New Britain council fails to override mayor’s veto to remove Columbus statute

Jesse Leavenworth, Hartford Courant

The common council on Wednesday failed to override Mayor Erin Stewart’s veto of the council’s decision last month to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus.

The 8-6 vote means the statue of the brave Italian explorer or rapacious slave trader, depending on the the various views of city leaders and residents, stays, at least for now. Ten votes were required to override Stewart’s veto.

“I stand by my original veto message and I am glad other city council members shared my concerns with the original resolution,” Stewart said Thursday. “The door to my office always has been and continues to be open to those who are interested in having productive conversations on how to move our community forward.”

In a statement condemning “cancel culture” last month, the mayor warned that taking down the monument would set a bad precedent.

“Where does it end?” she wrote. “Are we going to examine the battlefield tactics of generals Kosciuszko or Pulaski to ensure they adhered to the social mores of today?”

The failed override was the latest twist in a local culture battle that began with the nationwide campaign to pull down Columbus statues after the George Floyd protests in June. Republican leaders and Italian-American groups in New Britain largely pushed to keep the city’s statue in McCabe Park, while Puerto Rican activists, the New Britain Racial Justice Coalition and council Democrats argued it should be moved off city property.

The arguments largely mirror those in cities across the country: Columbus’ defenders portray him as an intrepid explorer and symbol of Italian-American heritage, while critics say he was a genocidal slave trader and racist.

Nevertheless, several council Republicans sided with Democrats in a 10-4 vote to take the statue down. Stewart said they never explained how the city would pay to remove it, nor what would replace it at the park. She signaled that she might reconsider if the council provides detailed answers.

“If the council is going to retire Columbus, they ought to have a concurrent and concrete plan for what will go in its place,” she wrote, saying anything less would be an affront to Italian-Americans.

Democratic Alderman Chris Anderson, one of the most outspoken voices demanding removal of the statue, said at the meeting Wednesday that the council does not have to answer those questions, at least not right away.

The plan would be to replace the statue with a monument that honors Italian Americans’ contributions to the city, Anderson said. The will to remove the statue is not about cancel culture or erasing history, Anderson said, but rather about correcting a history “that excludes other members of this community.” He said the council members who voted to remove the statue were responding to the will of the people.

Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at jleavenworth@courant.com