Yale News

Hamden and New Haven activists are demanding the resignation of Hamden Legislative Councilwoman and associate professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Valerie Horsley from the council after what they call her “racist behavior” at a legislative council meeting.

Horsley did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The calls for Horsley to resign emerged following an interaction between Councilman Justin Farmer and Horsley during a recorded Hamden council Zoom meeting on April 5. Horsley, who is a white woman, interrupted Farmer, a Black man, with a “point of order” after he asked a series of questions regarding the town’s ice rink. When Farmer referred to her as “Councilwoman Horsley,” Horsley told him to address her with the title of “doctor.” After the meeting, Horsley posted on her personal Facebook page about the incident, suggesting that Farmer’s decision to refer to her as “Councilwoman” instead of “doctor” was sexist.

Due to the controversy over the April 5 meeting, the Legislative Council has paused their budget deliberations, according to McGarry, who said they are set to continue next Wednesday. McGarry told the News that this suspension was due to organizing the mediation between Farmer and Horsley.

On Monday, individuals gathered in front of Hamden’s town hall to demand Horsley’s resignation and criticize racial dynamics in city politics. Community action groups have also signed and circulated a petition calling for Horsley’s resignation.

“[The interaction] was distracting from the issues that affect mostly Black and brown people that live in the southern part of town,” Farmer told the News in a phone interview. “We need to focus on the people’s business. We lost a week of vital time during budget season on this.”

This is not the first time Horsley has been accused of racism. In July 2020, she was accused on Twitter of being racist by comparing the disparaging of a scientific organism with the disparaging of women and people of color.

The April 2021 interaction between Horsley and Farmer sparked a social media storm, with activists claiming that Horsley’s communication toward Farmer was out of line, racist and unnecessarily aggressive.

On April 10, Horsley made a public statement issuing an apology about her comment to Farmer from her Facebook page as a public official.

“In conversations with many individuals this week and after much reflection, I would like to take the first steps to repair harm for direct and indirect interactions that I had with Councilman Farmer this week,” Horsley’s statement reads. “I recognize that I was disrespectful toward Councilman Farmer both during the meeting and on social media afterwards. … I acknowledge that these words are just the beginning and I recognize the work that lies ahead … so that we may establish a culture of understanding and equity.” 

The councilman, who has not joined calls for Horsley’s resignation, responded by issuing a press release accepting Horsley’s public apology in the “interest of moving forward” with council work.

Farmer said he chose to refer to Horsley as “councilwoman” during the meeting because in the public forum, they were “equals.” He cited Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as an example of a similar choice — Paul is referred to as “Senator Paul” in public spheres, though he also holds a medical degree. In an interview with the News, Farmer said he did not think anything of his interaction with Horsley until he checked social media after the meeting concluded.

In a post that has since been taken down, Horsley referred to a “tribe of women on Hamden’s Legislative Council” who backed her when Farmer addressed her as “councilwoman.” According to Farmer, Horsley blocked him from her personal Facebook page during this time. Tagged in the post were representatives Jody Clouse and Berita Rowe-Lewis.

In her April 10 statement, Horsley also mentioned a private meeting that morning between herself and Farmer, with Brigitte Cogswell — Hamden’s human resources officer — as the mediator. She added that she apologized to Farmer for her “role in the issues that escalated this week.”

Farmer told the News that during the private meeting, he was “urged” to co-author a letter with Horsley where they each took equal responsibility for the incident. Farmer said this was due to the council leadership, who “wanted things to cool down.” While Farmer said he was “sympathetic” to this sentiment, he noted in his press release that he was not satisfied with the response of the council’s leadership.

“I am, however, disappointed in the leadership’s failure to speak up and more, in the attempt to diminish the significance of these repeated acts of disrespect at me by suggesting that I sign a letter that lays blame and responsibility equally between me and Councilwoman Horsley for Councilwoman Horsley’s acts,” Farmer’s press release read.

Farmer said the leadership has previously remained silent on such acts of “disrespect” towards him, such as when a North Haven police officer was called to oversee Farmer’s visit to an animal facility in December 2018, as reported by the New Haven Register.

In Farmer’s April 12 statement, Farmer wrote that moving forward, he would no longer tolerate such behavior.

“I’m about accountability and I’m about holding people accountable,” Farmer told the News in the phone interview. “Accountability will be happening moving forward, and I hope my colleagues understand that. And if not, we can learn together what accountability looks like.”

Hamden Legislative Council President Michael McGarry stressed in an interview that it is important that Horsley apologized both publicly and privately to Farmer.

In response to Farmer’s concerns, McGarry told the News that the Council did not want to “pressure” either individual to take any specific actions and did not want to force a meeting. McGarry also did not characterize Horsley’s comments as “racist.” But he said that because the discussion has to do with race, the Legislative Council will have a “level-setting dialogue” meeting conducted by the National Conference for Community and Justice on Thursday night.

Both McGarry and Hamden Mayor Curt Leng expressed their disappointment with what they say is toxic dialogue coming from both sides. Leng referred to “racial slurs and hate speech” that have been posted on social media. He declined to cite any examples.

Activists outside of Hamden Town Hall demand Horsley’s Resignation. (Photo: Talat Aman, Contributing Photographer)

In response to the incident, community groups are calling for Horsley to resign.

Hamden Action Now, Black Lives Matter 860, Citizens Opposed to Police States, Unidad Latina en Accion and other groups have collectively demanded Horsley’s resignation. As of Thursday night, a petition with these demands has garnered 168 signatures.

At Monday’s protest, individuals gathered in front of Hamden’s town hall to demand Horsley’s resignation and criticize racial dynamics in city politics. Hamden Action Now was joined by Black and Brown United in Action, other community action groups, friends of Justin Farmer and elected officials who also demanded Horsley’s resignation.

“It all just came bubbling over and we’ve all had to endure it, we watch these meetings,” lead organizer of Hamden Action Now Rhonda Caldwell told the News. “She’s a colleague and then she wanted to start a smear campaign on him.”

“Time and time again myself and Justin [Farmer] and many others have been subjected to disruptive and destructive tactics of white privilege on display,” Rep. Robyn Porter wrote in a statement that Caldwell read at the meeting. “For far too long we have suffered in silence.”

Other speakers outside Hamden Town Hall on Monday included the Hamden fourth ward Democratic Town Committee members, which Horsley represents, D’Juan Eastman, president of Citizens Opposed to Police States, New Haven Alder Darryl Brackeen Jr. and Black Lives Matter 860 President Michael Oretade.

The Hamden Legislative Council consists of 15 members.

Talat Aman | talat.aman@yale.edu

Zaporah Price | zaporah.price@yale.edu 

Clarification, April 16: The story has been updated to reflect that Black and Brown United in Action was also part of Monday’s demonstration.

Correction, April 16: An earlier version of this story referred to Rose-Lewis as “Bernita” and said she worked as a facilities superintendent at the Yale School of Management. In fact, her name is Berita and she does not work at SOM.