A uniformed Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard spoke at a political rally in Buffalo's Niagara Square on Saturday and Democratic County Chairman Jeremy Zellner says he should resign because of the tenor of the event.
The rally was part of a Spirit of America series being held across the country, mostly backing President Donald Trump. This event was pushed hard by the Tea Party and activist Rus Thompson and the gun rights group Shooters Committee on Political Education.
Speakers included Howard and Buffalo School Board Member Carl Paladino. Besides those at the rally, with a Confederate flag flying and apparent white supremacist material circulating, there were counter-protesters from Black Lives Matter.
Zellner said Howard represents the wider community and should not have been there.
"That had white supremacists and people handing out literature that the media covered last week in Lewiston," Zellner said. "That person was there handing out literature, standing in unison with people with Confederate flags. This is not what our community represents and this is not what the biggest law enforcement official in our community ought to be condoning."
Zellner said the sheriff has a free speech right, but there are other issues involved.
"People can have free speech. People are allowed to say what they believe, unless it's hate speech, unless it's inciteful," Zellner said. "And so it may be legal for him that out, but certainly myself and a lot of other people are not going to stand for that kind of literature and not going to stand for that kind of divisive rhetoric. We have a very diverse community and that community is represented by this sheriff and that sheriff needs to represent everyone."
In a written statement, the sheriff said he stands by his speech and criticized Zellner for what he termed his "ultra-left views." He also echoed Zellner's comments that the groups in attendance had the right to free speech.
"I agreed to speak at the Spirit of America rally to share my admiration and support of the United States Constitution and to raise the awareness of the broken immigration process that our leaders have failed to address over the past several years....I do not support any group that uses violent or discriminatory rhetoric, but how can I limit their god given rights to public assembly and free expression."
This is a sheriff election year and Zellner said the Democratic candidate is likely to be Bernie Tolbert, a veteran FBI agent and official. Tolbert took advantage of the opportunity to issue his own statement, which were similar to Zellner's comments:
"The Erie County Sheriff should not have appeared in uniform at an event with such obviously offensive and hateful displays. The minute the confederate flags and racist signs went up Sheriff Howard should have denounced them and refused to participate until they were removed. The Sheriff swears an oath to defend the citizens of Erie County and his appearance at the event in uniform gave the impression that he was supporting the most extremist views of the crowd."