It’s hard to imagine a safer space in Houston than West University Place. Its unofficial motto is “The Neighborhood City,” and on a sweet spring night that was blessedly cool and clear, with mature live oaks spreading their protective branches over the tidy streets and the azaleas blooming in a riot of coral, fuchsia, and the whitest white, that’s what it seemed to be: a cozy, friendly oasis in the middle of a big, complicated metropolis. A place where four girls just entering their teens could head out for ice cream and cookies, unaccompanied, to a spot called Tiny’s Milk & Cookies. It was March 31, 2018, the Saturday before Easter. They were coming from a church group meeting.
West U is a prosperous place—the median household income is well over $200,000 a year—but it isn’t as flashy as wealthy neighborhoods like River Oaks or Memorial; it’s an orderly quarter where older brick bungalows and modest two-story colonials reside in peace alongside grand—but not too grand—new construction. Rice University professors and Texas Medical Center doctors live there because of its proximity to both places; so do many successful lawyers. Its schools are well funded and well appointed. It has playgrounds and parks with secure, nontoxic equipment. The police department is famous Houston-wide for enforcing speed limits with a vengeance.
So there they were, four girls around the age of fourteen, with long, shiny hair and braces on their teeth. They were chatting and giggling as they took their places in line at Milk & Cookies, which is basically a take-out window for a restaurant called Tiny’s No. 5, which itself is pleasantly appointed with assiduously tended gardens of Texas wildflowers and other natives.
There’s often a line at Milk & Cookies because its chocolate chip cookies are considered some of the best in town, even if they cost $2.50 each. The ice cream flavors—from plain old vanilla to Honey Lavender and Coconut Milk Chocolate—satisfy the cravings of both picky kids and grown-ups with artisanal tastes.
It took a few seconds for the girls to recognize the commotion behind them and then to realize it was directed their way. A woman in line, a few spaces back, seemed to be in some sort of state. She was tall and thin, and her hair was cut short. She was with a man and two little boys. “Grab ’em by the pussy!” the woman declared, staring straight at the girls while using that very bad word. She had a fist up in the air. “Woohoo!” she added, along with what sounded like the start of a crazy chant: “Maga!!”
At first, the girls had no idea why this woman was acting so weird, as if she were mad at them or something. What had they done? They couldn’t think of a thing. That is, until one of the girls pointed to the T-shirt another was wearing. The former was on her phone at the time, talking to her mom about what was going on.
“It’s your shirt!” she said, interrupting her own conversation.
They all stopped and looked. The offending garment was a souvenir from a trip to Washington, D.C. Across the front, in big, bold letters, was a word that may be the most divisive in America right now: TRUMP.
Just an hour or so earlier, a woman named Kellye Burke had the same hankering to visit Milk & Cookies. Or, rather, her sons, ages nine and twelve, were begging for ice cream before bedtime. The family of four—Kellye’s husband runs a Rice University entrepreneurship program—hopped on their bikes and pedaled the few blocks together, then took their places in line.
Kellye, tall and blond, has the bright hazel eyes, A-plus bone structure, and luminous skin of a Texas beauty queen. She can be imposing to people who don’t know her, but she has a youthful eagerness and passion that belie her fifty years. Kellye left the corporate world several years ago to be a stay-at-home mom and community volunteer focusing on gun safety in schools and hospitals. She’s a member of Moms Demand Action, a group that promotes stricter gun laws. Inspired by Wendy Davis to run for office, Kellye was also serving as a member of the West University Place City Council, where she enjoyed working on wonky issues like zoning and recycling.
The Burke family had taken their place in line when something clouded Kellye’s normally sunny demeanor. She caught herself staring at four teenage girls just ahead of her, one of whom was wearing a Trump T-shirt. Kellye was not a fan of the current president for many reasons, but her biggest gripe had to do with his treatment of women.
“I saw the shirt and was reminded that President Trump bragged about sexual assault,” she later explained. “I found it hard to understand how a young woman could overlook all the degrading and demeaning things he’s said and done toward women.”
