Mendham Borough, and Interim Dean of Liberal Arts Dr. James Hart Oct. 15 to notify them that the visit was postponed. On that email, sent to the Youngtown Edition, she copied History Department Chair Dr. Michael Parrella and Communication Department Chair Dr. Matthew Jones.
The email chain started Saturday, Oct. 6, when Washburne notified Simmons, Hart, and Parrella that he had heard from the Sherrill campaign that the candidate was available to visit Oct. 16.
Washburne said that he sent a text message to Sherrill after she beat him in the Tuesday, June 5 Democratic primary for the 11th district seat, congratulating her on her victory and invited her to speak in his classroom. He said that after not hearing a response on the matter, he met her again at a September Democratic fundraiser and again extended his invitation, and sent the email within minutes of hearing from Sherrill’s staff.
Parrella emailed Washburne back Oct. 6 saying that he had spoken with Hart and was unsure of the college’s policy on inviting candidates to speak in classes and that Hart will speak to Simmons when she returns Tuesday, Oct. 9. Simmons later said to the Youngtown that she was on vacation during this time.
She replied to Washburne Oct. 9, saying that he needs to reach out to Webber to invite him, and she advised him to wait until after the election to host Sherrill. Later that day, she sent another email saying that he may host Sherrill even if Webber declines the invitation, but Washburne will need to invite him nonetheless.
“It would be most appropriate – and in keeping with college expectations – that you reach out to Mr. Webber’s office and invite him to participate as well,” Simmons said in the email. “If he declines, you would still be able to host Ms. Sherrill as the offer had been extended to her opponent.”
Washburne replied that day saying that he had reached out to Webber’s office. He later told the Youngtown that he would have been happy to host the Republican state assemblyman but had emailed and called the office multiple times but heard no response.
“The time to bring her in is before the election, and if they want to be fair, let’s bring in whoever wants to come in as well,” Washburne said.” Jay Webber hasn’t responded, but he could have come in. Nobody was saying he couldn’t come in.”
Youngtown staff had been in contact with Sherrill’s staff over the week leading up to the scheduled visit to organize an exclusive interview with Sherrill before she spoke to the students. Since the cancellation, Sherrill and Webber’s campaigns have not responded to requests for comment.
Washburne has in the past hosted in-class visits by 11th district incumbent Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen, and in October 2016, organized a debate between representatives for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Simmons said Wednesday, Oct. 17 that it was Washburne’s responsibility to notify the department of public safety as well as the office of marketing and public relations about the scheduled event. The next day, the professor said that none of his supervisors told him this was his responsibility but that would have alerted these departments had he been instructed to. This matter never was mentioned in the email chain.
“That never even came up in conversations at all, so I find it odd that it’s coming up now in conversations,” he said. “I don’t know where it’s coming from. There wasn’t any part of our conversation at all that I didn’t notify any of these people. I was trying to figure out whether we could even do the program, so we never got to that stage.”
Simmons said that Washburne needed to notify public safety about the matter because Sherrill is running for federal office, and therefore, the college would be at a higher risk level if she is on campus.
“She may have been bringing her own security staff, but that still means that we have to do some things, making sure the facility was the proper facility to host her,” Simmons said. “So all of those housekeeping items needed to be taken care of, and unfortunately, they were not taken care of. And then the other part of the issue is again, because she is running for a political office, we need to make sure that the college had extended an offer to the other candidates that were running for that position, that they were given an equal opportunity to have access to our students and our employees, and that had not been done either. And so, to do all of that in the very short period of time from the moment I found out that the event had been scheduled, we just felt that wouldn’t be County College of Morris at our best, so we asked to have it postponed.”
Kathleen Burnet Eagan, CCM’s public relations director, said that if Washburne had notified her office of the event, she would have reached out to the candidates’ staff to find out what they need the college to do to help and if they need publicity assistance.
“It’s just part of the logistics, and this is when it went from solely a classroom event to a larger event,” Burnet Eagan said. “There’s a lot of pieces to take care of, and you need some time.”
Washburne said that Simmons had changed her mind on the rules regarding the steps he needs to take to host Sherrill.
“Dr. Simmons changed her mind on Thursday and said we had to hear from Jay Webber. And so, we never heard back from Jay Webber, so and I don’t know, I haven’t been in touch with the administration since Thursday on the matter, but I got an email on Monday saying that they were cancelling Mikie Sherrill coming to the class,” he said. “To me that would be great, if we were to invite Jay Webber. I said, ‘What if we invite Jay Webber?’ She said, ‘Sure.’ And that’s what I did.”
Simmons said that the college made its instructions to Washburne clear and consistent.
“I can’t respond on how he interpreted the message that I gave,” she said. “Knowing that there were other people that were a part of that conversation, I would say that it was really clear with what the college expected of him.”
While he is a Democratic politician, Washburne said that his purpose of bringing Sherrill to campus was not to promote his agenda but rather to educate his students and engage them in their elections.
“I love controversial topics to bring in. I want to engage my students, so for me, it’s not a big deal to bring in a candidate, or a few candidates,” he said. “I want to get them excited about the election, so that’s really the reason why I invited her and I have invited other people in the past, just to get students excited about it. They wanted, the administration wanted her to come in after the election. So I said, ‘This can’t wait. My students won’t be able to ask their questions about her positions.’”
Mike Velasquez, a fine arts major, does not agree with the schools decision to cancel Sherrill’s visit.
“We have these signs out in the student center that tell us to vote, but when we have a candidate coming to talk to us they just turn her away, that’s not right,” Velasquez said.
Alexa Cacchila, a nursing major, said that with Sherrill being unable to show up students lost a valuable opportunity to be encouraged to vote.
Robert Osewalt, a liberal arts/criminology major, was disappointed in the action that the school took.
“She should’ve been able to come, isn’t the school supposed to teach their students about the world?” Osewalt said.
Sophie Connell and Lianna Del Corpo contributed to this story.