The majority of public commenters at the first Aurora City Council meeting of the year wanted to discuss a controversial topic: Councilman Steve Sundberg’s videos depicting racist stereotypes and the responses to them.
Sundberg had received calls for his resignation before the holidays after videos resurfaced that had been posted on his bar’s Facebook page in 2020, showing him dressed up as people of various ethnicities and ridiculing their accents and their faith.
While several commenters at Monday’s meeting questioned how he could consider such videos acceptable, supporters of his, including his restaurant’s kitchen manager Victor Marquez — who also appeared in at least one of the videos with Sundberg — defended the councilman, his character and the work he does in the community. Other supporters acknowledged how the videos could be taken negatively but said that mistakes happen and Sundberg’s actions should outweigh them.
“We didn’t want to harm anybody,” Marquez said. “We decided that instead of closing the business, we were going to do marketing for our business so that way we didn’t need to fire anybody (during COVID).” He added that most of the kitchen staff is Latino and Sundberg’s wife is African-American.
Sundberg’s wife Chantal Sundberg called the reporting a smear campaign by the media against her husband, saying any attack on her husband was an attack on herself, her family and members of the public who elected him.
“When it was dark during COVID, he brought laughter to many hearts,” she said. “I wonder how many people with sad faces have smiled because of those videos. I wonder how many people who are depressed and hopeless who found hope because of what they were watching. The public saw those videos and they love them for over two and a half years. No one complained.”
But for many Aurora residents, those videos were reminiscent of dark times and they perpetuated stereotypes and mocked groups of people, particularly Muslims, Black people, Latinos and South Asians.
One speaker, Ellen Woo, called for the resignation of the majority conservative council members, including Sundberg. She said mockery, repeated offensive behaviors and the spread of disinformation are unacceptable.
“The enablers of hate have made policies, decisions and financial decisions (that) enable the hate, the systemic racism, oppression, suppression, colonization, inequities and disparities not limited to housing, wages, water and social injustice,” Woo said.
Aaron Futrell noted that council members were honoring Martin Luther King Jr., whose life was dedicated to diversity and inclusion. He said he wasn’t attacking anyone’s character but pleading that council members take a refresher course on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Another commenter, Alexandra Jackson, identified herself as a DEI trainer and said that Sundberg’s voting record and the recent scandal “is a clear established pattern of some implicit and explicit bias that impede his ability to truly serve the community that is Aurora. There is real hurt in this room today and in the community as a result of a commercial that was released.” She reiterated the need for DEI training and asked members to reconsider cuts to the city’s DEI office.
Councilman Ruben Medina expects to bring a resolution to a future meeting to mandate training for members that will be provided for free.
At the end of public comment, Sundberg addressed council members and the audience, sharing a story of how he helped an older African-American woman walk to her in icy conditions in a grocery store parking lot, saying that’s what is in his heart and representative of Aurora. He also said a couple of years ago, a local news station watched all the videos his bar posted when doing a story on his business and focused on the positive.
“It’s an honor to represent Ward II. I believe I do it well,” Sundberg said. “I am responsive, etc. I won big over three other people. People felt confident in me to not allow this city in the direction of a failed overly permissive city on the West Coast that’s not enforcing the law, etc.”
Sundberg added that he’s had productive conversations with the NAACP, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and community leaders, and he pledged to learn from his mistakes.
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