That was what Kellye thought. But what she did was this: She gave what was—to her—an irreverent cheer, followed by a sarcastic shout-out in which she quoted one of the president’s most infamous lines. “Grab ’em by the pussy!” she declared, adding a fist pump. Then she repeated herself and punctuated her cheer with “Woohoo! MAGA!”
No one can deny that what Kellye did was profoundly dumb, and dumber still given the state of the country and given the politics of West U. The Neighborhood City is not only wealthy but also nearly 90 percent white, which can make it seem more homogeneous than many other Houston communities. Politically, though, the area is almost evenly divided, and therefore evenly polarized, between Democrats and Republicans.
Still, no one seemed to pay Kellye any mind after her jeers. Certainly no one gave up their coveted spot in the cookie line to issue any kind of reprimand. The girls left with their treats, and once the Burke boys had their ice cream, the family hopped back on their bikes for home, bath, and bed.
In another era, that would have been that. But this is 2018, when all sorts of things, like political divisions, parental fears, internet trolls, and clickbait, can turn the kindling of a stupid mistake into a global conflagration.
Stasie Smith logged on to Facebook around the same time that Kellye was finally getting her boys to bed. She is a spirited, open-faced woman of 48, with brown hair billowing softly around her chin and wide-set blue-gray eyes. That night she was feeling particularly harried, at least partly due to the fact that she, her attorney husband, and their three teenagers were just moving back into their house, near West U, seven months after being flooded out during Hurricane Harvey and losing all of their furniture. Now she was rattled again, after a phone conversation she’d had with her daughter an hour or so before. “Are Democrats mean?” the girl had asked Stasie, calling from Milk & Cookies. “I think this lady is going to hurt us.” Stasie told her daughter to get away—but to take a photo of the woman first.
Then Stasie did something that has become a part of everyday life. She sat down at her computer to share her feelings on social media—in this case, on the West University Information Exchange Facebook page, which has three thousand members. “I’m not sure what this country is coming to,” Stasie wrote. “My 14 year old daughter and her 3 friends were at milk and cookies getting a cookie. Just now. One of her friends was wearing a Trump shirt. Some awful woman—apparently with a small child . . . proceeded to scream obscenities at them. Over a shirt. They are 14. Buying cookies. Seriously?”
Like many Facebook posts, it elicited strong reactions almost immediately. Dozens of people responded with various emoji faces—sad, mad, disgusted. “So sorry your daughter and her friends had to endure this. There is no excuse,” someone commented. There were other, angrier comments referring to the as-yet-unidentified Kellye Burke. As in, “She needs to be committed.” And “I am concerned that she could still be out there waiting to terrorize the next child who is wearing something that she finds offensive . . . I’m genuinely concerned about her being around the children in the community.”
The next morning, Easter, Kellye woke up blissfully and briefly ignorant of her sins. She assembled Easter baskets and started getting her boys ready for church and a trip to her brother’s house, a few hours away. Then came a text from a friend, with an accompanying screenshot of Stasie’s post. Like many neighborhood forums, the West University Information Exchange functions as a replacement for the kind of face-to-face conversations neighbors used to have. It’s also a place where people spend a lot of time on high alert. There have been hair-on-fire posts like the one about an unidentified black man with a weapon (he turned out to be a guy carrying a fishing pole). There are chastising photos of nannies who spend too much time looking at their cellphones instead of watching their charges on the playground. And now there was this.
Kellye’s eyes grew wide as she read. She was horrified. At herself.
“As a parent my first reaction was, ‘I need to apologize to these people in person,’ ” she explained later. Kellye knew her tendency to be flamboyant and outspoken could be a problem. “I’m loud” is the way she put it. Usually, she felt okay about that—she had been proud to testify before the state Senate against the campus carry and open carry bills, for instance, and she’d loved riding in the Houston Art Car Parade for Moms Demand Action while wearing an orange cowboy hat and a skimpy red-white-and-blue majorette costume. “Who’s got two thumbs, a cape, and no shame?” she wrote that day on her Facebook page. Kellye is the kind of person who, in normal situations, would be described as “so fun.” But in this case, she knew she had been wrong and that she had to apologize ASAP. “That’s the price I have to pay for being impulsive,” she said.
