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Christmas parade gets 'political' with Kellyanne Conway as grand marshal

HAMMONTON, N.J. - Santa Claus - and Kellyanne Conway - are coming to town Saturday. But apparently, nobody wants to talk about it.

Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway speaks with supporters at Main Line Sports Center in Berwyn, Pa. on Nov. 3, 2016.
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway speaks with supporters at Main Line Sports Center in Berwyn, Pa. on Nov. 3, 2016.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer, File

HAMMONTON, N.J. - Santa Claus - and Kellyanne Conway - are coming to town Saturday.

But apparently, nobody wants to talk about it.

At least no one from Hammonton would officially comment Friday about President-elect Donald Trump's campaign manager's being asked to serve as the grand marshal of the annual Christmas parade.

Conway, who grew up as Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, is 49, a native daughter of this "Blueberry Capital of the World" who picked blueberries to earn extra money as a child. At age 16, she won the New Jersey Blueberry Princess Pageant.

The daughter of a trucking company owner and a casino employee, she moved to nearby Atco at age 3 after her parents' divorce, and graduated in 1985 from St. Joseph's High School in Hammonton. She earned a law degree from George Washington University and then began a career in polling and politics, but being the first female campaign manager to successfully elect a U.S. president made her famous.

But some residents and a regional antifascism group are making it clear that the selection of Conway by the local fire department to serve as the ceremonial leader of the parade that the department sponsors - and ride in an open-air white carriage that will be drawn by a black horse - has sparked controversy among them.

Via social media and a letter directed at the town council, they have called on the Hammonton Fire Department and Mayor Steve DiDonato to rescind the invitation extended to Conway to "receive the keys to the town" and ride the lead vehicle in the parade, which traditionally extends for about six blocks down the main street, Bellevue Avenue.

DiDonato did not respond to repeated requests for comment Friday; neither did the Fire Department.

Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1 in this western Atlantic County town of just under 15,000 residents, many of Italian descent. Hispanics - the subject of some of Trump's most controversial rhetoric - make up about 20 percent of residents, according to census data.

The parade will pass by a bronze bust of President Ronald Reagan, who visited during his 1984 reelection campaign. Hammonton was also visited by Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard M. Nixon, and John F. Kennedy during their campaigns, although there are no memorials in the town for them.

Jess Bonnan-White, who moved to Hammonton four years ago and is the parent of two small children, teaches criminal justice and homeland security at an area university. She said she sees Conway's participation in the parade as a "deeper community safety issue" than one of political difference.

Bonnan-White said she was encouraging local leaders to reconsider allowing Conway to be the grand marshal because "Kellyanne Conway was a primary architect of an election campaign that actively opposed" religious, cultural, and sexual-orientation diversity.

She said she has gotten involved in the controversy to speak for populations in the town that have had no say in the matter and are fearful of what Trump may do.

Bonnan-White said Conway "peddled in the basest of cultural fears. Fears of Muslims, of LGBTQ community members, and of immigrants. She led a campaign that used women as targets for political oppression utilizing the worst of a rape culture that we work against each day.

"Policies that she helped form and publicize stand to remove the civil rights of women, Muslims, people who identify as LGBTQ, and immigrants," Bonnan-White wrote in her open letter to local officials.

"How, with this background, did the town decide she would be the best candidate for Grand Marshaling a Christmas Parade," Bonnan-White wrote. "I do feel this choice divides our town and weakens the bonds between us."

South Jersey ANTIFA on Thursday described itself as a group of "concerned citizens outraged" by the local fire company's decision to have Conway lead the parade. The group says it is antifascist.

"She is not an acceptable role model and we call upon the Hammonton Fire Department to drop her. It's shameful that the fire department is turning their annual parade into a platform for right wing sexism," according to a statement on ANTIFA's Facebook page.

The group says it expects about two dozen members to stage a peaceful protest along the parade route, said Alex Stein, a founding member.

"We are not against Christmas, we are against politicizing Christmas and making the parade about one side against the other. It's been a divisive year already. We certainly don't need a Christmas parade to be a divisive event," Stein said.

Another group called "Not My Hometown Hero" created a Facebook event in which it had planned to stage its own peaceful protest at the parade, and encouraged those going to the parade who are opposed to Conway's views to carry signs promoting peace and unity.

But the organizer of the protest said she had canceled it and removed it from Facebook after receiving "some seriously disturbing messages."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or @JacquelineUrgo