(The Center Square) – Fringe groups, normally background noise in election campaigns, are front and center in several Florida congressional and legislative races, with candidates denying or defending links to the Proud Boys.
Proud Boys, self-described “western chauvinists” who deny being a white supremacy group, was founded in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes.
The all-male group has confronted antifascists in Portland, Ore.; Charlottesville, Va.; and New York City where, in 2018, members assaulted protesters. Two are now serving prison sentences as a result.
Proud Boys gained ambient prominence after President Donald Trump, when asked to denounce white supremacy during his Sept. 29 debate with Joe Biden, called on Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Led by Miami's Enrique Tarrio, who succeeded McInnes as chairman in 2018, Proud Boys has been visible at Florida Republican events for four years.
Proud Boys have taken photos with Florida U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Matt Gaetz. They appeared at Ron DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaign rallies in 2018.
Links to Proud Boys are issues in at least two Florida congressional races and two Florida Legislature campaigns:
• 27th Congressional District: Tarrio challenged Maria Elvira Salazar in the Republican primary for the south Florida seat occupied by U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala but withdrew before the vote.
Salazar has no affiliation with Proud Boys, but Shalala told the South Florida Sun Sentinel if Republicans don’t denounce “the far-right, misogynistic, anti-immigrant extremists” Proud Boys, then they’re “enabling” them.
• 21st Congressional District: Right-wing activist Laura Loomer won the GOP primary and is challenging four-time incumbent Democrat Lois Frankel.
Loomer has campaigned with Trump ally Roger Stone, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and far-right political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, among others, with Proud Boys visible at rallies.
She calls McInnes a friend and said “he is not an anti-Semite.” Frankel disagreed.
• Florida House District 11: Incumbent state Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, who faces a challenge from Democrat Joshua Hicks, is taking heat after his wife defended Proud Boys.
Esther Byrd, who lost her Neptune Beach city councilor campaign in August, blasted Facebook for banning Proud Boys in her social media posts.
“Why do you think Facebook is throwing people in FB Jail who share information about Proud Boys? I think it’s because they’ve seen a drastic spike in searches and they are worried that people are educating themselves rather than blindly believing what MSM narrative. Anyone have a better theory?” she wrote.
Esther Byrd was responding to Hicks’ call for her husband to denounce Proud Boys and QAnon.
“Over the past five months, (Byrd) has remained silent as the country has grappled with systemic racism, a rise in far-right extremist violence and the spread of QAnon. That silence must end today,” Hicks wrote.
• Florida Senate District 9: Democrat Patricia Sigman faces former state Rep. Jason Brodeur in their race to succeed term-limited Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood.
Democratic groups, led by Senate Victory, have launched an ad claiming Brodeur paid a member of the “white supremacist group Proud Boys, $37,000” – money his campaign sent in 2019 to CFP Media, run by Jacob Engels, an Orlando-area GOP operative.
“It’s shameful Jason Brodeur would line the pockets of a white nationalist,” Senate Victory Communications Director Anders Croy said.
Engels said Proud Boys is “a multiracial organization” and, “unlike Antifa,” isn’t “burning down cities. For Anders Croy … to lecture a multiracial group as white supremacists is despicable.”