Making amends looked fairly easy once she logged on to Facebook and found a message from Stasie Smith asking her to get in touch if she was the Kellye Burke who had been at Milk & Cookies. By then, Stasie had identified Kellye from the photo her daughter had taken—easy enough, because Kellye is a city official. “If you were there I would sincerely appreciate you contacting me. I will confirm one way or the next if you were there. Happy Easter.” Despite the holiday greeting, Kellye thought Stasie’s tone sounded dire. She texted the number Stasie had provided.
“Hi Stasie—this is Kellye Burke. I just saw your FB message. I’m leaving for church now but want to speak with you directly. Although I am deeply mortified that I caused you and your daughter to feel upset I can assure you the account laid out online is a gross mischaracterization. Now there have been 88 comments all spiraling further down into the ridiculous. Suffice it to say: I take sexual assault and harassment of women and girls seriously which is why I said ‘woohoo! Grab ’em by the pussy!’ I never want any girl or women to take that lightly—not from a boyfriend, or a boss, or a president. Please know that I didn’t scream *at* the girls. It was ‘woohoo! Rock on! High-five’ tone. I’m so sorry! I’m about to completely die of embarrassment. Can we please talk later today?”
Stasie wrote back: “Yes. Thank you for responding. I’m trying to contain some very upset moms. I was on the phone with my daughter as it was happening. They were very frightened. But this should not be some kind of witch hunt. Please enjoy Easter service.”
Instead of heading to her brother’s house for the holiday, Kellye agreed to meet with Stasie and her husband at a neighborhood Panera. The conversation was civil, in the spirit of cooperation. The Smiths accepted Kellye’s apology. “I can accept your apology because I can tell you’re sincere,” Stasie said. She promised to give Kellye’s cell number to the other families. The only thing that seemed a little worrisome to Kellye was that, in parting, Stasie’s husband said, “You’re lucky that you met with us first, because we’re the easy ones.”
As soon as she got home, Stasie added a comment to her Facebook post, reassuring her friends and neighbors that she had met with the offender from Milk & Cookies, “who apologized. I accepted. She is going to meet with the other 3 sets of parents as well. Thank you all for your support and Happy Easter/Sunday/Passover.”
At the time, Kellye felt almost buoyant. She was looking forward to talking to the other families in real time, in real life, away from the tinderbox of social media. “Wouldn’t it be great if we ended up meeting and could make a really positive experience out of this?” she thought. “If those four teens were really upset, what better way to make them feel less upset? They can see I’m not a big, scary person.”
If only the ensuing days would have played out differently. The Smiths reported their conversation to the parents of the other girls, two of whom contacted Kellye. (Those parents asked that their names not be used in this story, to protect their daughters from retaliation.) The first family—the Joneses, for purposes of this article—wanted to meet that afternoon. The second set—the Andersons, let’s call them—wanted to meet Monday. Kellye did not respond to the Joneses immediately, because she was trying to coordinate the meeting with the Andersons. These are all very busy families, with spouses who travel for work and children with lots of scheduled lessons and practices. (The third family never got back to her.)
In the process, Kellye offended again. As Easter afternoon wore on, she asked Mrs. Jones if she could meet in the next few days instead of immediately: Monday was a holiday for Kellye’s kids’ private school, and she had scheduled one son for allergy testing and a Boy Scout swim test, followed by an eye doctor appointment. Kellye was open Tuesday morning but was waiting on confirmation from Mrs. Anderson to firm up the time. “As soon as I hear back from her, I will let you know,” Kellye told the Joneses.
