Paul Sungenis

Paul Sungenis of Olean speaks to the Common Council on Tuesday. Sungenis, a candidate for the Ward 4 alderman election next month, said he has been subject to threats and vandalism because of his sexual orientation and called on city officials to condemn the acts.

OLEAN — LGBTQ Oleanders and allies — including two openly gay candidates for the Common Council — denounced homophobic language used in the lead-up to this year’s election.

Tracylynn Huselstein and Paul Sungenis — Democratic candidates for Wards 2 and 4, respectively — were joined by dozens of supporters on Tuesday at the Common Council meeting, with a number speaking out on reported vandalism, threats, graffiti and other charged messages.

Speakers declined to identify who they believe was behind the incidents after a caution from Council President John Crawford, D-Ward 5, that “this will not be the forum for accusations or finger-pointing.” However, the speakers said that a sitting member of the Common Council was involved, as well as another candidate for the council on the ballot this year.

On his campaign’s Facebook page, Sungenis posted what appeared to be screenshots of anonymous text messages using offensive language, claiming “God hates you” and other inflammatory comments.

A call to the phone number listed in the screenshot by the Times Herald was not immediately returned.

In a prepared statement, Sungenis announced that he has been subjected to hate speech, vandalism and threats since announcing his candidacy.

“The threats and harassment I received last week served as reminders for me of the costs I’d chosen by being out while working for that better world,” he said. “For refusing to lie about myself just to make some hateful haters a little less uncomfortable.”

Huselstein said she has also been subject of hate speech.

“‘Oh, just some fat lesbian,’ this is a statement from a current council member to one of my opponents when asked who else was running,” Huselstein said, adding that with other issues since moving to Olean, “in the past two years, I’ve had to swim upstream harder than I ever have in my life as an out woman.”

Kevin Bartholomew, the Libertarian candidate for Ward 2, confirmed he received the message from a sitting council member when he asked for information on who was running, but declined to say who made the statement.

“That’s what was said to me,” he said, adding that he denounces such sentiments. Being gay “isn’t for me, but for these people, this is their life. This is pathetic.”

Half a dozen others spoke out in support, ranging from LGBTQ persons to supporting friends and neighbors.

Several aldermen denounced the vitriol after the close of the public comment session, but no formal action was taken.

Alderman Linda Witte, D-Ward 1, who has served 16 years as alderman, mayor and county legislator, said, “I think it’s the first time I’ve seen such downright nastiness,” during a campaign. “Olean is better than that.”

While speaking, Witte began to weep, taking a short pause to collect her thoughts as she condemned the actions.

“I think that if we’re not going to say something as elected officials, who is?” she said, calling on the other elected officials to take a stand.

While “a little banter, maybe even some mudslinging” is expected, Crawford said those who are standing for election do not deserve such attacks.

“Olean is better than that — Olean is better than crossing that line,” Crawford said. “Have some compassion — a couple months ago we signed a Charter for Compassion in this same room. Let’s represent that.”

Alderman Kevin Dougherty, R-Ward 4 — one of three candidates along with Sungenis on the ballot — said that he has also been subject to vandalism and threats for his work with the African American Center for Cultural Development and having a biracial child.

“I hope our community does grow as a whole,” he said, “and this vandalism and hatred stops.”

(Contact City Editor Bob Clark at bclark@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)

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