Columbiana GOP Chair Draws Fire for ‘Hell on Earth’ Post

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Columbiana County Republican Party chairman Dave Johnson yesterday defended his use of a meme blaming liberals for a wildfire raging in California that has claimed nearly 80 lives with hundreds more missing.

Johnson also a rejected the call by his Democratic counterpart in Mahoning County to step down, calling it an attempt to distract from the party’s losses in Mahoning County.

The meme, which Johnson posted on his Facebook account and has since  been taken down, features two images from wildfires. The main image has the caption, “Hell on Earth brought to you by the Liberals in California!” A second inset photo features a road sign that reads “Welcome to Hell” with the caption “God’s Punishment to Liberal California.”

Two wildfires are raging in California now. In the northern part of the state, the Camp Fire so far has been blamed for at least 77 confirmed deaths and the destruction of nearly 12,800 structures. A separate wildfire in southern California, the Woolsey Fire, has led to three confirmed fatalities and has damaged or destroyed nearly 1,800 structures.

Johnson justified the post’s content, arguing several people have said the Camp Fire “could have been prevented” if not for the actions of environmentalists in California and forest management practices there, he said.

“That’s the point of it,” he added. 

Among those who have criticized California for its forest management practices is President Donald Trump, who also downplayed the impact of climate change that many scientists cite as a contributing factor.

As far as David Betras is concerned, Johnson crossed a line with his social media post.

“My breath was taken away by it,” the chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party said in a statement responding to Johnson’s post.

Betras said he came across the post Sunday afternoon while working in his Canfield office. He called the post “disgusting” and Johnson  a “coward” as well as “disturbed.”

Betras called on Johnson to apologize to fire victims, their families and first responders battling the blaze. He said Johnson should step down as county GOP chairman and from his positions on the Columbiana County Board of Elections as well as the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation board, and urged that if Johnson doesn’t, “those who have the power to remove him from those posts should do so at once.”

After online commentators reacted negatively to the post and began suggesting people boycott Johnson’s Spread Eagle Tavern and Summitville Tile, Johnson purportedly took down the post, screenshots of which nonetheless were shared.

The post, Betras added, “is in line with comments made by other ultra-conservative, right-wing radicals” who called AIDS “wrath of a just God against homosexuals,” and linked Hurricane Katrina to homosexuality.

Ultra-conservative religious leaders also tied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to individuals and organizations “who have tried to secularize America,” including “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way. 

“People of his ilk have a long history of invoking God’s name and linking His retribution to tragic events,” Betras wrote.

Betras further rejected Johnson’s justification for the post as “bulls— propagated” by President Donald Trump, who has blamed forest management practices in California and downplayed the impact of climate change.

“Even if that was the case, people have died. You don’t say, ‘Burn in Hell, California,’ ” Betras said angrily. “It just goes to show how off the track Republicans are under this president.”

Johnson responded that Betras used the meme to distract from Mahoning Democrats’ losses Nov. 6. The GOP’s nominee, Michael Rulli, defeated John Boccieri to represent the 33rd district in the Ohio Senate, a seat long held by Democrats. A state representative seat also traditionally held by Democrats – the 59th district – remains undecided pending the counting of mail-in and valid provisional ballots, although Republican Don Manning has claimed victory in that race. 

“This is grandstanding by David Betras trying to cover for his miserable results,” Johnson said, and the Democratic chairman is the one who should resign.

Betras pointed out his candidates only lost two races. “He doesn’t want to talk about the Court of Appeals race we beat him on,” he said.

“This kind of discourse is not even a civil discourse,” he continued. “I’m not trying to distract. I’m trying to amplify that this is not OK.”

Johnson’s GOP counterpart in Mahoning County, Mark Munroe, said he doesn’t believe Johnson thinks the disaster in California is punishment to liberals any more than he thinks Hurricane Michael was mean to punish the people of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina last month.   

“It’s a reminder that sometimes it’s all too easy to hit the share or like button when common decency would require you hit the delete button instead,” Munroe said.

“Clearly, the post of the offending graphic was in bad taste, but the response by Dave Betras was overblown,” he continued. “If everyone who said or wrote something in bad taste had to resign, there would be few of us left standing.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.