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Friday, August 22, 2014

Londonderry police, parade organizers discuss arrest of NHGOP operative

LONDONDERRY – Parade organizers defended the arrest Saturday of a Republican operative who was detained at the Old Home Day parade wearing a chicken costume, saying the man was warned multiple times to stop harassing U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen before he was taken into custody.

The incident – which has prompted criticism from the state Republican party and concerns from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union – involved a 23-year-old NHGOP activist who confronted Shaheen about her record of holding town hall meetings. ...

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LONDONDERRY – Parade organizers defended the arrest Saturday of a Republican operative who was detained at the Old Home Day parade wearing a chicken costume, saying the man was warned multiple times to stop harassing U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen before he was taken into custody.

The incident – which has prompted criticism from the state Republican party and concerns from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union – involved a 23-year-old NHGOP activist who confronted Shaheen about her record of holding town hall meetings.

With Shaheen facing reelection in the fall, New Hampshire Republicans have sought to portray the Democratic incumbent as reticent to meet with her constituents in an open forum.

As part of that strategy, GOP operative Michael Zona has trailed Shaheen around several events in the state wearing the chicken costume. While the gimmick has garnered media coverage, it gained even greater notoriety Saturday when Zona was arrested at the parade on a disorderly conduct charge. Police said he ignored warnings to stay off the parade route while tailing Shaheen and Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Parade organizers said Thursday that they were trying to maintain safety along the route. Londonderry police also released a report indicating they had multiple contacts with Zona before he was arrested.

However, Zona, who is scheduled to be arraigned in September, defended his actions, saying he received a “good deal of encouragement from people along the parade route.”

“I believe Senator Jeanne Shaheen should be holding town halls and I have a First Amendment right to express that point of view. I wasn’t bothering anyone. I wasn’t disturbing anyone,” he said.

The staging grounds

Even before the parade stepped off, and Zona was identified as the man dressed as a chicken, police and parade organizers were wary of the 6-foot-tall figure in the yellow costume.

Old Home Day Committee Chairwoman Kathy Wagner said the man turned up at the staging area for the parade at Londonderry Middle School and began following Shaheen around. Wagner said parade chairman Rick Mansfield confronted him and removed a sign he was carrying about Shaheen’s record of holding town halls.

Police were alerted about the potential for a disturbance, but they couldn’t take action because the staging area was open to the public, Wagner said.

“The chicken ran off, so we never thought he would be back in the parade again, but he was in and out of the parade all the way up the route,” she said.

The parade stepped off at about 10:30 a.m., with Shaheen joining Gov. Maggie Hassan and Executive Councilor Chris Pappas near the head of the procession. Londonderry Town Councilor Joseph Green was nearby, representing the town with three other council members.

When Green first caught sight of the chicken, he assumed it was part of the Old Home Day festivities, but he began to grow uncomfortable when the chicken sidled up to Shaheen.

“I kept seeing how she was looking at him,” he said. “She seemed to be very uncomfortable and kind of afraid, so I kind of got in between his body and her body.”

He said the man in the costume was coming close enough to Shaheen to bump up against her. Green was so startled that he joined two of Shaheen’s campaign staffers to block the costumed man from approaching her. Green said the man’s body language grew more aggressive as they intervened, and the chicken sounds he was making began to resemble a growl.

“I just felt like it was a dangerous situation, so I just kind of wanted to create space between her, the senator, and the guy in the chicken suit,” he said.

Chicken causes stir

Further back in the parade – behind clowns, marching bands and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile – members of the Londonderry Democratic Committee were beginning to stir.

Marching with the group were committee treasurer Mary Tetreau, president Tammy Siekmann and Shaheen campaign manager Mike Vlacich. They learned within minutes that a man in a chicken costume had surfaced on the parade route.

Tetreau, who was photographing the parade, said Vlacich received a phone call and quickly departed to reach the head of the parade.

“People were talking about it – the fact that there was a chicken on the route – and they were wondering what was going on,” Vlacich recalled Thursday.

