By Anthony Caciopo
Regional News Editor
It’s been a tumultuous year for Palos Township Trustee Sharon Brannigan, but she says she’s willing to talk.
Talk with her opponents. Talk with a mediator. Talk about township services that she says includes every resident, regardless of his or her background.
“I’m still with my hand out here, waiting to have a conversation,” she says.
But at least one topic of that conversation, should it ever take place, will be decidedly one-way, clear-cut and unmistakable.
“I am not going to be bullied into resigning.”
Brannigan has been in the center of a red-hot spotlight since July 10, 2017 when approximately 125 people attended a monthly Palos Township trustees meeting to demand her ouster.
It was a tight squeeze for them, considering the meeting room barely has room for 40 attendees. They rallied in the parking lot, filled the hallway and stood outside the entrance to the building, sending a forceful message of dissatisfaction.
The crowd cited comments she posted online that they felt—and still feel—were offensive, discriminatory and racist to many residents of the township and beyond, particularly Muslims and Middle Eastern people.
Brannigan has long since removed the comments—they may have even been gone by the time people first showed up last summer to confront her. But those comments still live on in screen captures and printed materials and posters that were held aloft at a similarly packed monthly meeting just three weeks ago, marking the one-year anniversary of the protests.
And the crowds haven’t varied much in size at all those monthly meetings in between.
Brannigan’s comments have been dutifully reported here in The Regional News multiple times, as did her written clarification of her position, followed by a statement in which she says she apologized. And she says she has apologized more than once.
Any comment from her over the past year of raucous meetings has been scant, but last week she sat down with The Regional to talk about her position and what might come next.
“I’m a Constitutionalist,” she said, “a law-abiding citizen. I pride myself on that and I expect that of everyone that crosses my path.
Brannigan was elected to her position in 2013, prompted by someone she met who knew of her frustration with certain aspects of government and suggesting she get involved in a way to make change.
“I believe since our nation was formed, we have gone further and further into an expansion of our government and it has become bloated to excess,” she said.
“We have seen our taxes exponentially increase. It was incredible what Obamacare did to us (she and her family),” Brannigan said. “I didn’t even know there was something I could do to help. All I did was scream and scream, so why not just get involved?”
“The person who initially sported my when I first ran was Sean Morrison,” she said. “He was the one that led the charge to have the soda tax repealed.”
Morrison is the commissioner of Cook County’s 17th District and the GOP Republican committeeman for Palos Township.
Calls for her resignation took a turn some months back when protestors, who had already been calling upon her fellow board members to force or persuade her to resign, began invoking Morrison’s name at the township meetings. They wanted him to do the same.
“I don’t speak with him on a regular basis,” she said. “I’ll sometimes see him at the monthly GOP meetings.”
Morrison told The Regional last year that the solution for people who are dissatisfied with an elected official they do not agree with is to take action at the polls.
It’s a point that’s also been made by Palos Township leadership and Brannigan herself, on multiple occasions.
“The law is: You’re elected, you serve your term. If you don’t like what’s going on as a constituent or resident, run against me (or vote for an opponent). This is the way the law works in our country and it needs to be embraced.”
Brannigan insists that relations remain professional with her colleagues on Palos Township board, despite the heat they’ve been given because of their association with her.
“I believe they respect my decision (not to resign),” she said.
Although she says she can’t know the motivation of everyone who is protesting, she believes politics plays a major role, and it includes the resounding defeat Commissioner Sean Morrison championed of the penny-per-ounce Sweetened Beverage Tax, a tax advocated by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a Democrat.
Brannigan took a run at Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) in 2014 and was defeated. She says she won’t rule out further political aspirations. Her term as a Palos Township trustee is up in 2020.
And although she says she’s still open to a conversation with her opponents, she says she’s troubled by the tone and the actions of the protesters.
“The way the protesting is happening, it does show such hate. I leave the parking lot, and people are flipping me the bird,” she said.
“I’ve taken a lot, I’ve shouldered this bullying, (but) I’ve taken responsibility and I’ve apologized more than once,” she said.
Brannigan’s opponents, whose opinions have been well documented over many months in The Regional, have said almost universally that her apology was insincere and too-little, too-late.
She says that she is not uncomfortable with Muslims and that she has no objection to taking part in a discussion about cultural diversity as long as a discussion about constitutionalism can also be part of the conversation.
“Who doesn’t want to grow,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to give that impression.
Regarding constitutionalism, she says “Your First Amendment rights are being trampled when you can’t respect someone’s words, whether you think they are hurtful or not.
“I’ve taken responsibility for those words, I’ve apologized. But to continually do this (protesting), their message is ‘You can’t say anything, no matter what.’ They’re not really understanding the Constitution.”
Brannigan said she was present at a meeting last December that included a representative from the Department of Justice, members of her board and two outside parties.
The next step, apparently, would to be a meeting with representatives from the opposition, but that did not occur. Coalition members demanding her resignation withdrew from a possible sit-down when news of the potential meeting was published in The Regional. The coalition cited “bad faith” because of the leaked news before official negotiations for the meeting had begun.
But the embattled trustee insists she’s willing to talk.
“I’m listening to them, I’m hearing them, and they can give me the same respect,” she said. “It’s a huge problem I think right now in our government with both sides so angry with each other. There’s no room for conversation.
“I have an open mind and I feel that’s what’s lost,” she said. “It’s incredibly important if we’re going to live in this republic we live in, to completely understand that, both ways.”