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Pa. lawmaker’s ‘nazis’ tweet about Sunoco pipeline workers sparks fury, and rightly so | Maria Panaritis

Democratic and union leaders have asked for an apology from Danielle Friel Otten, and the ADL and Jewish Federation have expressed outrage.

Pennsylvania state House Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester County) is under fire for comparing Sunoco pipeline workers to “nazis” in a Tweet. She won election in November, partly, as a resident whose home is near the controversial gas pipeline under construction.
Pennsylvania state House Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester County) is under fire for comparing Sunoco pipeline workers to “nazis” in a Tweet. She won election in November, partly, as a resident whose home is near the controversial gas pipeline under construction.Read moreJacqueline Larma / AP File

That old saying, sleep on it? It might have saved Rep. Danielle Friel Otten a whole lot of hurt if she’d followed it a few days ago instead of turning to Twitter.

Friel Otten, a political newcomer who became one of the Pennsylvania legislature’s many new Democratic members after running last fall on an anti-Sunoco-pipeline platform, got into hot water from a war of words over a protest of sorts in her neighborhood on Saturday.

Friel Otten compared the unionized workers installing Sunoco’s pipes to “nazis."

Not a great idea.

On Monday, she was hearing from Democratic Party leaders. On Wednesday, the head of Steamfitters Local 420 was calling for an apology at minimum, if not her resignation. The Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia called for an apology, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia expressed outrage.

And just like that, a little-known freshman lawmaker who defeated a Chester County Republican last fall found herself asking her party to stay by her side.

“I cried,” Friel Otten told me Wednesday, “and I asked them to have my back.”

Friel Otten did not apologize when we talked, but did try to explain that she meant no harm to Jews. Later, she issued a defiant statement from her legislative office that blamed the “oil and gas industry" for trying "to silence our voices. Our fight is not with the workers, and it never has been.”

Her own backyard, and those of many others, abuts the pipeline construction zone. Friel Otten despises the Mariner East II 350-mile project, which has polluted wells, caused sinkholes, and hurt property values along its swath through densely populated Southeastern Pennsylvania in the hope of moving gas from the Marcellus Shale region to the waterfront south of Philadelphia.

“I’ve always been a fighter,” Friel Otten said. “It’s who I am. Sometimes when you fight, you get a little dirty, and you have to clean some things up and work things out. It’s part of life. But if we’re not fighting, we can’t win.”

The mess began on Saturday. Constituents showed up near Friel Otten’s home and parked their cars nearby in such a way that they legally blocked entrances to the pipeline construction site.

Friel Otten said she had known nothing about the apparent action but nonetheless invited the group onto her patio for hours as work on the pipeline ground to a halt. There were no arrests.

Photos from the neighborhood dispute later circulated on social media. A group on Twitter calling itself @PAAllies4Energy criticized demonstrators and Friel Otten for preventing “workers from doing their jobs.”

Then came this Tweet from @Danielle_4PA that Friel Otten would later delete: “The nazis were just doing their jobs too.”

Friel Otten’s rage over the pipeline had been fuel behind her newcomer win over 155th District incumbent Republican Becky Corbin in November.

Anger, however, is an unconvincing excuse for her inadvisable tweet. Elected leaders, more than others, should be sensitive that violence against Jews is on the rise across America: a synagogue shooting in San Diego just a few days ago, the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh last year.

Friel Otten said she did not mean to diminish the horror of the Holocaust. She told me she intended only to compare the moral choices of the pipeline workers to anyone who justifies a harmful act by saying, “It’s just my job.” (Friel Otten said she tweeted her “nazis” statement alongside a PBS article about scientific research that referenced Nazis as a case in point.)

The Jewish Federation, when I called Wednesday, was having none of that.

“In no way is building a pipeline — no matter what the consequences are — comparable to the atrocious and heinous crimes committed by the Nazi regime,” said federation spokesperson Laura Frank. “And it’s not appropriate for a legislator to throw that language around and use it so carelessly.”

Frank said her group was working to request a meeting with Friel Otten.

“The language she used is the language she used, and she needs to own up to that," Frank said. "We have no reason to believe that she has any kind of anti-Semitic intentions, or she intended this to be insulting. But the language she used is inappropriate. We want her and all legislators to be educated. It’s just not OK to throw that language around.”

Also outraged, not surprisingly given the politics and economics of the pipeline, was the head of Steamfitters Local 420, business manager Jim Snell. (His union backed Friel Otten’s Republican opponent in last year’s general election.)

The Energy Transfer Partners project to ferry gas to Marcus Hook along the Delaware River in Delaware County has meant good work for the local’s 4,600 members in 11 counties east of Harrisburg.

“Horrible, disgusting comments that the state rep out there made,” he told me Wednesday. “To actually, you know, refer to hardworking men and women as Nazis — and even if she didn’t mean it or whatever, there’s just words that you don’t use in life. And that is absolutely one of them.”