Don Chioffi, a retired Vermont state legislator, educator and Vietnam veteran, has been named “Citizen Activist of the Year” by Washington, D.C.-based ACT! for America.
Chioffi, a resident of Rutland Town, co-led the formation of Rutland First, a coalition of local citizens opposed to less-than-transparent efforts by Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras to resettle 100 Syrian refugees in the area starting in early 2016.
Chioffi was presented the award by ACT! for America founder Brigitte Gabriel at a special ceremony in Washington earlier this month. Gabriel is a prominent Lebanese-born conservative journalist and immigration activist. Earlier this year she took part in a national security briefing with White House officials.
Under Chioffi’s leadership, Rutland First was credited for bringing the secretive refugee placement program to light, which ultimately resulted in the defeat of Louras on Town Meeting Day in March. Louras spearheaded the resettlement effort with support from the Obama administration and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, among others. Another local group, Rutland Welcomes, worked with Louras to help refugees find housing and job opportunities.
“It’s a tremendous honor to receive this award,” Chioffi told True North Reports. “It was a humbling and surreal experience. For somebody that’s steeped in Vermont and the trees here, it’s tremendous. But I accepted the award not for myself but for Rutland First. There are several of us who are founding members.”
Chioffi said the honor really recognizes Rutland First for shining a light on the secret government program sprung by the mayor.
The Rutland activist said he and other citizens became alarmed last year when they discovered the refugee program would have far-reaching effects throughout Rutland County.
“With me, it all started with a sinking, hollow feeling in my gut as a citizen,” he said. “All of a sudden you find out in your community that someone else is controlling your whole destiny and they’re not even involving you as a citizen with a major decision to bring in hundreds and hundreds of refugees to the Rutland region with 16,000 people. They lied about it — they used lies, deceit and manipulation; they used every single tactic of a third-world nation in this refugee program. It starts with Leahy at the top; he was involved in this up to his eyeballs. The hypocrisy in the liberal-Democratic side of Vermont’s government is unbelievable.”
Chioffi said the mayor knew about the resettlement plans six months before being forced to explain the action.
“Mayor Louras didn’t tell the Board of Aldermen about this for six months. He had a responsibility to share this plan,” he said. “He was told to keep it quiet. Also, the board president was told to keep it quiet. Who was telling everyone to keep it quiet? Amila Merdzanovic, the leader of USCRI Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, the group based in Colchester that’s settling the refugees here.
“She’s a functionary of a 501(c)(3) organization exercising government control over a community. In fact, she was exercising secret government control, saying we don’t want them to know this … until we’re ready because all kinds of people will come out of the woodwork. Well, guess what? All those people came out of the woodwork for the election in March and they gave her and others a message.”
A five-term mayor with 10 years in office, Louras went down in defeat by the largest margin in Rutland’s history, garnering only 36 percent of the vote.
“Louras was annihilated, drubbed in the election,” Chioffi said. “On the radio even he said, ‘I got smoked’. Yet [the media] … was puffing up the refugee program writing ‘there’s overwhelming support for this program and we don’t get to decide on immigrants.'”
Chioffi said he is not against immigration, being himself the product of Italian immigrants. He stressed that there’s a right way of welcoming new Americans to the country.
“Don’t call this immigration because it’s a lie,” he said. “These are not immigrants. My grandfather was an immigrant. He came to America with the clothes on his back and two little boxes. He never asked for help; he assimilated properly and spoke English within a year. He raised a family, all of whom are contributing to society.
“He never took a dime’s worth of welfare; he became a citizen and pledged allegiance to the flag. Six of his nine boys served this country in the military. That’s immigration. This refugee program is a forced-welfare program for people who don’t want to assimilate. … I’m not worried about accepting them; I am worried about them accepting me.”
Chioffi said while he hasn’t been threatened for his involvement with Rutland First, he has been personally maligned.
“[We] got called un-American, racist, bigoted by our mayor. That’s pretty insulting,” he said. “Plus you can’t count on the mainstream media to give you a fair shake. I was interviewed after our petition of citizen signatures was rejected by Mayor Louras. … Only local radio talk show host Tim Philbin ever gave us a voice in the community.”
Chioffi isn’t giving up the fight even as more refugees are coming to Rutland. Moreover, he said he is reserving judgement on new Rutland Mayor Dave Allaire’s long-term action related to the refugee program.
“This refugee issue is not going away,” he said. “But it’s time to take a break. Even the mayor of Manchester, N.H., has said ‘give us a break.’ We have enough outflow of money to take care of our own people after all these natural disasters. The refugee program is costing a fortune for social services and ESL language classes.
“Where do they think this money is coming from? People have become totally detached from the ability to pay for these things. There’s no end; it’s a bottomless pit of money. And tax-paying citizens are bailing out of Vermont as we speak.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.