Tootie Smith receives backlash, support for COVID comments
Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith is again receiving both support and condemnation for remarks she's made, this time at a Jan. 1 "Women for Trump" rally at the Oregon state capitol.
During the Clackamas Board of County Commissioners' business meeting Thursday, Jan. 7, several residents took the opportunity to express their opinion on statements Smith gave in Salem New Year's Day in which she criticized Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and railed against "regressive" safety mandates.
"Let me be clear: Gov. Brown has no authority over me or any other elected official in Oregon," Smith said to raucous applause in front of the state capitol. "I stand for freedom, smart health programs that heal, and allowing people to make intelligent decisions."
Les Poole — a resident of Gladstone, former county planning commissioner and alternate house captain of the Clackamas GOP — kicked off public comment Thursday coming to Smith's defense.
"There's been a lot of confusion and a lot of misquotes about what Chair Smith's position and other folk's position on what I describe as 'overkill,'" Pool said. "I've heard from former Chair Jim Bernard that Mrs. Smith thinks the pandemic and COVID is a hoax. I've seen written in the newspaper that the folks who are questioning the governor and the state's overkill are just a bunch of loons that don't care. That's complete nonsense."
Poole went on to praise those who are standing up against Oregon officials such as Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, who has suggested that businesses in his city should reopen in defiance of the state's orders that restaurants in areas labeled to be at extreme risk for the spread of COVID-19 only open for takeout and delivery.
"(Pulliam) is recommending that we go back to the status we had in mid November before the governor decided we could only have six people for Thanksgiving," Poole said. "I would appreciate that on behalf of the citizens, hearing more and more from the board in their comments at the end of the meeting clarify their positions because these are very difficult times and the last thing we need is more confusion."
Smith responded saying that she never stated COVID-19 was a hoax, and that the situation Oregon and the nation face is quite serious.
Subsequent public comments were not as favorable to Smith.
Jennings Lodge resident Cris Waller expressed concern that Smith's statements in support of reopening Clackamas County's economy as soon as possible is at odds with guidance from public health officials to continue safety mandates and restrictions on businesses until the vaccine is more widely distributed.
"It would seem to me that the only acceptable stance of the Clackamas County commissioner would be a support reality, yet your new Chair Tootie Smith has been outspoken in her opposition to common-sense measures," Waller said via virtual technology. "Tootie claims that we need to open up everything now in the name of saving businesses and stopping depression. The truth is that fully opening up businesses does not equal saving them. People will not go back to shopping and dining until they feel safe."
Waller went on to criticize statements made during Smith's speech at the capitol suggesting that Oregonians should be allowed to choose whether or not to get vaccinated, and that they should embrace the idea of herd immunity.
Waller called on the board to publicly denounce Smith's statements as misleading and inflaming partisan divides.
Smith responded saying she intends to make a point of correction in a new public-service announcement. Smith released a video on Thursday, Jan. 7, talking about the status of COVID-19 vaccines in Clackamas County and encouraging "anyone who wants to have a vaccine should be able to have a vaccine."
"I'm sorry this person chose to misrepresent and spread misinformation about my positions, and about what other people have said about me," she responded.
Christine Kennedy, another Zoom caller giving public testimony from Lake Oswego, took issue with Smith's reference in the board's meeting earlier this week to a "white paper" she drafted in May 2020 on recovering from COVID-19 and reopening the economy.
Kennedy said she's read two drafts of the same document several times each, and called Smith's credibility into question after she claimed the report was peer-reviewed.
"There are no references to scientific-source documents, with the exception of Science Magazine related to her wastewater-testing proposal," Kennedy said. "There is no evidence this is a peer-reviewed document. The Oregon Health Authority is the single resource for her data."
Smith refuted Kennedy's statement, saying that the document was "peer-reviewed by several doctors," but did not state who those doctors were or their credentials.
"As the county moves forward in opening for the public and cautiously for our employees, we will be using all safety protocols and listening to public health officials," she said.
But that claim doesn't agree with statements Smith made Jan. 1 at the capitol when she told protesters that "these supposed progressive COVID laws that were designed to save us have turned into regressive mandates, taking our community, counties and cities backwards."
"COVID has a 99% survival rate, instead the government leaders tell us just the opposite, and fear is driving the bus," Smith said, speaking to protesters. "Don't let the government lie to you. Speak your truth."
Smith took the opportunity to respond to another piece of public testimony the board received via email from Oak Grove resident Elizabeth Berk taking aim at Smith again for her comments at the capitol, asking her whether those comments were made in her official capacity as board chair — which she identified herself as — or as a private citizen. Berk criticized Smith saying that an elected leader of a county shouldn't be making statements that seem to call for reopening when public health officials are saying otherwise.
"This rally was in support of 'opening Oregon' in the face of a raging virus that is decimating families and communities across the state," Berk said. "Present at the rally in Salem were members of groups like Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, the organizations that on Jan. 6 staged a riotous coup at the United States Capitol. You have also posted, on your social media account, images and stories in support of 'armed volunteers' backing Oregon businesses who defy public health orders."
Smith said that she was acting as a private citizen because she had not yet taken office. She also characterized Berk's comments as lies and disinformation regarding her positions.
Smith did, however, take the opportunity to condemn the violence that took place at both the Oregon capitol on Jan. 1, as well as the assault on the United States capitol by right-wing groups that took place Wednesday, Jan. 6 as members of congress met to certify electoral college votes from the 2020 election.
"As far as the violence in the capitol yesterday, my heart was never broken more upon the four deaths that occurred, on the day damage to the building and on the attempt to intimidate our senators and our house of representatives members to vote," Smith said. "There is no place for that country. There's no place for the riots in Portland that have been allowed to happen month after month. I do not support violence whatsoever."
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