Allegations of racism are now roiling one of the wealthiest communities in the Hamptons.
It's part of an ugly election fight for mayor in Southampton, where the controversy stems from a powerful police union using the image of a Black artist in flyers against the sitting mayor. But the artist says he's the one getting hurt, the victim of what he says are racist smears -- allegations police union officials deny.
Police union members in the Suffolk County village have voted no confidence in Mayor Jesse Warren, citing what they say is poor leadership and his attempts to reign in police salaries and overtime. The group has posted signs across town that read "save our police."
Warren said he actually increased the police budget. But while Hulbert Waldroup, who runs an art gallery in the town, says he has played no role in the village’s race for mayor, that hasn’t stopped the police union from putting his face front and center in their effort to get Warren out of office.
The police union has posted flyers that show Warren and Waldroup side-by-side, saying that Waldroup is a convicted felon and a former pimp who Warren appointed to oversee the police department. They even have released robocalls tying Waldroup and Warren together.
“Letting convicted felons oversee law enforcement is wrong, and Jesse Warren is wrong. We need a new mayor for Southampton,” one robocall states.
But why did the union choose to target Waldroup? One Sunday morning while delivering a painting in his van to a homeowner, Waldroup says police pulled him over to ask what was he doing in the village. He says he called the mayor's office afterward to file a complaint, and was soon put on a panel of 20 elected officials, police leaders and activists to discuss police community relations. The community panels with diversity were mandated by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo after the George Floyd killing.
“I had no suggestions on this board, I just listened. I did tell my story of how I was pulled over,” Waldroup said.
As a result of his participation, Waldroup says his face is now being used in a racially charged campaign in a town best known for its multimillion dollar mansions, quaint village and pristine beaches.
“I think what they did is very racist and it is escalating tension,” Waldroup told NBC New York. “I know race-based politics when I see it. I know fear mongering when I see it.”
Mayor Warren says the super-PAC's use of Waldroup's image to try to scare voters is disgusting and racist.
“The false flyers that were done have no place in Southampton village. They have no place in any community across the country,” Warren said.
The police super-PAC and the local union say linking Waldroup to the mayor is fair. They say Waldroup has a past conviction. Separately, he also painted a controversial mural 20 years ago of four NYPD officers wearing KKK hoods. That came after the controversial 1999 police shooting death of the innocent, unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo.
"We have been critical of Mr. Waldroup because of his conviction for a sex-related offense and his well-documented bigoted anti-police rhetoric. To state otherwise is patently false," said a spokesman for the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation.
The village PBA president added, "Southampton residents support law enforcement and their legitimate concerns about the mayor's decision-making should not be dismissed or ignored. Mr. Waldroup's attempt to radicalize this issue is meant only to distract from his criminal history and his relationship with Mayor Warren."
Waldroup says the flyer is Photoshopped and his only past conviction was 15 years ago - and it was a misdemeanor charge for working security for a guy running a prostitution website.
“They said things on that flyer that are completely false. The mayor doesn’t want to put me in charge of any police department,” he said.
Waldroup said his own website puffs up his past wrongdoing to promote his street credentials as an artist. He equates what's happening to him in Southampton to the fearmongering in the infamous old Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush.
The flyers are supposed to hurt the mayor and help his opponent Michael Irving. However, Irving - who has police union support - condemned them.
“Quite frankly I usually tear them up when I get them at the house, because I don’t want my grandchildren seeing them,” Irving told the NBC New York I-Team. “They’re that obnoxious.”
The mayor says Irving took too long to speak out, but Irving blames the mayor for poor communication with police officers. Despite Irving’s denouncement, the flyers and robocalls from the police union PAC continue.
“They have some kind of vendetta because I tried to make a complaint? And was put on a board to make suggestions on how the police can be better?” Waldroup asked. “I just want to be left alone and have a prosperous business in Southampton.”
Out of the 20 or so people who served on that Southampton police advisory committee, several had past convictions. That includes at least one white man, whose image did not appear on any similar controversial campaign flyer.
The election takes place June 18.
Disclosure: Relatives of a News 4 anchor have taken a role in politically trying to help one candidate in the above story.