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Far-right activist blasts Speaker Phelan for being “pro-Muslim” in political mailer

By Pooja Salhotra and Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

Far-right activist blasts Speaker Phelan for being “pro-Muslim” in political mailer” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A longtime Texas conservative activist mailed what appeared to be a blatantly anti-Muslim holiday card to voters in state House Speaker Dade Phelan’s legislative district, the latest political volley in an ongoing feud between the Texas Republican Party’s far-right faction and its more moderate wing.

Photos of the mailers circulated on social media platform X two days before Christmas. The mailers sarcastically wish constituents a “Happy Ramadan,” even though the Muslim holiday fell during the spring this year. It includes photos of Phelan, who is Catholic, at an event celebrating Ramadan with Muslims in the state Capitol earlier this year.

The card insinuates that the speaker is Muslim. The event was hosted by state Rep. Suleman Lalani, D-Sugar Land, who was one of the first two Muslims elected to the Texas Legislature along with state Rep. Salman Bhojani last year.

“It’s preying on Islamophobic sentiments that exist in some people’s minds,” said Bhojani, a Euless Democrat. “But in Texas we should celebrate and protect religious practices.”

The cards were paid for by Cary Cheshire, a longtime right-wing activist who was previously the vice president of Empower Texans. Cheshire is currently the executive director for Texans For Strong Borders, a right-wing group that has been increasingly influential in pushing lawmakers to crack down on legal and illegal immigration. Texans For Strong Borders is led by Chris Russo, who the Tribune recently reported was behind numerous, anonymous social media accounts that were full of racist posts. Russo is also an ally of white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes.

“This is obviously a satirical card, but unfortunately Dade Phelan’s pro-Muslim record is real,” the card states. “The only path to heaven is through Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas!”

Cheshire confirmed to the Tribune via text message Sunday that he mailed out the cards. They include a disclaimer saying they were paid for by the Texas Anti-Communist League, a political action committee that was registered last year but has not reported any donations or contributions. Cheshire is the group’s treasurer, but told the Tribune he personally paid for the mailer.

“Dade Phelan is responsible for the most pro-Muslim session in the history of the Texas Legislature,” Cheshire said.

His reasoning for that portrayal: The lower chamber’s passage of House Resolutions 1069 and 1168, which both simply recognized Eid al-fitr, a religious holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

“Texas is home to more than 400,000 Muslims, who contribute in myriad ways to the economic, cultural, and social fabric of our state, and it is indeed fitting to acknowledge the profound importance of Ramadan to the members of this vibrant community as they celebrate with friends, families, and fellow worshippers,” the resolutions state.

The House overwhelmingly passed the resolutions, and it’s unclear why Cheshire singled out Phelan for their passage. Phelan’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the political advertisements.

Cheshire questioned how the mailer could be perceived as anti-Muslim, but did not say why acknowledging a Muslim holiday should be cause for concern.

“My card ridicules Dade Phelan and his pro-Muslim record,” he said. “I think Texans should be informed about the actions of their elected officials.”

Bhojani said he appreciated that Phelan participated in an iftar, or the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan, and regretted that the action was being politicized months later.

Rep. Tom Oliverson, a Cypress Republican, condemned the cards on social media Sunday, calling them both “stupid” and “bizarre.”

“Religious freedom is a core American value,” Oliverson wrote on X. “Those who put this out have nothing in common with our Lord Jesus Christ. They profane His message with their antics.”

Phelan, who represents House District 21, which stretches from East Texas to the Gulf Coast, faces two primary challengers in the 2024 election, including David Covey, the former chair of the Orange County GOP.

The card comes as the speaker faces several attacks from within his own party and months after The Texas Tribune reported that Defend Texas Liberty, a political action committee with which Cheshire has ties, hosted a meeting with Fuentes.

In October, Defend Texas Liberty’s former leader, Jonathan Stickland, was seen meeting with Fuentes for nearly seven hours at the offices of Pale Horse Strategies, a consulting firm for far-right groups. Cheshire was seen at the office while Fuentes was on-site.

The meeting unleashed a wave of infighting among Texas Republicans. Phelan demanded that elected officials who received donations from Defend Texas Liberty — including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — donate that money to charity, a demand echoed by 60 members of the Texas House Republican Caucus.

Patrick then accused Phelan of exploiting the conflict “for his own political gain” and called on Phelan to resign as speaker before the Texas House was scheduled to meet for a special session on education vouchers and other legislation.

Cheshire’s cards also come months after a family copy of the Quran that Bhojani placed in the Capitol’s chapel went missing. State police investigated that matter and recovered the religious text, but wouldn’t publicly say who took it.

Leaders in the Muslim community denounced the mailers and said they showed a lack of appreciation for religious diversity.

“It’s so dismaying to see that people will use Islam to score points in politics,” said Shariq Ghani, executive director of the Minaret Foundation, a Muslim civic organization. “The speaker of the house has participated in Iftars, in Hanukkah, in Yom Kippur and in different Christian traditions as well. He’s not singling out Islam. He’s showing that people of all faiths are important.”

The mailers were also condemned by other Republicans.

“There is nothing Christ-like about these mailers or this intent,” Cat Parks, the former vice chair of the Republican Party of Texas, wrote on X. “As we all prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth… this is so shameful and sad.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/24/texas-conservative-muslim-mailer-ramadan-dade-phelan/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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