Barbis weathers NAACP storm, silently refusing to resign

From left, Norwalk Town Clerk Rick McQuaid swears in Board of Education members Mike Barbis, Godfrey Azima, Diana Carpio and Sherelle Harris as NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) members protest, Tuesday in City Hall.

Updated, 3:15 p.m.: Video added.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s new Board of Education began its term Tuesday with members taking the oath of office as young people chanted “End hate, educate,” while circling the packed City Hall community room.

Board member Mike Barbis, the inspiration for all the passion and anger in the room, bore repeated verbal assaults stoically, declining at the end to make any comment. NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) members from other communities joined Norwalkers in repeatedly telling Barbis to resign, a raucous atmosphere that featured Barbis opponents booing those who stepped up to defend him and the unusual sight of security guards forcing a citizen to give up the microphone.

Video by Harold Cobin at end of story

From left, Nora King, Connecticut NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Scot Esdaile and Donna Smirniotopolous watch as speakers berate Board of Education member Mike Barbis, Tuesday in City Hall.

“This is appalling behavior that is taking place in this room,” Barbis supporter Nora King said after two hours. “Who are all these people that don’t even live in Norwalk?”

Former Norwalk NAACP President Darnell Crosland kicked off the Barbis bashing as the night’s first public speaker.

“We struggle tonight to come up with signs that express words that show our disappointment in your behavior and your actions. At several community meetings, I suggested that we don’t have to look too hard for words to put on signs. We should just use your own words,” Crosland said, going on to speak the profanity that Barbis had used in an email written in June, and made public just before the Nov. 5 election.

“They are scum,” Crosland said, then speaking the F-bomb from Barbis’ email, several times.  “I think those are the words that were in the email. So why struggle for other words to express disappointment when we can just choose your own?”

Crosland presaged some of the ensuing arguments, by saying, “People have expressed different feelings about you. Some people have responded to me by text messages, that ‘Barbis is a cool dude.’ I’ve spoken to you and I’ve had nothing bad to say about our conversations. Others have responded and this was a political move by the Mayor and the DTC chair and others on the email. … No one could use your words as a political ploy if they weren’t spoken. So tonight, you must campaign for your job. You must tell all of us in this room why you should keep your job as Chairman.”

From left, Board of Education members Mike Barbis and Diana Carpio. Barbis was told by multiple speakers to make eye contact.

Barbis at that point had already been replaced as Chairman. He is beginning his third four-year term without being a BoE officer, for the first time in years.

Doug Peeples came next, calling out Barbis, as others have, for not making eye contact, drawing hoots and hollers from the room.

“You need to make eye contact with somebody who is trying to expose your bad side,” Peeples said. “You’ve got a temper. … There is no way that you should be a part of this board because it’s going to come out again.”

NAACP members had come from Waterbury, Bridgeport, Bristol, Stamford, Hartford, New Haven, Willimantic, Danbury, New Britain, and Ansonia, Scot Esdaile, President of the NAACP Connecticut State Conference and a member of the National Board of Directors, said. He went on to explain that the NAACP in its 110 years has “fought against many races, institutions, and many racist people,” including the Ku Klux Klan.

“They had an invisible empire organized around terror and violence, white privilege, white economics, white arrogance, and white power,” Esdaile said. “Today we are reviewing an email from a powerful white Democrat in a very powerful position. …The content of the email was no different than a letter from the Grand Wizard to the Grand Dragon to the Grand Titan of the Ku Klux Klan. The arrogance and the white privilege of the chairman, Mike Barbis, to refuse to resign is not alarming and not surprising, but the silence of the Mayor and the silence of the Chair of the Democratic Party of the City of Norwalk is.”

DTC Chairman Ed Camacho was copied on the June email sent by Barbis, as was Mayor Harry Rilling, but both were silent until the email was sent to Norwalk NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams. Camacho led Monday’s DTC meeting, where Barbis was censured. He Rilling attended the beginning of the BoE meeting, when new members were sworn in, but then went upstairs to swear in Council members. He did not return.

NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) members commemorate their trip to Norwalk.

Esdaile continued to Barbis, “If you do not resign from the Board of Ed we will not leave one stone unturned, we will keep organizing against you. We will not stand by and let the Democratic Party protect you as a racist and your racist ways. This is not a moment this is a movement. We plan on setting up shop in Norwalk until you resign off the board in every way, shape, form and fashion. We will not stop.”

