In Texas’ Tarrant County, which encompasses Fort Worth’s sprawl, the identity of the state’s Republican Party is facing a crossroads.
While the area has long been America’s most conservative major county, it tilted blue in the most recent midterms, lifting Beto O’Rourke (D) over incumbent Ted Cruz (R).
At the same time, Tarrant County Republicans are suddenly facing a divide over leadership — one that points to the bigotry bubbling just beneath the surface of the area’s GOP base, and that threatens to explode into a national debate on just how much Texas Republicans adhere to basic American principles like freedom of religion.
The debate over the area’s Republican leadership centers on Dr. Shahid Shafi, a trauma surgeon and local Republican official. Shafi is originally from India, became an U.S. citizen nearly a decade ago, and, as he wrote in a statement last month, backs many of the GOP’s baseline positions. “I support our Second Amendment rights unconditionally, and I believe in the sanctity of life from conception onwards,” Shafi wrote.
But there’s one catch for the Tarrant County GOP base. As many of Shafi’s bigoted detractors have noted, Shafi is a practicing Muslim — a bridge too far for many of those opposing his recent appointment as vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party.
The pushback against Shafi’s appointment has become so vocal that the local GOP chapter is planning a January 10 vote on whether or not to keep Shafi in his position. While the outcome of the vote remains unclear, the fact that it’s taking place points to the xenophobic stain still spreading across the state’s Republican base.
“This small despicable group is whipping up a frenzy. That’s where this gets dangerous,” one of Shafi’s supporters recently told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They are doing this guilt by association crap and it goes against everything I go by.”
The opposition to Shafi has been led by a small claque of detractors, whose social media posts waver between white supremacy and Islamophobic conspiracy.
One, Sara Legvold, led the charge last August by issuing a statement that Shafi was helping lead an “infiltration of the nation’s most conservative county.” Wrote Legvold, “It is past time we took our Party back with no apologies to anyone before any more damage is done to the rank and file citizens of our State who are tired of being ignored by those we have entrusted to represent us… THE ONLY THING THAT WILL DAMAGE REPUBLICANS IS THEIR CONTINUED NON ACTION. NON ACTION IS THE SAME AS CONSENT.”
Another opponent, a precinct chair named Dorrie O’Brien, has dedicated her Facebook page to ending Shafi’s role as a local GOP leader, claiming that Shafi is little more than a vehicle for imposing “Shari’a” on Fort Worth.
In one November 16 post, for instance, O’Brien wrote that Shafi is “doing his duty for his god; they call that jihad.” A few days before, O’Brien added that “for the maintenance of our Constitutional Republic, freedom and preservation of our culture, it is time for decisive actions and to abandon all peaceful illusions about Islam.”
Neither Legvold’s nor O’Brien’s reactions to Shafi are particularly surprising. As the Dallas Morning News wrote, “O’Brien is an active member of ACT for America, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an anti-Muslim hate group.” And as the Texas Observer noted, Legvold “has defended apartheid and reposted stories on social media from white supremacist site Stormfront.”
So far, both local and statewide GOP officials have tried to tamp down the bigotry swirling Shafi’s ascension. GOP Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Land Commissioner George P. Bush have both taken to Twitter to condemn the likes of Legvold and O’Brien, with Straus even calling the efforts to remove Shafi “disgraceful and un-American.”
Some in the Tarrant County Republican Party want to remove a party officer because of his religious faith. This effort is disgraceful and un-American, and Republicans in Tarrant County should defeat it handily. #txlege
— Joe Straus (@SpeakerStraus) November 30, 2018
I urge the Tarrant County GOP to stop this attempt to remove a hardworking county party official based on religious beliefs. We must move towards a more inclusive Republican Party and stop tearing down our own if we are to keep Texas red. https://t.co/kr0zv0NCPT
— George P. Bush (@georgepbush) November 30, 2018
“I stand with Dr. Shafi and the inclusion of just about everyone in the political world who generally agrees with the Republican Platform over that of the Democrats,” GOP precinct chair Warren Norred wrote in a statement last month. “I urge my fellow precinct chairs to vote against his removal.”
Nonetheless, local GOP leadership has signaled that they’re comfortable catering to the bigots calling for Shafi’s ouster. As the Texas Observer unearthed over the weekend, the Tarrant County GOP will be hosting “notorious Islamophobe” John Guandolo for a talk later this month.
Guandolo is one of the nation’s leading anti-Islam agitators, a disgraced former FBI agent who has begun peddling all kinds of Islamophobic conspiracies — including the exact types of conspiracies that Legvold and O’Brien have picked up.
Little matter for the Tarrant County GOP, though. As GOP precinct chair Dale Attebery wrote, Guandolo’s talk will be specifically pegged to the January 10 vote to boot Shafi, focusing on, as Attebery wrote, the “deceit, infiltration, conquering from withing, domination and control” that is leading them to “los[e] Tarrant County.”
As Attebery wrote, Islam is “not compatible with that thing called the U.S. Constitution, no matter what a few people may say.”