Congressional candidate contacts employer of online critic




Rosemary Becchi, a candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 11th District, recently became so fed up with an online critic that she wrote to his employer and accused him of “stalking” her, according to that critic.

His employer didn't see a problem.

“Thankfully, my firm is supportive of the First Amendment,” David Steketee, a 43-year-old Madison resident who works in IT at a major international company, said in an interview. “They said ‘you did absolutely nothing wrong. We think this claim is completely without merit.’”

But Becchi’s decision to complain to Steketee's employer is reminiscent of another flap in the same district in 2017, when then-Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen wrote a fundraising letter to a board member of a bank and pointed out that one of its executives was a “ringleader” against him. (The executive, Saily Avelenda, is now executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.)

Becchi is challenging freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who defeated Frelinghuysen in 2018.

Steketee, a Democrat, is a frequent commenter on the Republican Becchi’s campaign Facebook page, but a review of many of his posts shows they’re often based on policy and rarely veer into insults, and when they do they tend to be tame. He's also far from alone on the page, which includes frequent comments from several Becchi supporters and detractors.

According to Steketee, Becchi sent three samples of his Facebook posts to his employer, which he asked to remain unnamed. One was of his Steketee’s response to Becchi's Aug. 13 post in which she advocated for allowing parents to take money out of 529 accounts to pay for educational expenses during the pandemic. Becchi’s post included a photo with her daughter, Francesca.

“And who benefits from 529 plans for K-12? Once again, predominately the wealthy who use this as a vehicle to reduce their tax burdens to send their children to private school, like Rosemary does,” Steketee responded.

Becchi also cited a comment in which Steketee linked to a Forbes article about keeping kids busy during a pandemic.

“I wonder if Rosemary ever looks at her ‘supporters’ and thinks, these are really the people who support me, what have I done with my life to be aligned with these people?” Steketee wrote.

In the other post Becchi cited, Steketee showed a photo of members of the far-right group The Proud Boys, who attended a pro-Trump rally in September that Becchi also attended. The Proud Boys call themselves “western chauvinists” and engage in violence. In the Facebook exchange, Steketee insinuated it was Becchi’s rally.

Becchi’s allies said in the Facebook thread that she did not organize the rally and tagged Billy Prempeh, a Black Republican congressional candidate in New Jersey’s 9th Congresisonal District who has been associated with the QAnon conspiracy movement. “Rosemary promoted it on her FB page and Twitter,” Steketee wrote of the rally. “And, as for Billy Prempeh, f--- him if he supports Trump.”

Becchi sent an email to the chief ethics officer of Seketee's company in mid-September, Steketee said, but he didn’t find out about it until Wednesday. He said she emailed from her law firm’s address and made no reference to her candidacy, which he believes was meant to lead his employer to believe he was targeting her as a private citizen "as opposed to a candidate running for public office.”

Steketee called Becchi’s actions “akin to a SLAPP lawsuit which is solely intended to intimidate a member of the public and deter participation in constitutionally protected political speech.”

“While I certainly contend individuals may not agree with the substance of my comments, this is nevertheless speech protected by the First Amendment,” he said via Twitter. “That a lawyer would attempt to chill such a foundational principle of Constitutional Law as free speech is unconscionable.”

Asked why the candidate reached out to Steketee’s employer, Becchi campaign manager Audrey Lane said in a statement, “We encourage an open exchange of thoughts and viewpoints on all of our Social media outlets” but that Stekete “has compulsively posted" and "crossed the line of mentioning [Becchi’s] children and their school" and “has used profanity and threatening language toward others.”

“There is a point at which we as a campaign felt uncomfortable and threatened by his actions and we reached out to his employer in order to protect our staff and their families,” the statement read.

In a follow-up statement, Lane said that, “Rosemary does not discuss where her children attend school outside of small, personal groups”

On June 6, Becchi posted to her campaign Facebook page photos of her daughter Francesca with the caption “Congratulations Francesca and the entire Morristown-Beard Class of 2020.” (Francesca Becchi was also the subject of her first TV ad). Steketee said that's how he learned that Becchi’s daughter attended private school.

Lane said that Steketee “has engaged in harassing behavior with staff, has compulsively posted during work hours — which could have been of interest to his employer, and who is now following her at events.”

“We are protective of our staff and saw the combination of these actions as red flags. We spoke with a member of a local police department in our district who is aware of this individual and his harassment toward other community members,” Lane said.

Asked whether he ever attended any of Becchi’s events, Sketetee’s said just once: On Thursday, just after learning that Becchi had reached out to his employer. (Sketetee added that he went to the pro-Trump rally where he took the photo of The Proud Boys, but not at the same time as Becchi.)

Sketetee set up a table at a farmer’s market that he knew Becchi was going to visit. He posted signs about how Becchi contacted his employer, including one that said Becchi “doesn’t respect the 1st Amendment” and “tried to get me fired for criticizing her campaign.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-10-09 03:11:40 -0700