Greenbelt Mayor Colin A. Byrd, who berated Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at the opening of a mass vaccination site in the Prince George’s County municipality earlier this month, was formally censured by his colleagues on the city council.
Byrd’s nine-minute attack on Hogan’s handling of the pandemic on April 8 generated considerable media attention.
He accused the governor and other state leaders of “scapegoating people of color” by suggesting that some Black and Brown persons don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine. He also said Hogan’s decision to lift restrictions on business activity and social gatherings could lead to “more people getting sick and more people dying.”
“You have reopened the state, in my mind, far too quickly,” Byrd said, reading from his phone.
A staffer’s efforts to pry him from the microphone were not successful.
Byrd, a Democrat, is seeking the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) in 2022. Hogan, a Republican in his second term, is said to be considering a run for president in 2024.
By tradition in Greenbelt, the city council candidate with the most votes in the municipal election holds the title of mayor.
The censure resolution was introduced in the middle of the April 12 meeting of the council. It was sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Emmett V. Jordan, the former Greenbelt mayor who finished 95 votes behind Byrd in the 2019 election.
The censure noted that, in Greenbelt, “the Mayor is appointed by the City Council to perform ceremonial duties and speak on behalf of the Council and our residents.”
Byrd “failed to exercise discretion and decorum,” the resolution said.
“During the ceremony, Mr. Byrd expressed his views as an individual in a context where his role was to speak as Mayor. As the ceremonial head of the City, he was expected to express gratitude to FEMA and to welcome the government leaders who were the City’s guests.”
During the ensuing debate at the council meeting, Byrd defended his remarks and his right to speak his mind at a high-profile event — and he complained that Jordan did not apprise him of the resolution ahead of time. He unsuccessfully sought to have the matter tabled for a future session.
As council members debated the resolution, Greenbelt residents watching the virtual meeting began to express their views using the “chat” function. Their comments occasionally obscured the face of whoever was speaking.
“Snakes do things like this,” said one. “This is unacceptable,” read another.
“I urge the Council to finally take action on this tonight,” read a third post.
The censure was approved by a vote of 5-2. Byrd and council member Rodney M. Roberts voted against it.
It’s unusual for political leaders to criticize one another at ribbon-cuttings.
In most news reports, Byrd’s words received as much attention as the opening of the FEMA vaccination site — the first in the region.
The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and local TV stations in both the D.C. and Baltimore media markets all reported on the controversy. Video posted to Yahoo’s “Entertainment” channel was viewed 2,700 times.
The April 8 comments weren’t the first time Byrd has caused friction with his council colleagues.
In January they publicly disavowed a Facebook post in which Byrd called on Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s) to resign.
Angry that the General Assembly opted not to hold a special session last year to act on social justice concerns and the pandemic, Byrd called Lewis a “total cornball brother who has no business representing Prince George’s County or Black people at all.” (Byrd and Lewis are both Black.)
Lewis, chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the House of Delegates, is a senior adviser to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).
While council members defended Byrd’s right to express his personal views, they said “his comments and decision to post them were not run past the other members of Council and no vote was taken [and] they do not represent an official position of the Greenbelt City Council or of the City of Greenbelt.”
After the Hogan staff person tried to get Byrd to end his remarks at the FEMA event, he responded, “I’ll wrap it up in a minute, Mr. Governor. You’re in my city, sir.”
Byrd’s comments drew a rebuke from Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks, a fellow Democrat not given to public conflict.
“It does not take very much talent to spot what’s wrong,” she told reporters. “It takes much more talent and commitment to fix it.”
Hogan responded as well, saying “we would disagree with every word that he said.”
“I can tell you the mayor has had nothing to do with our vaccine effort or this site, and didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.”
In a statement following the censure vote, Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said, “The fact that the mayor’s own City Council has censured him says more than I ever could about what happened.”
“What is most disappointing is that the mayor had an opportunity to urge his residents to go out and get vaccinated at this federal site that we worked day and night for weeks to bring to the area, and instead he chose a political path. Just truly baffling and saddening,” Ricci added.
The 28-year-old Byrd, who abandoned a brief run against Hoyer in March to seek the Senate seat, said on Friday he has no regrets about his decision to criticize the governor in public.
“People disagree. That’s their right,” he said in an interview. “But people also have a right to speak out on behalf of people who are voiceless and who have been harmed by the decisions of people in positions of power.”