The race for State Sen. Peter Harckham’s seat in the 40th District with former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is heating up as the two trade barbs over school mascots.
This week, Harckham, a Democrat, purportedly introduced a bill that would limit funding to New York school districts that have potentially race-based mascots or logos that could be deemed offensive, such as those with ties to Native Americans.
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The proposed legislation would impact at least three high schools in the 40th District: Mahopac High School (Indians, $32.1 million loss in aid); Valhalla High School (Vikings, $5.6 million), and Horace Greeley High School (Quakers, $9.5 million).
Additional elementary schools also could have been targeted.
“Today, we can no longer simply dismiss the idea that school or team nicknames and mascots are innocuous and do not hurt or offend other people,” Harckham said when introducing the legislation.
In New York, there are more than a hundred schools that have either a Native American or “Indian” mascot or team name. In 2001, New York’s education commissioner asked local school districts to end the use of Native American names, but he did not order them to do so, instead leaving the decision up to local authorities and community members.
“The fact is, many mascots are grounded in, or borne from, systemic racism that does not mesh with the democratic values we share and seek to protect,” Harckham said. “It’s time we hold honest, respectful conversations and public hearings aimed at understanding what’s wrong with these kinds of mascots and why they should be retired.”
On Tuesday, July 14, Astorino, the Republican former Westchester County Executive, called on Harckham to withdraw his legislation at a news conference outside of Valhalla High School with a sign displaying the school's Vikings mascot. Moments before the news conference, Astorino said Harckham amended the bill, saying it wasn’t his.
The dispute comes as the Washington Redskins announced they would be dropping their nickname and John Jay High School in Cross River changed its mascot from Indians to the Wolves.
“Last week, the Senate website errantly ascribed my name to a bill that would strip funding from schools that had mascots named after Native Americans. That is not my bill,” Harckham posted on Facebook.
“I am working on legislation that would require communities to hold discussions about this sensitive topic without mandates or penalties,” he added. “It is designed to foster communication.
In response, Astorino has called out the senator after he sought to backtrack on his statement, taking a shot at Harckham in the process.
“He’s preposterously claiming that the bill he introduced on (Thursday) July 9 (S-8708) isn’t really his legislation,” Astorino said. “There is a specific and longstanding process for introducing bills that requires detailed paperwork from a senator’s office.
“Pete Harckham has demonstrated a shocking and repeated lack of judgment in the Senate, and his my-dog-ate-my-homework excuse is as unacceptable as it is embarrassing,”
Astorino alleged that Harckham only doubled back on his statement after hearing from “tens of thousands of outraged constituents” who are eager to get children back into the classroom amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.
“Thousands of parents have lost their jobs because of COVID-19, and the loss of school funds would result in dramatic local tax increases that would literally break them economically,” Astornio said. “(He) really screwed up here, and he needs to own up to it.”
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