Circuit of the Americas, which had been one of the largest financial backers of IndyAustin, has withdrawn “all financial support” from the political action committee after Pepe the Frog found his way into an IndyAustin video attacking Mayor Steve Adler over the effort to bring Major League Soccer to town.
The video in question was sent out Friday, Oct. 26 in an email with the subject line, “Video of Steve Adler's Shall [sic] Game on Austin.” The now-deleted silent animated video shows a shell game while scrolling text lambastes Adler for the McKalla Place soccer stadium deal; IndyAustin is both electioneering against Adler in this election and conducting a petition drive aiming to force “Adler’s sucker stadium” onto a future ballot.
At the end of the video, when the shells are lifted, the “pea” is revealed to be Pepe, the cartoon frog who became a favorite of Trump-loving anti-Semites during and after the 2016 election campaign. The use of a widely recognized hate symbol in an ad attacking the city’s Jewish mayor proved a step too far for COTA.
Also on Friday, COTA had blogged its support for IndyAustin’s petition in no uncertain terms: “Austin cannot keep giving special deals to out-of-town businesses with no connection to the community, while local businesses and homeowners struggle to afford to be here … By seeking a public vote - not unlike what has occurred in stadium deals elsewhere - IndyAustin is trying to do what is best for the taxpayers and the school district.” This was the most explicit statement yet that COTA, which will host the Austin Bold squad in the United Soccer League (a level below MLS), has been directly and financially involved in the opposition to the McKalla Place deal.
But in a statement issued on Monday, COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein said, “I and everyone associated with COTA vehemently and unequivocally oppose the use of any and all hate speech against any person, group, or belief and will not tolerate this attack, whether it was intentional or unintentional.” The statement goes on to reiterate that COTA’s backing of IndyAustin (Epstein himself donated $24,000 to the PAC) was solely for anti-stadium efforts and “not for any other political issues,” such as Adler’s re-election. COTA will continue to oppose the “McKalla property tax giveaway,” the statement reads, but they make clear that “we will never allow our position on any policy issue be associated with hate.”
What exactly Epstein’s move means for the future of the petition drive is unclear; IndyAustin is under no obligation to return COTA-affiliated donations to date. The group’s founder, Linda Curtis, said when reached by phone Monday: “I presume [Epstein’s statement] means we won’t get any more money from his camp, but they are not the only donors.”
IndyAustin is claiming ignorance of Pepe’s provenance. Debbie Russell, who described herself as a “worker bee” with the group when reached by phone on Monday, said she found the video by “Googling ‘shell game’” and that she was “obviously” unaware of Pepe’s identity as a hate symbol. She said IndyAustin just added the scrolling text at the bottom. (Here’s what appears to be the original video; the artist doesn’t appear to use many alt-right themes and may not have known about Pepe either.)
In an emailed statement sent on Monday (subject line: “IndyAustin hates no one, just sweetheart deals!”) the group said “it was just brought to our attention” that their video used an image “expropriated by the Alt-Right” that they thought was “a pea smoking a cigar.” The statement apologizes but also attempts to defend the decision by citing the Pepe Wikipedia page, saying that although the Anti-Defamation League has included “certain incarnations” of the image in its database of hate symbols, “not all Pepe memes are racist.” But when reached by phone on Monday, Curtis took a less equivocal stance: “We made a terrible mistake. We are not making any excuses here.” The video has since been replaced with a version that does not use the Pepe image.
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