County executive’s ‘story’ falls flat Armstrong apologizes for comments via email to The Press
As a way of explaining why he made no promises during his campaign for office, Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong told what some considered a socially unacceptable “story” during his state of the county address about a supposed friend, a light blue Cadillac convertible and a “blonde.”
The Press contacted Armstrong for comment on his “story,” and the reaction of two Lehigh County commissioners when they heard what he had said.
Armstrong replied to The Press’ question via email on Feb. 26.
“I’m deeply sorry to anyone who took offense to the story which was told during my state of the county address,” Armstrong wrote. “I recognize that comments and actions have tremendous power, and it is our responsibility as elected leaders to acknowledge how they can often make others feel diminished or marginalized.
“The purpose of my story was intended to demonstrate that many often make grandiose promises in order to achieve an objective or goal, and I have strived never to be that kind of individual.
“I made my remarks without any deliberative desire to be malicious or demeaning, but thoroughly recognize the validity of criticism toward those remarks.
“As an elected official, it’s important that those who took any offense or felt in anyway deprived of value or equity, understand that I acknowledge and take to heart those feelings.
“As county executive, I realize that I’m not above criticism or error and therefore must be open to public critique and comment. I must also change and evolve in response to it.
“I take this moment to affirm my commitment to continually improving my self-awareness and consciousness toward the impact my future statements can have on others.
“I will continue to serve my constituents irrespective of their gender, sexual orientation, race or religion.
“The public will always be the ultimate check on my power and actions, and I will always remain subject to them.”
The story, which may have been socially acceptable in the 1950s was not well received by his audience and, in particular, by Commissioners Marty Nothstein and Nathan Brown, in this era of the #MeToo movement.
Nothstein and Brown emailed their response to The Press on Feb. 22, a day after the state of the county address at Coca-Cola Park.
“Yesterday’s state of the county address should have been a showcase event that touted the county’s remarkable — and sometimes hard fought —achievements to serve the needs of our citizens and that set a course to improve, to enhance and to grow services and opportunities that make Lehigh County a great place to live, to work and to raise a family.
“County Executive Phillips Armstrong eventually got to that point, but not until he tainted his chance to do so in a manner appropriate to his office by prefacing his remarks with a story demeaning to women — a story that served only to embarrass him as an elected public official and to brand him as tone deaf to the very public, very pointed discourse on how women are perceived in today’s society.
“We are disappointed that the county executive chose to include his ‘joke’ in a serious discussion of county government. This government deals with the very real issues of life — issues like drug addiction, crime and punishment, child welfare and care of the aging to name a few.
“Telling a ‘joke’ that characterizes a woman as an ‘option’ to a car has no place in county business.
“As he told the “joke,” he noted that people in the audience were signaling him not to continue. He should have listened. His actions and words are shameful to an office that should be-held to a much higher standard ...”
According to a statement made by Armstrong in the video of the state of the county address, posted on WFMZ’s Facebook page, one of the people who apparently told Armstrong not to continue with his “story” was his wife.
The Press spoke with Nothstein via telephone on Feb. 25.
Nothstein stated he would mention the incident at the Feb. 26 county leadership meeting, but possibly not at the Feb. 27 Lehigh County commissioners’ meeting.
“I will mention it tomorrow [Feb. 26] and see where it goes from there,” Nothstein said.
“We have bigger business that has to be addressed [at the commissioners’ meeting.]
The Press also contacted Commissioner Amy Zanelli for comment on the “joke.”
She responded via email.
“Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the event in question. Like you, after seeing the press release sent out by Nate [Brown] and Marty [Nothstein], I requested a copy of said joke. None was provided,” Zanelli wrote. “I messaged Marty personally and requested details. No more was provided to me than what you detailed above, despite my pressing.
“Not a single person has expressed any ill feeling, or any feeling at all, about this alleged joke that allegedly occurred aside from Nate or Marty.
“Come to think of it, they are the only people to my knowledge that even mentioned it.
“Additionally, I was not asked or consulted about that release before it was sent out.”
Commissioner Dr. Percy Dougherty, who said he was not at the state of the county address, provided the following comment to The Press via email.
“I looked at a video online,” Dougherty wrote.
“The joke was definitely inappropriate in a state of the government presentation. I agree with Commissioner Brown that if this were stated in front of female workers, there would be a reprimand.
“The joke was tasteless and the sexual innuendo was politically incorrect.”
Lehigh County Commissioner Brad Osborne responded to a question by The Press about the incident via email.
“Why the county executive would squander the precious opportunity to share with our community the good work of the county, and lead off by demeaning women and wrongly stereotyping adult men, is incomprehensible to me,” Osborne wrote.
“It certainly is a flawed view of the direction we need to be heading in as a society. On a personal level, I am extremely saddened.”