When Money Magazine named Columbia, Md., the “best place to live” in America earlier this month, it splashed a glossy photo of a smiling local black family on its cover. “Why we love it,” the publication gushed: “A planned community that prizes economic and social diversity.”
Before the issue could even hit newsstands, however, another report threatened to paint a very different picture of the place.
Black sheriff’s deputies “are not too smart, but they get the job done.”
“There’s no watermelon there for you!”
“Are you getting the chicken special?”
These are a few of the “negative comments, gestures, and/or derogatory epithets against African-Americans” allegedly made by Howard County Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald, according to an investigation by the county’s Office of Human Rights. The report also detailed sexist and anti-Semitic remarks by Fitzgerald, who allegedly referred to former county executive Ken Ulman (D) as “little Kenny Jew-boy.”
The report has shaken a community renowned for its racial tolerance and inclusivity. Protesters have twice picketed outside the sheriff’s office since the report was released last week. Elected officials across the political spectrum have called for Fitzgerald, a Democrat, to step down.
“We really pride ourselves on being a place were we don’t just tolerate diversity, we celebrate it,” explained County Council Chairman Calvin Ball (D-East Columbia), who is black. “When I heard that kind of racially insensitive, disrespectful and intolerant language, it just sent a chill down my spine.”
So far, the sheriff has ignored calls for his resignation — and refused to answer the phone, according to several officials who have tried to reach him. An awkward standoff has ensued: Under Maryland law, elected officials cannot be recalled but must be removed if convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude.” On Thursday, County Executive Allan H. Kittleman (R) sent a letter to state lawmakers asking them to investigate whether Fitzgerald can be impeached.
Fitzgerald, who is serving his third term, declined to comment. Speaking to investigators, however, he denied the allegations, arguing he had increased diversity and helped bring the sheriff’s office “into the 21st century.” He wasn’t a bigot, he said, but rather just “a loud New Yorker.”
The controversy comes at a time of intense nationwide debate over race and policing. During Monday night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump — another loud New Yorker — extolled stop-and-frisk policies that have been ruled unconstitutional. And his opponent, Hillary Clinton, suggested that “implicit bias” may have played a role in police shootings of black men across the country.
In Howard County, the sheriff’s office primarily acts as an arm of the court system, transporting prisoners and issuing summons. The police department handles most law enforcement.
But Renee Grant, a black small-business owner who attended last week’s protest, said she was worried Fitzgerald’s attitude on race had spread down the ranks. She feared an officer would end up “pulling a trigger because of the bias that he is spreading.”
“An investigation may be needed of the whole department,” said David S. Steele, president of the Howard County branch of the NAACP. “The climate right now as a direct result of this report is very tense.”
Howard County is an unlikely place for racial turmoil.
“When I first moved here, I said, ‘Oh wow, this is like a utopian society: It’s so diverse and everybody gets along,’ ” said Rev. Janelle Bruce, of St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, who organized a protest Monday outside Fitzgerald’s office. “But this shows we have issues like other places.”
To call Columbia a utopian experiment is no exaggeration. In the early 1960s, James W. Rouse, a self-made millionaire developer often credited with inventing the shopping mall, secretly bought up 15,000 acres of farmland between Baltimore and Washington. In 1963, he unveiled his plan for a diverse, integrated and self-sustaining city of 100,000 people.
“My parents moved to Columbia because of James Rouse’s vision of a place that embraced diversity, acceptance and opportunity for everyone,” said Ulman, who was born and raised in the city.
A half-century later, Columbia is often cited as an urban planning success story. “It ranks in the top 5 percent of the 823 places on this year’s list for job growth and economic opportunity,” wrote Money Magazine in its best places to live issue, which also lauded its relatively affordable housing prices and dedication to “community building.”
That sense of community is now being tested by the scathing report issued Sept. 1 by the county’s Office of Human Rights.
The investigation stemmed from complaints made by one of Fitzgerald’s employees. Lt. Charles Gable, a white, 64-year-old officer with 18 years on the force, claimed he had been punished for refusing to support the sheriff in his 2010 reelection campaign. Gable said Fitzgerald made him work nights and weekends for years and subjected him to verbally abusive “tirades” so fierce that he was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He has become the poster child for bigotry, bullying and temper tantrums,” Gable told investigators. “The venom that spews from this man’s mouth is abhorrent. I could no longer work for this man.”
The human rights report, however, went beyond Gable’s case. Over the course of nearly a year, investigator Cheryl M. Brower interviewed 35 current and former employees as well as several civilians who described unpleasant interactions with Fitzgerald.
The 48-page report accused Fitzgerald of disparaging the intelligence of black deputies, using racist gestures and often describing “African Americans as ‘N----rs.’ ” Fitzgerald also allegedly made derogatory comments about women’s breasts and Jewish people.
“I’ve got really thick skin after serving in office for 12 years,” said Ulman, an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014 who learned of the alleged “Jew-boy” insult when his phone began buzzing with texts during a class he teaches at the University of Maryland.
“To me,” he said, “it’s more a reflection on how much work we still have to do as a society: the fact that in the year 2016, somebody in a position of power and authority thinks that way, let alone lets those thoughts come out of their mouth.”
Protesters and public officials are hoping continued pressure will force Fitzgerald to step down.
Few people are as personally invested in the outcome as Ball, the council chairman. After all, that beaming black family on the cover of Money Magazine is his.
This post has been updated.