“I have been around Mr. Barbis,” Norwalk Common Council member Ernie Dumas (D-District B) said. “… I’ve seen his reactions. I’ve seen him how he speaks to women on the board. I’ve seen him say a lot of different things that we shouldn’t have ever said in our community.”

Dumas continued, “We had a meeting at Calvary Baptist Church and he came in and disrupted the meeting there. We have no room for this.”

“Mr. Barbis, I am neither scum nor an a-hole,” former State Rep. Bruce Morris said.

There are Board members who have seen Barbis isolate black and Latino Board members for years, he said. “You been there in private and in emails. I’ve seen them. We’ve seen them castigate black leaders of South Norwalk. Mr. Barbis, you don’t know what’s better for black kids better than I do,” he continued, accusing Barbis of a superiority complex and racism.

Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams shows off her sign.

“Mr. Barbis, you need to understand your reaction needs to be to resign,” said Waterbury NAACP Youth Council President Amari Brantley. “They asked us to be civil, but we have nothing, no role models to be civil of because you are not a role model and you are not role models in the youth of this city.”

“You must have a real, real tough head to take the beating you’re taking tonight,” out-of-town senior citizen Ed Gomes, a former State Senator, said. “The beating you’re taking tonight is the beating that you deserve.”

“The fact that this even has to happen just shows how racist we can be,” Diana Révolus, a Norwalker said. “If you were any shade darker, this would not be tolerated.”

She continued, “We need to speak to the reality and the truth of what this. To have that comfort to speak in that manner, in any part, especially on public schools’ emails. That makes no sense to me. The arrogance that he can’t even look up to people that he serves that tell him that says a problem. I hope all this hits him like the comatose of the soda cans that he does.”

Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) First Vice President Joe Giandurco said he was “dismayed” by Barbis. “His comments are racially insensitive, insensitive and only served to divide our city. As a teacher, as a union official, I am held accountable for my actions and words, and if my actions are seen in any way to disparage my school, my building or my profession, I stand to face disciplinary action. There is no ability for me to simply suggest that I had a bad day or suffered from a temper tantrum.”

Stephanie Thomas speaks to the Norwalk Board of Education, Tuesday in City Hall.

Lisa Henderson was the first citizen to be jeered, coming to the table to defend Barbis. First she read a letter from former BoE member Sue Haynie, calling Barbis “consistently strong, vocal and unvarnished,” before getting booed into pausing. Norwalk’s shifting demographics have inspired uncertainty and anxiety, she said, drawing more catcalls.

Speaking as herself, she said, “Mike Barbis is being used as a scapegoat for the many years of poor and unresolved race relations in Norwalk. This is not the way to solve the problem that we have. To all the board members sitting in front of us: if you can’t do the job that you were elected to do, then you need to resign as well.”

“The list of those rebuking Mr. Barbis for incivility includes some of the party’s worst offenders,” Donna Smirniotopoulos said. “Norwalk’s Democratic leadership signaled again with their handling of this incident their willingness to sink low in the name of political expediency. And why not? The public never cries foul.”

She laid out the recipients of the email, Rilling, Camacho, DTC Vice Chairwoman Eloisa Melendez and Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King. “Mr. Barbis may regret his angry outburst. I regret his choice of recipients as well. Ancient Rome had fewer backstabbers,” she said.

Donna Smirniotopoulos, left, argues her case with a Norwalk Police officer, Tuesday in City Hall.

Her rant against the DTC was interrupted by newly elected Chairman Bruce Kimmel, who said Smirniotopoulos had exceeded her three minutes and then declared a 5-minute recess. Smirniotopoulos continued reciting personal grievances against Democrats as the crowd chanted and shouted, “When we fight, we win,” a NAACP slogan. Eventually, security guards convinced Smirniotopoulos to leave the microphone.

Annie Allen later defended Barbis. “As someone who has been covering politics, national politics for major news organizations for over 20 years, what Team Rilling did here is one of the dirtiest political moves I’ve ever seen.”

Barbis maintains that the email was released because he was supporting Rilling opponent Lisa Brinton. Rilling has called that “ridiculous.”

Annie Allen speaks to the Norwalk Board of Education, Tuesday in City Hall.

“If Harry Rilling and Laoise King were so disgusted, appalled and offended by Mike Barbis’ email, why didn’t they release it then?” Allen asked. “It’s because they weren’t offended or disgusted. They knew exactly what Mike was talking about.”

“His anger was not directed as an entire race,” she continued. “It was directed at a small few he felt were not representing the needs of their community. His choice of words was terrible… his record of accomplishments alongside many of the individuals sitting in front of it proves that he has fought for every child in this town no matter what their race.”