By that time, Green was taking matters into his own hands. He called Londonderry police for assistance and warned the man in the chicken suit to get off the parade route.

Wagner also sprang into action. About 10 minutes after the parade stepped off, she was alerted the chicken was causing a disturbance by Mansfield and Siekmann, a Democratic activist who also helps to coordinate the Londonderry Old Home Day Parade.

In addition to chairing the Londonderry Democratic Committee, Siekmann has bolstered Shaheen’s campaign efforts in the past year. Siekmann reposted nine of Shaheen’s campaign advertisements and web videos on her personal Twitter account since January.

Police get involved

Londonderry police Sgt. Joseph Bellino was supervising the festivities. Bellino spotted the chicken man approaching Shaheen and flapping his arms while a second person recorded the scene with a video camera, according to a police report.

“Both were in close proximity to the Senator, within two feet, and caused her to deviate from her path as she walked,” the report states.

Bellino escorted the pair away from the parade route and told them they have a right to protest, but could not harass Shaheen.

A short time later, Sgt. Adam Dyer spotted commotion in the parade route while stationed at the intersection of Mammoth and Pillsbury roads. It appeared someone dressed in a chicken costume was running around in circles around a group, then sprinting off into the crowd and back out into the street, Dyer wrote.

A few moments later, he observed the man “jogging and jumping from side to side” through the crowd of families and children. At one point, Dyer wrote, the man in the costume walked up behind the governor while she was shaking someone’s hand and yelled something at her while standing only a few feet away, causing Hassan to “move back towards her security team.”

First Amendment

Dyer took Zona into custody and escorted him along the parade route to a police cruiser waiting at the entrance of Mack’s Apples. He was transported to the Londonderry Police Department.

Zona was booked on a single class B misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and released on personal recognizance.

The arrest brought a wave of relief to Londonderry’s town office holders, who were watching from the bandstand as the confrontations between Shaheen and the chicken man played out.

However, in the days that followed, the action wasn’t as well received by some Republicans in the state. The arrest also caught the attention of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, which is tracking the progress of Zona’s case in court.

NHCLU staff attorney Gilles Bissonnette said the group questions whether the disorderly conduct arrest infringed on Zona’s First Amendment rights.

“As the United States Supreme Court had made clear, Americans – including our politicians – must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate breathing space to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment,” Bissonnette said.

While NHCLU focused its concerns on the arrest by Londonderry police, New Hampshire Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn took aim at Shaheen, saying she wants to “silence free speech.”

Vlacich said Shaheen’s campaign had no part in getting the man in the chicken costume removed from the parade, nor did it ask Seikmann to take action against the protester.

“I can say with great certainty that we did not ask to have the chicken removed,” he said. “We did not contact the police, the organizers or anything like that.”

Hassan spokesman William Hinkle said neither the governor nor any member of her staff spoke to Londonderry police or town officials about the conduct of the man in the chicken suit.

“The NHGOP wastes taxpayer resources and local law enforcement time with these juvenile antics when we should be discussing critical issues that matter – like raising the minimum wage, creating good paying jobs, and protecting social security and Medicare for our state’s seniors,”

New Hampshire Democratic Party communications director Julie McClain said.

‘She’s my senator’

Green, a registered Republican, said he doesn’t believe Saturday’s events should be viewed through the lens of party affiliation.

“Democrat or Republican, we still have to respect the office. She’s my senator and she needs to be respected and not bullied like that,” he said of Shaheen.

Wagner said Zona would have been free to make any statement he wished if he had stayed on the sidelines of the parade or registered to participate in the event ahead of time.

In her 15 years helping to organizing the parade, Wagner said politics has been a common source of frustration. When Shaheen first ran for a spot in the Senate against Republican John E. Sununu, Wagner said she was forced to mediate a dispute at the parade between people holding signs for the two sides.

“This is not a free speech issue at all,” she said. “It’s the fact that he conducted himself inappropriately by getting himself into a parade that he was not supposed to be in.”

Jim Haddadin can be reached at 594-6589 or jhaddadin@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Haddadin on Twitter (@Telegraph_JimH).