Unhinging York: the mayor's tale

May 25, 2001|By Mike Argento

YORK, Pa. -- In other cities, the mayor gets arrested, and it's for putting his imbecile brother-in-law on the city payroll or extorting a kickback on the garbage contract or, the worst-case scenario until now, smoking crack with hookers in a hotel room wired for sound and video by the FBI.

In York, our mayor gets arrested, and it's in connection with murder. Well, Mayor Charlie Robertson always wanted to put York on the map, to attract attention to our fair city, to put York in the spotlight.

I don't think this is what he had in mind.

York is all over the network news programs. The mayor was on the "Today" show being interviewed by none other than Katie Couric. The events were so stunning and grand that we were granted the pleasure of a visit by celebrity TV reporter and former Bill Clinton flack George Stephanopoulos, who seemed to spend as much time reporting and ordering his flunky around as he did signing autographs and posing for photos with his legions of fans.

It was a great boost. York made the big time. Of course, York made the big time as a town that had a mayor who stands accused of, more than 30 years ago when he was a cop, telling white street punks to kill black people and giving them ammunition to do it.

You know, Birmingham without the Southern charm.

We were a freak show. Come look at the town that elected a guy who's been charged with murder! Right after these words from our sponsors!

York has always been a weird town. Look at our history. We bought off the Confederates so they wouldn't burn the town before marching on Gettysburg. We survived Three Mile Island and the subsequent sightings of three-eyed fish and two-headed cows. We all remember the infamous York Fair sheep assault of a few years back.

But none of that was anything like 1969. Everybody refers to what happened in July 1969 as a riot. It wasn't a riot; it was a war. I remember. Buildings were torched, and when the firefighters and cops would show, snipers would fire on them. The National Guard patrolled the streets with tanks. Anybody old enough to hold a gun carried a weapon and didn't hesitate to use it. There was more firepower on the streets than the first day of deer season.

And our mayor was a cop right in the middle of it.

So Mayor Charlie is trying to explain what he was doing right in the middle of it, and he's trying to convince people that he isn't the racist he was back in the 1960s. He seems to be having a hard time of it. Not long ago, he said he didn't regret yelling "white power" at a rally of the aforementioned white street punks. The next day, after his advisers whacked him upside the head, he said, oh yeah, sure I regret it. It didn't get any better. For instance, on the "Today" show May 18, he said, "To say `white power' is not a racist statement."

What?

Last week, he spent a lot of time, it seemed, reminding everyone that he's the mayor of the city of York. Almost every time he opened his mouth, he has to remind people he was the mayor of the city of York, as if people were going to confuse him with other mayors or perhaps the Duchess of York. He repeated it so often that it appeared he was having a hard time believing it himself.

He thought as mayor he should command special treatment, that he shouldn't be handcuffed or disrespected, or arrested, apparently. Pal, you're being charged with a crime that could result in you spending the rest of your days on this planet in a small, iron box, sleeping on a cot with your toilet next to your head. Commanding respect is the least of your worries at this point.

Mayors, he said, should be respected. Sure, guys like Marion Barry, Jerry Springer, they certainly command respect.

All in all, it was one of the weirdest weeks in York history.

Mr. Robertson beat the first black man to run for mayor. Voters sent the clear message that they'd rather have a guy who may be complicit in one of the city's most notorious crimes, a guy who, 32 years ago, did his best to set race relations back to the 1860s -- as if they needed any help in that regard -- a guy who would be arrested and charged with murder two days after the election, than a black man.

The 1960s were back. The mayor even briefly dallied with growing a mustache. Maybe he can give muttonchops a shot next.

And it wasn't just Mayor Charlie. Police Commissioner Herbert "J. Edgar" Grofcsik announced at a news conference that he was concerned about "all these people from the outside coming in here stirring things up." The infamous "outside agitators" of the past have returned. Before you know it, Mr. Grofcsik will be spouting Spiro Agnew-like nattering-nabobs-of-negativity lines.

But when it came to saying things that don't make much sense -- "this is a serious offense against mayors all across the United States" -- Mayor Charlie was king.

We've always accepted that from Mayor Charlie. Sure, he isn't the most articulate person in the world -- sometimes he makes George W. Bush sound like Winston Churchill -- but we always gave him a pass because, as a lot of people said, his heart was in the right place.

But now, we're not sure.

Someone told me that a friend called her from Baltimore to ask, "What kind of idiot is your mayor?"

The answer is: We thought we knew.

Mike Argento is a columnist for the York Daily Record, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at 717-771-2046 or by e-mail at mike@ydr.com.

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