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Salem mayor turning the barbs into a bonanza

Mayor Kim Driscoll is shown in her office at Salem City Hall. Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Salem’s mayor, Kim Driscoll, recently found a way to put a barrage of criticism to work for a cause she embraces: equality for lesbians, bisexuals, gays, and the transgendered.

When Driscoll terminated a contract with Gordon College to manage the city’s Old Town Hall building because of the Wenham Christian school’s opposition to anticipated federal hiring protections, she drew a volley of negative calls and e-mails from mostly out-of-state conservative critics.

RELATED: Salem ends Gordon College’s use of town hall

In response, Driscoll pledged on her Facebook page that for every negative message she received, she or her campaign account would contribute $5 to the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth. In the July 16 post, she also encouraged readers to make their own donations to the Salem-based group.


When she concluded her initiative last Friday, her office had tallied 161 negative calls and e-mails, so her contribution will be $805, according to Dominick Pangallo, the mayor’s chief of staff. The alliance has also received about $8,000 in other donations as a result of Driscoll’s action.

“It’s amazing to us. . . . We are all just overwhelmed by the love — and financial support — that has come from around the country and around the world,” said Stephen Harrington, the organization’s interim executive director.

Driscoll said she would pay for her donation with her own money or her campaign account, or a combination of both. She said no taxpayer funds would be used.

The divide with Gordon has given the city and Driscoll an unexpected dose of national attention, with such online sites as BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and Slate providing news and commentary.

As of Tuesday at noon, Driscoll’s Facebook posting announcing her pledge had drawn 8,730 likes, 4,508 shares, and 1,036 comments from as far away as Australia.


Among those voicing support was Jessica Reichard Wechsler, who wrote, “Bravo mayor. Thank you for standing up for what’s right, and turning hate on its head!”

But Paul Budish wrote that the mayor was “using her power and influence, motivated by her religious beliefs, to bully Gordon because she disagrees with them.”

The critical calls and e-mails to the mayor’s office began after the city on July 9 terminated its contract with Gordon to manage the city’s Old Town Hall. The historic building includes a a first-floor museum and a second-floor function and performance hall.

RELATED | Walker: Gordon College pleads for right to discriminate

“Some of the negative vitriol was not surprising, but it was offensive,” Driscoll said.

The vast majority of the negative responses were from out of state, beginning with about 20 phone calls in a single hour on July 16. Pangallo said those calls appeared to be organized, since they all came from the same area code in Texas and had the same script. Other critical messages and calls came from Arkansas, California, Georgia, and Kansas.

Pangallo that many of those contacting the city may have heard about the termination of the Gordon contract when TheBlaze, a conservative news website run by radio host Glenn Beck, posted a story about the controversy on July 14.

By the end of last week, the positive calls and messages were far outpacing the negative ones, Driscoll said, noting that many who commented favorably also were writing checks to the alliance.


Driscoll notified Gordon College president D. Michael Lindsay of the decision to terminate the contract in a letter that is posted on the city website.

In it, Driscoll said that the city took the action in response to Lindsay’s joining 13 other religious and agency leaders in asking the White House for an exemption for religious groups from an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating in their hiring based on sexual orientation or gender identity. President Obama on Monday denied the exemptions.

Lindsay could not be reached for comment.

In her letter, Driscoll also cited “current policies at Gordon that require strict behavioral standards for students, faculty, and staff that are discriminatory toward LGBT individuals.”

“I am truly disappointed in the stance you have taken, which plainly discriminates against the rights of LGBT individuals, both on and off campus,” Driscoll wrote. “These actions fly in the face of the city of Salem’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance, which prohibits our municipality from contracting with entities that maintain discriminatory practices.”

Salem had planned to take over management of Old Town Hall at the end of August, but moved that date forward to July 15 when the contract was terminated.

The controversy comes after a June announcement that Salem had achieved a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index for making the city’s laws, policies, and services inclusive of the LBGT community.


In recent years, the city has embraced equality in a number of ways, from raising flags in recognition of Pride Month to designating community liaisons in the mayor’s office and the Police Department. In March, the city adopted a fully inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance, making Salem only the fifth community in the state to extend protections against discrimination for the transgendered community in public accommodations.

“Mayor Driscoll has been a stalwart ally for the LBGT community both here in Salem and on the North Shore in general,” said Ward 4 Councilor David Eppley.


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Gordon College leader joins request for exemption to hiring rule

Salem ends Gordon College's use of town hall

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.