This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.Article Published September 15, 2020
Madison Chamber of Commerce (MCC) Director Eileen Banisch announced Sept. 14 she is resigning her position as vice chair of the Republican Town Committee (RTC) after comments she made on social media prompted a storm of controversy over both political conflicts of interest as well as insinuations of violence.
Last week, Banisch publicly commented on a Facebook photo of State Senate candidate Joe LaPorta holding a gun, saying that LaPorta should use bagels as shooting targets.
LaPorta, a Republican, is currently running against State Senator Christine Cohen (D-12), who owns Cohen’s Bagels, for the 12th District senate seat. Cohen’s Bagels is an MCC member.
Banisch’s comments, which were eventually deleted by LaPorta, were still spread widely across various Madison-related Facebook pages, receiving strong condemnation from many commenters both for Banisch taking a political position at odds with her professional responsibility to advocate for Chamber members, as well as for the violent and potentially anti-Semitic imagery.
Many others defended Banisch’s right to free speech, and dismissed the comments as a harmless joke while decrying the “cancel culture” and mob mentality of those who sought to shame or censure her.
In a statement provided to The Source, Banisch said she “truly regret[s] the trouble my comments have caused.”
“It is my hope that the good people of Madison will consider my contributions of the past 42 years and recognize that I have devoted my career to the betterment of our community,” the statement reads. “I have resigned my position as a member of the [RTC] in order to convey my allegiance to promoting all members of the chamber equally.”
Sarah Bishop Dellaventura, co-owner of Bishop’s Orchards and a longtime MCC member, said she was “disappointed and extremely disheartened” by Banisch’s comments—”Not for her political position in the town of Madison, but as an executive director of a chamber of commerce that is supposed to be representing, in a positive light...all of the chamber members, no matter what their political views are,” Dellaventura said. “The businesses in town deserve better, and shouldn’t have to question at any time whether their business is being properly represented.”
Cohen shared a similar concern with The Source.
“I was disappointed to hear about the comments by Ms. Banisch,” Cohen said. “As a member business of the Madison Chamber, I know how important it is for local small businesses to have nonpartisan representation.”
She later reached out to add, ""I received an apology from her yesterday in addition to the Chamber reaching out to me. I think all parties are glad to put this behind us. We will continue to stay on as a member of the Madison Chamber, along with the many fantastic businesses in town, and join with others in appreciation of all the efforts of the chamber to promote our companies."
Joan Walker, who chairs the Democratic Town Committee (DTC) and also works with the Madison Diversity and Inclusion Committee—both of which issued statements condemning Banisch’s comments—emphasized that she wasn’t calling for Banisch to resign from the chamber, as others on social media have, but said that her comments “crossed a line.”
“The executive director of the chamber should be, quite honestly, non-political when it comes to her role as the executive director,” Walker said. “The chamber should be a non-partisan support.”
Walker also said there were other points where Banisch showed the potential for a political bias, including moderating a separate Facebook page where a number of people had allegedly called for a boycott of Cohen’s Bagels.
“I’m asking for an apology, and a change in behavior,” Walker said. “You can’t be coming out against a member of the business community.”
A statement attributed to the MCC Board of Directors and provided to The Source by President Rose McLaughlin said that the chamber board had held a “special meeting” on Sept. 8 to discuss the controversy.
“It is the unanimous position of the Board of Directors that Ms. Banisch’s recent postings on Facebook were in poor taste and in no way reflect the values embraced by the Chamber of Commerce,” the statement reads.
‘A Lifetime of Commitment’
RTC Chair Amy Stefanowski was vehement in her support for Banisch, calling the criticism and backlash “politically motivated” while highlighting Banisch’s work for the chamber and in the community, specifically “invaluable and frequent informational updates” throughout the pandemic.
“I am personally sad to lose Eileen from the RTC, but I never doubted she would prioritize her love for Madison over anything personal,” Stefanowski wrote.
Stefanowski also pushed back against “community shaming,” saying the RTC would not “condone attempts to erase a lifetime of commitment to our town to advance a political agenda.”
According to the chamber board’s statement, the board is treating the incident as a “personnel matter,” and said the chamber will “take this opportunity to update its by-laws and operational policies to [ensure] they effectively convey the spirit of our mission, and to prevent any future misconception of our purpose.”
McLaughlin did not respond to voicemails and a follow-up email from The Source requesting further details on these policy changes, or how political conflicts of interest would be handled in the future.
Dellaventura said that she didn’t think anyone in Banisch’s role should ever hold a simultaneous political position that could conflict with their responsibilities to the town’s business community.
“I could see it [being different] if the person was on the [RTC] in Mystic, or Litchfield, but to be that affiliated with a specific political party in a town where you also work and represent the businesses...I think there’s a major conflict of interest,” she said.
Dellaventura said she was also “extremely upset” that Banisch had not publicly apologized for the social media comments.
“Not that I think it should necessarily be accepted,” she said.
In her statement, Banisch highlighted her long history of involvement in Madison organizations and initiatives, and her work to build “an inclusive chamber that supports all businesses in our town.”
Though she did not directly apologize, Banisch said she understood that her comments were “construed by some to be divisive, anti-Semitic and even violent.”
“Such things were never my intent,” Banisch said.