Pat Kirschner told Barbis she lives in his district but, “You don’t represent me. You don’t represent my children.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Norwalker Stephanie Thomas said, responding to Smirniotopoulos. “…I don’t care what everyone else did or did not do. We are here to discuss Mr. Barbis. Secondly, it will be a cold day down below when a white person will tell me what is or is not racist.”

“And Mike, we have had many conversations and I actually don’t think you think you’re a racist, but I will say you should look at your micro aggressions and any kind of sensitivity training … we all need it. I think you may need it a little more than some,” she said. “…I do think you should step down because you’ve now become a distraction.”


21 responses to “Barbis weathers NAACP storm, silently refusing to resign”

  1. Sue Haynie

    I wasn’t able to attend in person last night. My full comments below.

    Mike Barbis is a valuable member of Norwalk’s Board of Education. With 99% of the staff at Norwalk Public Schools having union representatives looking out for them, Mike Barbis is the consistently strong, vocal and unvarnished advocate for the rest of us–those students, parents and taxpayers who have only ourselves and the BOE to protect our interests.

    Norwalk public schools have experienced major demographic shifts in the last 6 years. Today there’s about 400 less Black and 800 less white students than in 2013 while the Hispanic population has grown by nearly 1,600 students. The Norwalk school district is changing more than its growing. These changes have created uncertainty and anxiety among various constituencies within the city.

    What you’re witnessing here tonight is some of that uncertainty and anxiety. What you’re also witnessing is a Democratic Town Committee and Rilling campaign tactic that has come back to haunt them. Wanting to win the election at all costs, they repeatedly used race as a weapon to silence and smear. Leaking a 5-month-old email to the media 2 days before an election did nothing but fuel divisiveness and anger. The leadership to question should not be Mike Barbis’, but rather a DNC and Mayor’s office that chose deflection rather than transparency and proactive leadership on issues of such importance to Norwalk and its residents.

    Mike Barbis is hardworking, knowledgeable and passionate. He’s human. He can be intemperate, especially with people who can be intemperate themselves, but he is not a racist. Mike Barbis should not heed these calls for resignation, he is very much needed on Norwalk’s Board of Education.

  2. John ONeill

    I can understand the frustration from many of the speakers. What I can’t understand is their lack of passion on issues that are just as relevant. Where is that passion when it comes to holding elected leaders accountable for Poor state funding? I haven’t heard ONE word from local NAACP on ELL funding for Norwalk. Maybe, I’m wrong. Please let me know. Until local NAACP holds Norwalk leaders’ feet to the fire on state funding they are not doing their jobs. Based on places visitors represented at meeting, I’m not sure we want Norwalk to emulate those school districts. Make a list of those towns, and compare Norwalk to those school districts. I think they need our help, not the other way around. That being said, I give Mike Barbis credit for his stubbornness, but not his common sense.

  3. Mimi

    Why didn’t Mayor Rilling come back down after swearing in CC members for the remainder of the Barbis stoning? And where was Senator Duff? Where were King, Camacho and Melendez, the recipients of the Barbis email? Were any of them there aside from the mayor?

  4. Claire schoen

    @SueHaynie – Vidoe of the meeting has been posted. I had to leave at 830, but am going to check out the video now.
    Where else in Norwalk can we get this kind of coverage? Timely reporting plus full video of the meeting. Print can give us the same depth
    If you are a regular reader of NancyOnNorwalk, pleas3 show you support during NewsMatch. Between now and the end of the year, all donations (up to $1000 per individual) will be matched.
    Our target is $20k – please help us get to our goal, so we can continue to bring the in-depth coverage you are accustomed to.

  5. Kevin Kane

    If I am not mistaken, it was reported that the email was released anonymously.
    I am not an IT expert but emails leave a very definitive trail. Considering the email went from Mr. Barbis to only 4 listed, all 5 email addresses move along with the email. The email was “released” which to me means it was either printed by 1 of the 5 then “released”, photographed by 1 of the 5 then “released” or simply forwarded by 1 of the 5. Which was it?
    I’m ruling out Mr. Barbis releasing it so the questions to the other 4 are:
    1. Did you release the email?
    2. If yes, how did you release it?
    3. Who did you release it to?
    4. Most importantly, why did you release it?

    Knowing those answers won’t solve the whole situation but it would be interesting to know those answers.

  6. TRS

    Hey NAACP-
    When you fight, you DON’T ALWAYS win.
    Last night was an epic failure on your part.
    Not only is Mr. Barbis not resigning, but you made your organization look like uncontrolled bullies.
    All noise, nothing accomplished.
    Four more years of Barbis started last night.
    Your people accomplished nothing but making themselves look like fools.

