September 16, 2013

Fundraiser for Martha Robertson ’75 Causes Controversy

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Cornell politicos offered a mixed assessment of the choice of performer at a fundraising concert for Martha Robertson’s ’75 campaign for the 23rd New York Congressional District.

To the outrage of GOP politicians, Peter Yarrow ’59, a convicted sex offender and a former member of the 1960s folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, is set to perform at Roberton’s fundraising concert Sept. 29.

Yarrow — who helped write hit song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” — gained notoriety when he was convicted of “taking immoral and indecent liberties” with a 14 year-old female fan in 1970. He served three months in prison being pardoned by former President Jimmy Carter in 1981, according to The Buffalo News.

GOP members condemned Robertson’s decision to have Yarrow at the event.

“It is absolutely deplorable that Martha Robertson would kick off her congressional campaign by having a convicted sex offender headline her fundraiser,” Ian Prior, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Buffalo News.

Prior also said that Robertson should cancel the event and return any campaign funds she has raised in connection with Yarrow’s name.

Cornell Republicans also expressed skepticism about the choice of Yarrow as a fundraising performer.

“I believe that Robertson knowingly took a risk by holding a fundraiser with [Yarrow],” Kyle Ezzedine ’14, chairman of the Cornell Republicans, said. “Despite the amount of time that has passed since his crime, southern New York families may find something symbolically wrong with… a former big-shot music star who was found guilty of molesting a 14-year old girl.”

Ezzedine said that, although he does not think the fundraiser will affect the election very much since it is still very early in the campaign season, voters may ultimately retain negative associations between Robertson and Yarrow.

“These voters will probably not feel a burning hatred toward Robertson or Yarrow, but that malaise may remain,” Ezzedine said.

Democrats criticized the GOP’s focus on Yarrow, saying they believe the choice to have Yarrow perform at Roberton’s fundraising concert is relatively inconsequential.

Eric Pesner ’15, director of public relations of Cornell Democrats, said Robertson’s fundraiser should not be gaining the amount of attention it has from the GOP. The choice of Yarrow as a performer at the concert is trivial compared to other issues the U.S. is currently facing, Pesner said.

“In a time when our country is facing numerous challenges at home and abroad, it is a shame that Congressman Reed is playing political games about the mistakes of one man 40 years ago instead of focusing on the problems of his constituents,” Pesner said.

George Koutsos, a campaign spokesperson for Robertson, said he believes the GOP has unfairly focused its criticisms on Robertson and Yarrow as a way of deflecting attention from Republican Congressional candidate Rep. Tom Reed (R-23). For instance, the chairman of the Ontario County Democratic Party has filed a formal complaint alleging Reed unfairly used campaign funds to pay his property taxes, according to the Times Union.

“Considering the importance of this election and Robertson’s response to Reed’s criticism, this issue may indicate that the campaign will unfortunately devolve into a series of angry back-and forth accusations,” Ezzedine said.

Ezzedine said that he does not think Reed’s campaign should focus too much on the issue, as it could be seen as “petty and unnecessary.” However, he said that if Robertson’s campaign does not respond well, it might come off as insensitive.

Pesner said he wants voters to focus on Robertson’s main initiatives, rather than the fundraiser.

“[Robertson] has been crossing the district, talking to people about the issues they care about such as growing the economy of the Southern Tier,” Pesner said.

Tickets to the concert cost $100, and donors of $500 or more will receive a signed copy of “Puff the Magic Dragon” — a book based off of his trio’s 1963 hit song.