That response did not sit well with the Joneses, the parents of the girl who had worn the Trump T-shirt. In their minds, Kellye was dragging her feet—several hours had passed between their agreement to meet and Kellye’s response with the particulars of time and place. “That was unfortunate, because we are forgiving people,” Mrs. Jones said later. As she saw it, Kellye got to celebrate Easter, while her own family’s holiday was ruined. Equally important, the Joneses had wanted to get the meeting over with on Easter because they both had full-time jobs. “I’m not a stay-at-home mom,” Mrs. Jones explained. Kellye was asking the Joneses to rearrange their schedules for her convenience. “It didn’t seem like she was making as much of an effort.”
The Joneses decided not to meet with her at all. Mrs. Jones put her feelings in a text: “Thanks for bringing . . . such ugliness on what was supposed to be a beautiful day . . . Thank you for teaching these fine, young, highly accomplished young women that there is ugliness in this world (and right in their own backyard.) . . . Good luck to you because the whole community will know very soon of your actions if they don’t already.”
As it turned out, that was an understatement. After the Sunday night missive from Mrs. Jones, Kellye heard nothing more from any of the parents. Still determined to make things right, she decided she would write them letters. On Tuesday morning she rushed out to buy nice stationery and drafted notes of apology to each girl and to each set of parents. She planned to attach $25 Milk & Cookies gift certificates for the girls—about ten cookies per kid. But she never got to present her peace offerings, because she got no response when she texted Stasie about getting the families’ addresses. As the parents would later say, Kellye had abused their daughters at Milk & Cookies, and they refused to traumatize the girls further. Mrs. Jones put it this way: “Quite frankly, I don’t know who this woman is, and the last thing I wanted to do was provide her with my address.”
Unbeknownst to Kellye, the peace process had broken down entirely about 36 hours earlier. The offended parents, including the Smiths, had all met Sunday night and decided that, regardless of whether Kellye had sincerely apologized, she had committed a serious offense and should face consequences. They agreed to report her to the police.
Indeed, on Monday the families filed a formal complaint against her at West University city hall, a midcentury stone building that looks like a small-town library. The resulting citation, issued the following day, April 3, wasn’t big on detail: it just demanded that Kellye report to court by a designated date to answer to a disorderly conduct charge, a Class C misdemeanor that can carry a fine of up to $500.
When she learned on Tuesday that the law was looking for her, Kellye rushed to the West U police station in a panic. She hoped to pay the fine and begin to make the whole incident disappear. That proved impossible: because Kellye was a West U council member, the case had been moved to the Harris County jurisdiction to avoid any hint of a conflict of interest. A constable, who happened to be wearing full SWAT team battle regalia, met Kellye in West U later that day to present the citation.
It just so happened that Jacob Rascon, a reporter for NBC affiliate KPRC, the number one news broadcast in Houston, was working in the newsroom when a tip came in that a West University city councilwoman had been charged with disorderly conduct. The police report was fairly cryptic and semi-accurate: “the suspect became irritated over a shirt one of the juveniles was wearing and began to yell obscene and profane language directed at the juveniles. The juveniles became scared and left the scene.”
Rascon is a rising star with a history of covering big, national stories, and he had recently been tapped to anchor the weekend news at KPRC. Still, a West U city councilwoman being cited for disorderly conduct had its appeal. By nine o’clock Wednesday night he was at the Burkes’ door with a camera crew. Kellye’s husband wasn’t at home, and she was ironing some clothes after reading to her younger son when she first heard noises from downstairs. Someone was knocking on her door and ringing her doorbell. Rushing down, she could see bright lights through the glass panels on each side of her front door, which she decided not to open. “What are you doing at my house?” she called to the people outside.
“You know why we’re here at your house,” Rascon said.
“Go away!” she snapped. “I’m putting my kids to bed.”
The station promoted the story at around 9:30 p.m. on Twitter (“How this Trump T-shirt sparked an obscenity-laced tirade that ended with a local councilwoman facing a disorderly conduct charge . . .”), and the ten o’clock news featured an angry Kellye ordering the camera crew to get lost. The piece also included an interview with Stasie’s husband, whose face appeared in shadow, as if he were in the witness protection program. He described Kellye as “screaming obscenities” at his daughter and then proceeded to correctly quote Kellye correctly quoting the president, with the bad words bleeped out.
