LACONIA — At an online School Board meeting with roughly 300 viewers and repeated calls for board member Dawn Johnson to step down, residents voiced outrage and loss of trust and faith in Johnson to serve the district after she linked on social media to anti-Semitic material from the neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer.
Much of the criticism came from mothers of school children, who blasted Johnson for what they said were attitudes that run counter to the community's values and school district's mission, and shared goals of fighting intolerance in all forms. At the meeting, Johnson, who represents Ward 4 and is a newly-elected state representative, said she has no intention of leaving the board despite resounding voices calling her out for a lack of judgement, conduct not befitting a leader, and her failure to apologize specifically for the offensive content of what she said was mistakenly linked.
Discontent festered with what many said sounded like an incomplete apology, which did not address or condemn the anti-Semitism conveyed by a cartoon contained in the Daily Stormer article.
“It’s too easy to take false information and give it new life” by sharing it online," said school board Chairperson Heather Lounsbury, reading the board's statement calling for Johnson to resign. “Our community deserves more and our kids deserve more…There is no room in our society for hate and intolerance. Our community has spoken through emails, phone calls and protests.” Board members, she said, “no longer have confidence in board member Johnson."
“You certainly have the ability to ask for her resignation and ask our leaders to have higher standards,” said Carlos Cardona, the head of the Democrat Party in Laconia and member of the gay community who lost his bid for state representative last month. “What Dawn Johnson did there is no excuse for.”
Ira Keltz, board president of Laconia’s Temple B’nai Israel, which includes Jews throughout the Lakes Region, read a joint statement from the congregation and the New Hampshire Jewish Federation. “She should never have included underlying hateful information,” said Keltz, who lives in Ward 3. “It’s important for her to condemn these words and images and not to share them. When not speaking out against hate, we condone it,” Keltz read. He then thanked community members for showing up in force on Zoom.
“Our families came over as refugees in 1930. Many of our board members lost family in the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Dan Danson of Temple B'Nai Israel. The Daily Stormer models itself after sentiments and beliefs from that period, he said. “The cartoon is directly drawn from that well of hatred. Dawn Johnson apologized for linking the site, but did not reach out to the Jewish community” or acknowledge or apologize for the anti-Semitic message.
“What do you expect us parents to tell our children? This is a very political climate We’ve had four years of hate. Our country has moved backward. If my children did this in school they would be asked to leave,” said Laconia resident Renee Bossert, whose children attend local schools. “It’s a slap in the face to the Laconia community which has worked so hard to be open to people. I don’t accept the apology or that it was a mistake. It’s not that easy to publish hate articles on your website. I hold her to the same standards as my 13-year-old.”
“Someone with such poor judgement to share these things should not be trusted as a decision-maker in the community,” said Ward 2 resident Dana Hackett, whose four-year-old will enter kindergarten next fall. After speaking, Hackett displayed a placard on Zoom: “Dawn Johnson must resign. #Bye Dawn.” The meeting drew Democrat state representatives from other parts of the state, but Lounsbury explained at the outset that only Laconia residents were entitled to speak.
“The apology didn’t reference the content, only the site which was shared,” which “directly contradicts” the district’s mission statement to “ensure success for every student in every way,” said Hedi Bright of Ward 3. The linking of such content violates the ethics code for New Hampshire school board members, Bright said. She said Johnson’s behavior shows “a lack of consistent and appropriate leadership”and her conduct has led to a lack of trust in the community.
“Ignorance is not a defense,” said Erika Allen. “We demand more of the students she represents. How can we not deserve more from a board member?”
Mandy Youssef from Ward 1 said, “I believe she represents a minimal group’s agenda.” As a parent and educator, she said, “I will not stand for that representation.”
A woman named Claudia from Ward 4 who did not provide her full name on Zoom said she was concerned that Johnson’s behavior could open the school district to a lawsuit. “It’s embarrassing to all of us. I ask her to step down as my representative in Laconia.”
“This is not a one-time situation,” said Christine LePage from Ward 4. “These positions," which Le Page described as out-of-date and ill-informed, "have been going on for some time and show a pattern of poor decision making.”
“We’re all responsible for our actions and must be responsible to our constituents,” said board member Joe Cormier.
“We’ve gotten so many emails about this at this point I don’t think there’s a way Dawn can help the community or the kids, with the way the community has responded,” board member Nick Grenon said. The board later voted to strip Johnson of her service on committees, but has no authority to remove her as a member.
"People are very upset. They’re very upset with the posting – period. This is the leading anti-Semitic site in the country," said Rabbi Danson, referring to The Daily Stormer, in an interview before Tuesday night's meeting. "It’s a really big deal. It’s the worst driver of anti-Semitism in the country. I never crawl inside someone’s brain. I can’t speak for Rep. Johnson. There was the apology on Facebook, but no mention of anti-Semitism. I was baffled by the silence.”
Danson said temple members plan to attend public meetings to raise awareness of anti-Semitism, which has surfaced periodically in the Lakes Region, despite a synagogue which is revered and active in helping the community.
The prepared statement from the temple and the NH Jewish Federation reported that anti-Semitic expressions and actions are “growing rapidly on social media and are heinous enough, but even worse when these comments are shared by our elected officials.”
“We were disappointed by her response and refusal to step down," Keltz, the president of the local Jewish congregation, said Wednesday morning. "We have members along the political spectrum. Our role as a Jewish community is to call out the behavior, not the person."
Keltz said the biggest impact the community can have going forward to is speak out against anti-Semitism, and teach that anti-Semitic tropes originate in Nazi Germany. “Two generations ago our families were being killed. Even non-Jewish residents have been very vocal in their outrage, which shows the tremendous support we have in town. Remaining silent is being complicit.”
While many expressed shock and outrage during the meeting, no participants spoke in defense of Johnson. She said she was disappointed that no board members approached her first to ask what had happened, or hear her own account.
Johnson’s lawyer and spokesman, Gilford State Rep. Norm Silber, said before Tuesday's meeting that Johnson’s behavior has been miscast and demonized through misinformation. But he said Johnson would not comment further on the details. “She made a mistake. She posted a link to a site she was not familiar with. When it was brought to her attention, she took it down.” The link pulled up a cartoon lampooning Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp as a "rigger," denying the possibility of election fraud. Next to Kemp was a caricature of Jewish landlord with exaggerated, derogatory facial features, announcing a rent increase. The caption under both images read: “Bad News.”
"The cartoon characters of the post didn’t come from Dawn," Silber said. "She never posted that cartoon. Someone did that and attributed it to her, after she took the link down and apologized.
“If she were a Democrat there would be no calls for her resignation. The state Democrat party chair has failed to call out offensive and criminal behavior on the floor of the State House,” said Silber, a Republican who believes the incident was likely politically motivated. “It’s a political hit. There’s a great deal of political capital to keep this issue alive.”
Silber said Johnson and her family have since had "a lot of threats, including cell phone texts from out-of-state area codes., which Silber said he has referred to the FBI for investigation. “You can’t call someone up and threaten them. It’s a federal crime. You can’t say, ‘We’re coming to your house to confront you." According to the family, one of Johnson's children received an threat online during a Zoom class at school, when a fellow student suggested egging the family's house. The teacher chuckled, according to Johnson's husband's post on Facebook.