N.H. town caught up in storm over official’s use of slur


Wolfeboro Police Commissioner Robert Copeland listen in Wolfeboro, N.H. as town residents ask for his resignation at a May 15 public meeting. (Jim Cole/AP)

By Sunday, the furor had begun to calm.

Few of those out and about in the bustling town center of this lakefront hideaway were thinking about Robert Copeland as they cast fishing rods and licked ice cream cones on a beautiful day when the wind carried the fresh scent of spring through the downtown air.

This quiet New England getaway community has been thrust into the national spotlight as Copeland, the 82-year-old head of the town’s three-member police commission, battles to keep his job after being overheard in public referring to President Obama using the N-word.

Among the few full-time Wolfeboro residents out in the town square Sunday, disgust toward Copeland’s comments was apparent.

“It’s a disgrace, an absolute disgrace,” said an older woman as she sipped iced coffee outside a Main Street coffee shop. She described herself as a lifelong Wolfeboro resident and asked not to be identified because she considers Copeland a friend, although she decried his remarks. “This is a community where people bring their families, where people come to feel safe. There’s no place for that type of hatred here.”

For now, even if briefly, this 6,000-resident town in the heart of central New Hampshire finds itself on the front lines of a nation’s never-ending battle with the issue of race.

The firestorm erupted this month when Jane O’Toole, who moved to Wolfeboro about four months ago, overheard Copeland loudly describing Obama using the slur while sitting in a town restaurant.

Upon discovering that he was an elected official, O’Toole formally complained to the town manager and other members of the police commission.

“I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse,” Copeland said in a subsequent e-mail to his fellow police commissioners, which he forwarded to O’Toole. “For this, I do not apologize — he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”

Copeland has remained defiant, sitting with crossed arms Thursday as more than 100 residents showed up for a public meeting to discuss the incident. Many angrily called for his resignation.

But the commissioner has said he will not resign and has declined interview requests from the news media, not returning calls for comment and lashing out at a local television reporter who attempted to interview him Thursday, calling him a “skunk.”

No one answered the door at Copeland’s home when a Washington Post reporter knocked Sunday afternoon.

The three-member police commission, an elected body charged with the hiring of the town’s police force, plans to meet sometime this week, but it is unclear whether Copeland will be asked to step down as calls for his resignation or firing continue to mount.

“Comments like these, especially coming from a public official, are not only inexcusable but also terribly, unfortunately, reflects poorly on our town,” O’Toole said during the town meeting, according to the Associated Press, which reported that her remarks were met with resounding applause.

Several town officials noted that, because the police commission is independently elected, the town Board of Selectmen and town manager have no power to remove Copeland from office.

“The Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen [and I] are appalled at the language used by Commissioner Copeland relative to President Obama, and have publicly stated that we find it reprehensible and totally inconsistent with the Town’s open and welcoming character,” David Owen, Wolfeboro’s town manager, said in a statement released Friday. “We are hopeful that Mr. Copeland will accede to the public outcry and finally do the right thing and resign from his elected position to save the Town any further embarrassment of his making.”

Just days before Memorial Day weekend, the small town — tucked high in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region — was bustling with out-of-towners from throughout the Northeast. Many of them said they were unaware of Copeland’s comments.

“I hadn’t heard anything about that, but that guy sounds terrible,” a middle-aged father from New York said as he shepherded his two young sons into a gray SUV after an afternoon of boating.

The main stretch of the small, largely white lake town abounds with locally owned cafes, delis and ice cream shops, and it sees its population boom each spring and summer as people flock to its lakefront properties.

“Wolfeboro. America’s first resort town,” declares the sign that marks your arrival on Main Street, which connects the weaving series of side streets that constitute the small hamlet.

“The vile epithet used and confirmed by the commissioner has no place in our community,” former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who owns a home in Wolfeboro, said in a statement to the Boston Herald last week. “He should apologize and resign.”

The outrage over Copeland’s comments is just the latest on a long list of racial incidents and outbursts that have perhaps come to color Obama’s years in office.

In the six years that he has occupied the White House, the first black president has presided over a nation locked in near-constant racial dialogue, often spurred by events such as the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis shootings, or historic anniversaries, such as the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“It’s actually not that surprising. As shocking as these comments may be to people who live in circles that do not share those views, anti-black views are not as uncommon as some might expect,” said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who has helped oversee several surveys on Americans’ racial attitudes during the Obama presidency. “Although this is an example of a little person who holds a little job in a little town, this is emblematic of where we are right now as a nation.”

Krosnick said that studies conducted during Obama’s presidency have found that as many as 50 percent of white Americans openly express anti-black sentiments during in-person surveys. He added that the Obama presidency has led to an increase in outward expressions of racism — as well as an increased sensitivity by many other white Americans.

“Large swaths of the country are saying that this kind of language is outrageous, this is unacceptable,” Krosnick said.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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