Councilman blasted for coat hanger comment

Eric Barber says post ‘poorly worded and insensitive at best’

Parkersburg City Councilman Eric Barber, front left, welcomes representatives of the Susan B. Anthony List’s Pro-Life Coalition to Parkersburg during an Aug. 30 event in support of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at the Wood County Courthouse. Barber has come under fire for a Facebook comment in which he said, “Get (your) coathangers ready liberals” in reference to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announcing he would vote for Kavanaugh. (File Photo)

PARKERSBURG — A Facebook comment by Parkersburg City Councilman Eric Barber created a firestorm well beyond the Mid-Ohio Valley.

In a reply to a post on a private Facebook page reportedly about Friday’s announcement that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would vote to confirm now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Barber wrote, “Better get you’re coathangers ready liberals (sic).”

The post — which many took to be a reference to a mechanism for unsafe abortions should the practice be banned as a result of Kavanaugh’s presence on the court — was quickly removed by Barber, but not before screenshots were saved and spread. Over the weekend, the post was shared around social media and on liberal websites including Deep South Voice and Raw Story, as well as the Friendly Atheist blog at religious discussion site Patheos.com.

By Monday afternoon, it had reached Newsweek.com.

On Monday morning, Barber said his comment wasn’t meant the way it was interpreted, but he conceded “it was poorly worded and insensitive at best.”

Barber said he was referring to an incident when he was in Washington, D.C., and Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced, something he posted about on his Facebook account in July. He said he went to the Supreme Court building, where anti-abortion and abortion rights groups were demonstrating, and a woman threw a wire coat hanger in his face, apparently in reference to what could happen if, as some fear, Kavanaugh is part of a judicial majority overturning or limiting the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

“I’ve seen the face of the angry and soulless, savage activism,” Barber said.

Barber said he’s gotten “a lot of hate mail and a couple of death threats” in response to the post. He said he’s stopped answering calls from outside the state, but has talked with people from West Virginia, even if they don’t live in the local area.

“I didn’t mean (it) how it was perceived, and I wanted to apologize for maybe painting West Virginia in a negative light nationally,” he said.

One of the people who shared Barber’s post was Parkersburg resident Eric Engle.

“I don’t find anything humorous about women self-aborting with a coat hanger or any other means,” he said. “This is not a laughing matter; this is a real and practical concern for women and anybody who’s concerned about women.”

Vienna resident Jeanne Peters said she didn’t find Barber’s explanation plausible.

“I think that the post he made this weekend … was very clear about his intent,” she said. “My personal opinion is that that explanation is really a reach.”

It’s not the first time Barber’s words, in person or online, have drawn criticism. Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce said Monday that he’s growing tired of it.

“When I was made aware and verified the comment, I spoke to him on Saturday afternoon and I tried to convey my serious displeasure with his boorish and inflammatory behavior,” Joyce said. “On numerous occasions, I’ve implored him to stop using social media as a mechanism for incendiary, divisive rhetoric and focus on serving those who live in his district and work in our community.”

Councilwoman Sharon Kuhl said Barber does not speak for the other eight members of council.

“It’s a shame that this City Council is trying to do its best in trying to move Parkersburg forward, and it seems like every three or four months we get slapped in the face with something else that’s a distraction,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

Barber was elected to council in 2016 as a Democrat but changed his registration to independent last year, saying members of the county executive committee were too liberal and engaging in anti-Christian rhetoric, particularly related to a nondiscrimination ordinance rejected by council. Barber was specifically mentioned in a lawsuit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and two local members, one of them Engle, over council saying the Lord’s Prayer before calling meetings to order. In August, he spoke at a rally organized by the Susan B. Anthony List urging Manchin to vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Barber said he is strongly opposed to abortion because a close friend was born from an unwanted pregnancy and given up for adoption. As a result, he said, he would encourage adoption for unwanted pregnancies, not back-alley abortions.

“I give thanks to God that my best friend wasn’t terminated,” Barber said.

Barber said people in Parkersburg may not know him but suggested they “know me by my enemies.”

“The left is very triggered” by Kavanaugh’s confirmation, he said. “I’m the lightning rod for a lot of that anger and angst, and I certainly brought that on myself.”

At the Sept. 25 council meeting, Parkersburg resident Sue Ellen Waybright asked city officials to consider a social media policy, citing “personal attacks on individuals and businesses here within the city.” After the meeting, she said she was referring to a member of council but declined to say who.

On Monday, she confirmed it was Barber.

Peters echoed her concern.

“I think it’s long past time that the City of Parkersburg develop a social media policy that promotes decorum and decency among city officials,” she said.

City Attorney Joe Santer has previously said the most council could do would be censure one of its members for violating such a policy.

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