September 26, 2011
Muslim denied spot with Florida county's Republican Party
By Marc Caputo | McClatchy Newspapers
MIAMI — Islam and tea party activism clashed at a raucous meeting Monday night when a group of Broward County Republicans blocked a Muslim activist as a member of the party's executive committee.
Republicans, who changed their rules to publicly vet Nezar Hamze and then vote on his application by secret ballot, said they didn't oppose him because he was a Muslim - but because he is associated with the Center for American-Islamic Relations, whose Washington-area affiliate was an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal terrorism indictment.
Hamze, CAIR's South Florida director, said his local group had nothing to do with the suspect activities in Washington. He said CAIR advocates for civil rights for Muslims, who have been unfairly targeted ever since 9/11.
"I'm aligned with Republican values. And I want to serve the party," Hamze said, who earlier told a reporter that any effort to block him was the result of anti-Islamic "bigotry."
At times, when he addressed the packed room at the Sheraton Suites in Fort Lauderdale, a few members shouted out among the crowd of about 300.
"Terrorist!" said one man.
"Let him speak!" said another.
Members of Broward's Republican Party said Hamze was making a mockery of their rules and was trying to become a member as a publicity stunt.
"I don't have a positive impression of Mr. Hamze. I don't think he will be an asset to our party," said Scott Spages, who is involved in programs concerning radical Islam at his church, Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale.
In the end, the Broward Republican Executive Committee voted 11-158 to block him from committee membership. He can still attend meetings, but as a general member of the public.
"Wow," he said afterward. "If I had realized it would be like that, I wish they had just sent me a letter saying I was denied."
One Broward Republican member, blogger Javier Manjarres, objected to the process. "They singled him out," Manjarres said. "It was a set up."
Aside from questioning his motives, there was also a dispute about how long he had been a Republican. Party Vice Chair Collen Stolberg said Hamze became a registered Republican only since August and that before then he was registered with no party affiliation.
Hamze said that wasn't true. He said he changed his address in August, but has been a registered Republican for about a decade.
Of the 11 applicants for the party, only Hamze was rejected - the first time anyone in the room could recall that happening in a county where Republicans complain about how outnumbered they are by Democrats.
Prior to deciding the new-member applications, a Republican successfully moved to change party rules and require that applicants say how long they've been a Republican and to take five minutes worth of questions for the crowd.
Hamze called it "The Hamze rule."
A new litmus test was then born: Do you support Rep. Allen West? The tea party Republican has repeatedly denounced Islam and clashed with Hamze. So has Joe Kaufman, chairman of the group Citizens Against Hate and the vice-chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition of South Florida.
"Are you willing to support Congressman Allen West ... as a Republican?" Kaufman said loudly in the microphone. "Will you denounce terrorism? And your organization has been named a terrorist organization."
Hamze said he couldn't comment on the politics of CAIR because it's a nonprofit, nonpartisan group. He later said he denounces terrorism and that he's not involved in any terrorist activities.
Hamze said he was considering filing a complaint with the Republican Party of Florida because the county party's constitution says that a "vacancy shall be filled" by a qualified Republican - that is, one who is a registered Republican who lives in the county.
But the constitution also says that a vacancy "shall be filled by majority vote." And he lost that badly.
Before the meeting, a group circulated a petition bashing Hamze.
Tom Trento, executive director of a group called The United West, shook hands with Hamze and had a friendly chat with him - even though Trento thinks CAIR is involved in terrorism.
"Did CAIR tell Muslims not to cooperate with the FBI?" asked Trento.
"No," Hamze responded. "We said they should have a lawyer present, which is their constitutional right."
"What do they have to fear?" asked Trento.
"Good question," Hamze said. Trento smiled.
After the vote to deny membership, Broward Executive Committee Chairman Richard DeNapolis said simply: "Mr. Hamze, your membership has been denied."
The crowd cheered loudly
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