“Try to scare me you mouthy bitch,” read one of the comments that showed up on Kellye’s Facebook page right after the report aired. “You rancid f—ing c—t! If you ever raised your voice to my children I would beat your skank ass into the ground you f—ing pig. You rancid f—ing c—t.”
By the next morning, April 5, Kellye’s city council email, council Facebook page, personal Facebook page, personal email, Twitter feed, and voice mail, along with West University’s Nextdoor website, official Facebook page, and switchboard had become infected with something resembling a fast-spreading virus of fury. People posted Kellye’s official councilwoman portrait with nasty captions such as “the foul mouth of hatred that spews obscenities at children over a t-shirt.” Or the simpler “Looney lefty.” Bullying, another hot-button issue of the day, became a recurring theme, as in, “The worst kind of bully is one inside the government that wants to take rights, and berates children!” Commenters argued that Kellye, not President Trump, was the one trying to silence and despoil young women.
There weren’t very many people trying to pull back from the brink. “Show up to a public place without bodyguards or security and see what you are subjected to by the public for abusing Texas children for political reasons,” wrote one. From another: “Hoping she dies soon!!” And: “If I was the mother of one of those girls I would have punched you right in the mouth you intolerant bitch!!” As the number of posts expanded into the thousands, it became clear that most of the commenters weren’t even from Houston, much less West U. They came from Noonday, Texas; Buffalo, New York; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Atlanta, Georgia; Temecula, California; and beyond. Someone sent Kellye a postcard from Tampa, Florida, claiming to have “doxxed” her—spread her personal information all over the internet. Total strangers left threatening messages on her home phone.
As Kellye’s detractors piled on, maximizing her misdeed, a vocal group of supporters moved in to minimize it. Kellye had made a mistake, they argued, but the punishment had already far surpassed the crime. She wasn’t guilty of bullying but of quoting the president in a mistakenly conceived teachable moment. Now she was the one being bullied. Maybe, they suggested, a fourteen-year-old shouldn’t be so politically provocative as to wear a Trump T-shirt in public. Maybe her parents shouldn’t have let her out of the house dressed that way if she couldn’t defend her beliefs. “Would you let your kid out in a George Soros t-shirt?” one asked. Then there was the argument that fourteen-year-old girls were not always the most reliable reporters of events. They were very . . . emotional. The personal became very political, and vice versa: Someone pulled a photo of Stasie’s daughter off her Facebook page and posted it in a comment on the page of Pantsuit Nation, a liberal site that celebrates Hillary Clinton and exists to “bring about a kind and loving nation.” The photo, taken a few years earlier, identified her by her first name and showed her staring through the scope of a rifle during target practice at summer camp. The Smiths had to track down the poster, an official with the Greater Houston Democrats, to get him to take it down.
Kellye, to her female supporters, was also fast becoming a victim of gender bias and misogyny. It wasn’t just the attacks on her appearance—“horse face,” “ugly old hag”—it was the characterization of her outburst that put her in the “crazy lady” category. Kellye had gone on a “tirade.” She was “demented.” She “berated” or “screamed at” the girls. She was “Emotionally unstable, irrational, policy-ignorant.”
As one headline on the Infowars website put it, DERANGED: TEXAS COUNCILWOMAN CHARGED FOR VERBALLY ATTACKING TEENAGE GIRL IN TRUMP SHIRT.” (“Crazed woman yelled for friends to grab her by the p*ssy,” read the subhead.) Kellye’s work with Moms Demand Action made her a particularly tasty target for groups opposed to gun control. Daily Vine, a website associated with the pro-gun organization Keep and Bear, offered this headline: “Cowardly Dem Just Viciously Assaulted Terrified Girl Over Message On Her Shirt—‘Scarred For Life.’ ” When NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch tweeted about Kellye, her followers replied with a chorus of tweets, saying things like “LOCK HER UP!!!!!!!” and “Just more proof that no one is less tolerant than a leftist.” Responders from the left attacked Loesch, calling her a “whore” and urging her to “swallow a shotgun.”
