For a village that has largely tried to stay out of the national political arena, said circus has come knocking in a big way the past few weeks. A banner stretched over the second floor above a premier Port Jeff shop takes the official motto of the United States, “In God We Trust,” instead replaces “God” with “Trump,” hung to support the president during the impeachment trial.
More than a week after the owner of Roger’s Frigate building, George Wallis, hung the sign reading “In Trump We Trust,” well over 50 presidential supporters rallied in front of the ice cream and candy shop Feb. 2 to show their solidarity for the business and President Donald Trump (R). Village of Port Jefferson officials had ordered that the banner be removed, saying the owner did not even apply for a permit to hang the sign.
People at the rally came with large American and “Trump 2020” flags, and many heads were adorned with the red “Make America Great Again” caps. Several shouted slogans first heard during the 2016 campaign, such as “Build the Wall” and “Drain the Swamp.”
Supporters of the president took the village’s order to remove the banner as a sign of bias, with many saying such an act was suppressing free speech. Wallis even came down to stand alongside the protesters in support.
The rally was joined by U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) who publicly showed support for the sign and assailed the village for its stance against it.
Village Attorney Brian Egan said the business could be fined up to $2,000 if they did not remove the sign five days after it received an order to remedy from the building and planning department. Though the owner could be fined for each day he keeps up the sign after those initial five, Egan said that would be determined by a village judge. He added the total of $2,000 has been thrown around too easily, and as of now they are ticketing it for the first five days, and then after another five days.
“The goal of village code … is compliance, not punishment,” he said.
Though Zeldin, in comments to the crowd, repeated the message the village was wrong to fine Wallis.
“How crazy is it you would have a small business owner put up a sign, and you have local elected officials fine that small business owner $2,000 a day just to say they support the president,” Zeldin said.
Village officials continued to maintain in the days before and since the rally that the order to remove had nothing to do with the message on the sign, instead that the owner had violated code.
Wallis had hung the same exact sign back in January 2017, after Trump’s election into office. The village had ordered the sign down then as well, but it had been taken down within a few days of being put up. This time, the sign had been up since Jan. 21, but had been temporarily taken down Jan. 28 before being put back up the day before the rally. Despite the sign being briefly taken down, the village attorney said they would still have the ability to prosecute as if it were up continuously.
Roger Rutherford, the general manager of Roger’s Frigate, said he has no control over whether Wallis puts up signs on the building he owns, however he, “support[s] his right to freely express his support for our president.”
Wallis’ intent, Rutherford said, had always been to remove the sign by the end of the impeachment trial, which was expected to end Wednesday after the U.S. Senate voted on party lines last Friday to hear no witnesses or receive any new evidence. Zeldin had been named to Trump’s legal defense team for the trial in the Senate.
The Roger’s Frigate manager said while he supports Wallis in his rights for free speech, he also understood the village’s position.
“I’m not going to knock the mayor — I believe she was showing her committed support that the law is handed down to the fullest,” he said.
Supporters of the sign have said that the village does not take the same stance with other signs in the village, pointing to banners hung by the village itself to advertise events like Paint Port Pink and the Charles Dickens Festival.
Trustee Kathianne Snaden has said the village is not bound by the same requirements as businesses regarding banners or signs.
“That would be the government asking the government for permission,” she said.
Zeldin also claimed the village board had some kind of bias against the president, that if the sign had said something negative about him than village officials would have supported it.
“[They] would be paying for that sign if it was against the president,” the congressman said.
The mayor and trustees were largely disconcerted over Zeldin’s comment, saying he is using the national attention the sign has received to score political points.
“I think they’re using it as a platform,” Mayor Margot Garant said. “As an elected, that’s a real bad posture to do toward a local community and other local officials in that community.”
Snaden said she thinks Zeldin understands the village is attempting to enforce the code.
“He’s ignoring the real issue to make his own point,” she said. “He’s not a stupid man, and he’s not ignorant, he knows what the real issue is.”
Rebecca Kassay, who owns the Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jefferson along with her husband Andrew, said she had also before applied for a permit for a banner in Port Jeff, and saw the process as “rigorous.” She sees Wallis’ disregard for the code as unfair for the rest of the village’s shop owners.
“It’s in interest of fairness for all business owners,” she said. “Whatever side of the aisle you’re on, it’s creating a huge rift in our community, it’s making people say things online they would not say to one another’s faces … this is not a matter of free speech, it’s a matter of a sign.”
Other businesses have tried to stay out of the mess, but the national attention has also vicariously put the light on shops who want no part in the controversy.
The Port Jefferson Ice Cream Cafe, which is located on the other side of Main Street, posted to its business Facebook page, saying it had “received numerous calls and messages regarding this.”
“We respect everyone’s right to free speech as long as it does not infringe on others and follows the law and village codes,” the post further said. “This is not up to us to decide and is a matter for the village.”
Rutherford said he was sorry that another business had got mixed up in the controversy.
“It wasn’t our intention to affect any other businesses,” he said.
The sign was still up at the location by press time, but even with the assumption it will be taken down, officials are worried they could go through the same song and dance come the presidential election in November.
“It’s not the first time, it won’t be the last,” Snaden said.