  7. Claire schoen

    Whoops, in this case not full meeting, rather the highlights…😎

  8. Mike Lyons

    They were celebrating at Station House in East Norwalk.

  9. carol

    stay strong mike.DO NOT RESIGN/

  10. Mimi

    @Mike Lyons, who exactly dodged it to Station House? Mayor Rilling, who is an ex officio BoE member and should have stayed to face the music? And who else? If you say Camacho, King and Melendez, then that is quite revealing. It is sickening, actually. It only validates that the cabal set off a bomb and fled before it detonated. Shame, Shame, Shame. They better not have paid for their drinks and meals on my taxpayer dollars!

  11. The Norwalker

    So Barbis is not going to take a hint and leave, instead he will be disrupting all Board of Education activities, insead of stepping down for the good of City……

  12. David W. (NOT Westmoreland)

    ANd while you argue about Mike Barbis email, you sleep on how and why it came to light when it did.

    All of this while the student population goes up with students that require ELL services.

    Bob Duff has remained silent on Norwalk getting any additional State funds.

    The Mayor, and the Norwalk DTC have some explaining to do. Who did they forward the email to? The real story here is all about the politically motivated stunt led by the folks who received the email. As another commentator mentioned… there is no anonymity in forwarded emails. There is a digital audit train all along the way. If these are elected officials then FOI request should show where it was forwarded to.

    Wake up NAACAP you just did the dirty work for the mayor and the DTC. A pawn in their game….yet again. When it’s all said and done, there will be no new schools in South Norwalk and ALL students will get shortchanged due to the increase in ELL resources without more money from the State.

  13. Mike Lyons

    Barbis didn’t disrupt the BoE meeting, upstaters driven in by the NAACP did. Barbis has done great work for our schools and will continue to do so through November, 2023.

  14. Mimi Chang

    Wonder if anyone issued a FOIA request for this “anon” sender of the email? The public has a right to see it – every parent I have spoken with about this feels very strongly that it should be revealed – so how can we get that in motion? I have read in the past a resident or two say they have issued a FOIA request on other occasion/subject matter and it was not honored? Could that be? If that is the case, could multiple citizens issue a FOIA request for this “anonymous” Barbis email sender (as we know email is never truly anon as it leaves a digital trail) and all issuers screenshot/record as proof that they sent it, so when, say, five senders send and some do not get a response, they can call it out and guarantee a fulfilled request?

    I’d appreciate if anyone has experience with FOIA requests and could chime in. Hearing from some that FOIA requests may not be granted is disheartening, but this situation absolutely warrants a FOIA request to reveal this sender. Maybe we can all send one. If the “anon” emailer is never revealed through a FOIA, then that in itself is highly suspect.

    1. Mimi, Brenda Penn-Williams is not subject to FOIA.

  15. Bryan Meek

    The mayor’s cabinet is subject to FOIA. Stop making lame excuses.

  16. Mimi Chang

    Thank you Nancy. I am talking about FOIAing elected officials, not Brenda Penn-Williams. The email was sent by Barbis to only four people. I am talking about FOIAing them.

  17. Mike Lyons

    True, but if the email was sent to her by the Mayor or one of the other recipients of the original email on the City system, the SENDER’s email WOULD be subject to an FOIA request. I wonder why it hasn’t been made?

  18. The Norwalker

    Barbis actions has created a atmosphere that will not disappear until he mends bridges with POC Communities or resigns.

    Right now he is nothing more than obstacle to progress in the BOE.

  19. Mike Lyons

    Barbis has no problem with the actual POC communities in Norwalk (Latinos are by far the largest such community in Norwalk, and there were almost none from that community at City Hall Tuesday night). Even the African-American community at large in Norwalk can’t have that much of a problem with him – why else would the local NAACP need to bring in people from New Haven, Hamden and Bridgeport to field a crowd? Barbis does have a problem with the political machine in South Norwalk – which has spent years creating the atmosphere on display Tuesday night. Barbis won’t resign, and shouldn’t.

  20. Babar

    The same Darnell Crosland who is charged with bribery & witness tampering?

    Whenever you have to bring out of towners to protest, you know your argument is weak. Barbis might be a problem but he ran and won, suck it up now. This is a democracy. Stop wasting time and move on.

    I also think the person who released the email should come forward and end the charade. Same for the whistleblower in the Trump impeachment, just come forward so that line of arguing can end.

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