As the social media storm grew, KPRC’s Rascon stayed on the story, gathering public opinion at a local park and an elementary school. Both his personal Twitter account (13,400 followers) and KPRC’s Twitter account (630,000 followers) posted promos—the better to get more eyeballs on the website and the broadcast. Someone at the station couldn’t resist trying to get more viewers by tagging
@realDonaldTrump in one tweet. He did not respond.
Over the next few days, the story went just about everywhere: the New York Post and New York Daily News; the Miami Herald; the Calgary Sun; the Guardian, in London; Fox News. Only one reporter, someone with the Houston Chronicle, contacted Kellye for comment.
It had taken just five days for Kellye’s stupid mistake to turn her entire life into a worldwide and very toxic game of gossip for the enjoyment of grown-ups and the harvesting of attention to further whatever causes people wanted to advance. Kellye the bully was proof of how crazy and dangerous liberals were. Kellye the bullying victim was proof of how crazy and dangerous right-wingers were. Kellye the news headline was just good for business. As Kellye later said, “It stopped being about me.”
Tensions were as high, if not higher, in West U than they were online. Immediately after Rascon’s first story ran, on Wednesday, Kellye decided she needed a lawyer. A friend suggested West U resident Rusty Hardin, a former Harris County prosecutor who had represented the now-defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen during the Enron scandals, as well as sports stars like Rudy Tomjanovich, Warren Moon, and Roger Clemens. She left a message with his answering service late that night.
To her surprise, Hardin called her back right away. The news report had unnerved her, she explained, and she was worried about the growing wave of cyber attacks. And then there was the citation. What should she do? Hardin listened—and started laughing. “My reaction was that it was insane that someone had filed criminal charges over this,” he later recalled. He made some suggestions for a public response. “I apologized,” began the statement Kellye released the next morning. “I was not aware that repeating the President’s words was a crime. On behalf of the President and me, please forward additional questions to the White House.”
It was not the wisest response. To the people already furious with Kellye, it only confirmed her gall. After getting a call from a reporter, Hardin released a slightly more apologetic version. Stasie, after hearing the statement, posted more on social media: “To say this response is disappointing is an understatement and I now no longer question our filing a complaint with the police . . . Clearly her ‘apology’ was an attempt to placate very angry parents as opposed to a genuine apology. What a shame. In my opinion, if a t-shirt triggers such strong emotions, one should seek therapy.”
Kellye didn’t attend the first West U city council meeting after the incident, on April 9, citing threats against her. Instead a new attorney (Hardin was never formally hired) read a lengthy statement to the council that was also issued to the Houston Chronicle. In it, Kellye gave her version of events and recounted the number of times she had tried to apologize to the families before they filed the complaint. “Sometimes I make mistakes,” she wrote. “When that happens, as my parents would say, I have to ‘take my lumps’ by acknowledging hurt and doing my best to make amends . . . I hope that my community will recognize the consistent positive contributions I have made, rather than focus exclusively on the one regrettable incident that has been mischaracterized, exaggerated, and exploited.”
Some did, but some didn’t. Kellye claimed to be too scared to go to the council meeting? Well, some neighbors noted, they had seen the supposedly traumatized Kellye at Whole Foods and in her front yard.
The carping continued online, when the wife of a prominent banker started a Facebook group called West U-ish, after the West U Information Exchange and Nextdoor decided to close any further Milk & Cookies discussion. The West U-ish founder deemed the decisions of those sites censorship. Soon, however, the most combative commenters migrated to her new forum, driving her to shut it down. Also, her husband had begun to worry that her involvement could hurt his business. KPRC’s news director, Dave Strickland, had a similar problem and recused himself from the Milk & Cookies story. His wife had become active in a movement to remove Kellye from office.
