N.J. fencing chief resigns over political rebuff of Newark


NEWARK — The chairman of fencing’s ruling body in New Jersey resigned Thursday, after drawing the ire of the state’s fencing community with a politically-tinged rebuff of an invitation from Newark to stage an event there.

“I have resigned my position as Chair of the NJ Division,” Gene Costa told NJ Advance Media in an email on Thursday.

Costa, who had chaired the board of USA Fencing’s New Jersey Division, angered and puzzled city officials as well as fencing coaches and officials in the Garden State who learned of  the July 31 email he sent to the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau. A week earlier, the visitors bureau had reached out to the sport’s Colorado Springs-based national governing body, USA Fencing, seeking a New Jersey contact for the sport in order to arrange a meeting about staging an event.

“Please tell Mayor Ras Baraka that the NJ Division of USA Fencing is not interested in holding any of our activities in Newark, NJ, as of June 19, 2017, due to its Sanctuary City declaration,” Costa stated in the email. “Because the Democratic politicians in NJ will not entertain passing Concealed Carry legislation and thereby deny the citizens of the state their second amendment rights, I in good conscience cannot entertain our organization placing many young people in the state and their families in danger by holding an event in Newark.”

Baraka and fencers, coaches, fencing club owners and others immediately condemned Costa’s remarks as wrongheaded, improper and even absurd, after word quickly spread throughout the close-knit fencing community. New Jersey is a U.S. fencing stronghold, with a large number of clubs and high school and college fencing programs.

Both USA Fencing and the executive committee of its New Jersey Division distanced themselves from Costa’s statements and vowed to work with Newark officials to stage an event there.

“USA Fencing does not support or condone the statements made by Mr. Costa regarding the potential for fencing events to be hosted in Newark,” read a statement issued by USA Fencing spokeswoman Nicole Jamantas.

“The National Office of USA Fencing would be happy to meet with the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau to discuss the opportunities that exist to host events in Newark as part of the organization’s mission to grow and promote the sport of fencing throughout the United States.”

A member of the New Jersey Division’s executive committee, Paul Apostol, said Costa had submitted his resignation on Thursday and the committee would likely accept it during a teleconference meeting on Thursday night.

“We’re all mortifed,” said Apostol, a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team in 1972 and 1976, who later was a two-time senior world champion in the sabre discipline.

Apostol said the 10-member committee would also name an interim chair, and schedule an election for a permanent new chairman with a regular term of one year. Apostol said Costa had only served as chairman since June, ascending to the position from his role as secretary following the resignation of longtime chairman Tom Tishman and the inability of the vice chairman to take on the position due to illness.

Apostol also said the committee would be reaching out to Newark soon to arrange a meeting to learn just what kind of event the city had in mind and to help make it happen.

The president and CEO of the visitors bureau, Karen Aaron, who labelled Costa’s comments an “unfortunate distraction,” said she, too, was eager to begin planning a Newark fencing event.

Baraka’s office had no immediate comment on Costa’s resignation. But in a statement issued prior to it, the mayor hinted that Costa may have been influenced by President Donald Trump, whose immigration crackdown prompted Newark’s sanctuary city declaration in June.

“In this age of pernicious presidential tweets, it is truly disheartening that one person’s political views could thwart a valuable opportunity for New Jersey athletes who are involved in the sport of fencing,” Baraka said in a statement. “To castigate the entire City of Newark, home to a professional hockey team and host to hundreds of sporting events including basketball,  minor league baseball games, and even boxing matches because of xenophobia, is deplorable. Moreover, the suggestion of carrying concealed weapons to a fencing match or any sporting event is absurd.”

Along with his resignation, Costa appeared to be backing away from his statements to the visitors bureau.

Contacted by NJ Advance Media, Costa said in an emailed response that he was not a political activist or even a member of a political party. But he said his response to the city had been influenced by an article related to politics that he had recently read.

He said the views he expressed to the visitors bureau were his own and did not represent the positions of USA Fencing or its New Jersey Division.

He also acknowledged that he had not consulted with fellow New Jersey Division board members, which he termed “a mistake.”

Asked to explain the relevance of Newark’s sanctuary city status to his sport, Costa said there was none.

“The sanctuary city status has no relevance to a city’s fitness to host a fencing event,”  he wrote. “Unfortunately, my personal beliefs got in the way of my professional judgment.”

Steve Strunsky may be reached at sstrunsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveStrunsky. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

 

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