This group—which did not include any of the parents of the offended girls—had first tried to pressure West U mayor Susan Sample into firing Kellye by flooding city hall with letters, emails, and so many phone calls that the normally unflappable city secretary had to leave early for the day. When the mayor pointed out that she didn’t have the authority to fire Kellye, they decided to stage a recall. Soon enough, they had set up tables in front of city hall to try to gather the 1,600 signatures needed for a recall vote, which would cost the taxpayers of West U about $10,000.
In late April, Kellye was still jumpy. “No average person can be prepared for this or have any idea how to stop it,” she said. She was speaking of the online attacks from enraged strangers who seemed to see her not as a real person but as the embodiment of any and all culture war grievances—guns, bad moms, bad presidents, and so on. But it was far more hurtful that her real-life neighbors had turned on her with such force. Her face was drawn, and she wasn’t cracking any jokes. Kellye was also using two cellphones—her old phone and a burner on which to call her friends and family, because the obscene calls were still coming. When I met her for coffee, she had a supportive friend in tow to fill in gaps in her memory as well as a stack of binders stuffed with timelines, talking points, and social media screenshots. She was trying to suppress her anger over her mounting legal bills—“for a volunteer council job I’ve had to retain an attorney at $600 an hour”—and she was anxious about her upcoming appearance at a city council meeting, scheduled for April 23.
The parents of the girls were angry and fearful too, concerned that their daughters might suffer blowback when they start high school in the fall. At least one of the girls has begged her mother to stay off social media and stop talking about the incident entirely. “We did not want to go to the press,” Mrs. Jones later said. “We did not try to escalate this as people have said. My family just wanted to forget about the whole thing.”
That did not seem likely to happen. On April 23 Kellye’s lawyer managed to get her charges dismissed. Then, at 6:30 p.m., she sat on the dais before a packed audience at the council meeting to give yet another apology—after a council member challenged the “relevance” of what she had to say.
“Earlier this month, while standing in line at a local restaurant, I made inappropriate remarks to a group of teenage girls standing near me,” Kellye began. She wore a conservative navy suit and spoke in a soft, serious tone. “There is no excuse for my conduct. I sincerely apologize to the young women and their families. Further, I would like to apologize to the people of West U. You are my friends and constituents, but most importantly, you are neighbors. I am sorry for my actions and for the hurt and pain I caused. I am honored to be your council member and pledge with all my heart to regain your trust and respect. Thank you.”
Several speakers followed, some pro, some con. At issue was the sanctity of children versus the right to screw up and make amends. A few speakers demanded that Kellye resign. Then a sweet-faced older woman named Sally McCandless, who has lived in the neighborhood for 41 years and is a retired schoolteacher as well as the wife of a former West U city councilman, rose to her feet. McCandless confessed that she hadn’t planned to speak that day; her voice shook, possibly from age, possibly from anger. “This is amazing to me, what’s going on,” McCandless began. “I would like to think, as a community, we can come together on this. Did Kellye Burke make a terrible mistake? Yes, she did. Has she recognized that? Yes, she did. And I would think that the adults in the room, in the community, whether it’s through your church or Christian values or whatever, that there would be this feeling of forgiveness. But to go to the extreme of having a recall—that’s ridiculous,” she continued, nearly spitting out the last word. “As far as the children, in terms of a learning moment: you, as adults in this room, are their models. And you are out there creating this hyperbole of this situation—you are not the good models that these children need.” Many in the audience burst into applause. Some of the opposition didn’t hear her, though, because they were out in the hallway, gathering signatures for the recall.
Later, I caught up with a lawyer named Jay Cohen, one of the speakers who demanded Kellye’s resignation. He had moved to the neighborhood in 2015 and didn’t know any of the offended families. He didn’t know Kellye either. He had just felt compelled to help, he said, and was working overtime on the recall vote. He declared that he didn’t want Washington, D.C.–style politics infecting his neighborhood. He was absolutely sure Kellye’s behavior had hurt West U’s reputation. So he would fight on.
“No one should be bullied,” he said, which nobody could disagree with. “West U should be a safe place for everyone.”