While Republican lawmakers took turns denouncing the actions of conservative protesters who heckled House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi outside a campaign event in Coral Gables, the chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County apologized on Saturday for his “unbecoming” behavior during Wednesday’s rally and denounced the extremists in attendance.
Nelson Diaz, who helped organize the protest, was one of a few dozen conservatives who gathered outside Democratic Congressional candidate Donna Shalala’s campaign headquarters ahead of a scheduled event inside that was supposed to include an appearance from California lawmaker Barbara Lee, who has drawn scorn from the Cuban-American community for her support of the island nation’s late dictator Fidel Castro.
Speaking to the Miami Herald on Saturday, Diaz said he did not organize the protest. But an email sent out by the Republican Party of Miami-Dade, of which he is the leader, implores the public to “please join me” in protesting the “very presence” of the invited guests and lists the address of the event, along with a planned time to arrive. Diaz is listed as the primary contact for the protest.
The group Miami Trump Volunteers also encouraged its members, referred to internally as “Patriots,” to attend.
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Diaz, who is Cuban-American, was videotaped during the protest repeatedly banging on a locked door used moments earlier by Pelosi to enter Shalala’s campaign offices. He stood by as a member of the so-called Proud Boys, a national organization characterized as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, heckled and hurled expletives at Pelosi as she walked inside.
“You don’t belong here you f**king communist,” the Proud Boy, Enrique Tarrio, is heard yelling. “Open up, it’s the Proud Boys in here.”
The far-right group made headlines last week after police in New York announced they were searching for nine members in connection to a violent brawl that happened Oct. 12 outside a Republican club in Manhattan. Two have been arrested. The Proud Boys have previously stood alongside white supremacist activists at marches and rallies.
Diaz said his “emotions got the best of me” and that the hate espoused by the Proud Boys has “no place in our society.” He said he did not invite extremists to the event.
“I made a mistake and I apologize for it, but I have nothing to do with that group,” he said, adding that he only learned about the group’s existence a “few days” ago. “I am not a member of the Proud Boys group, nor do I support this group or their mission... I attended this protest because of my familial background and personal beliefs against those that support an oppressive Cuban government.”
But he said it was “hard not to see the hypocrisy” from liberals calling for civil protest after Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, famously urged her supporters to confront members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet if they were to see them in public.
Following the event, Terrie Rizzo, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, issued a statement calling for Diaz to resign his post atop the local GOP.
In a tweet on Saturday morning, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said the protesters were in the wrong.
“You are not helping the cause of anti-communism if you behave like the repudiation mobs Castro has long used in Cuba,” he said. “Not sure who was behind this behavior but you should have protester Pelosi campaign stop without borrowing the tactics of left wing mobs.”
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was injured in a politically motivated shooting in June, also denounced what he considered threatening behavior from the protesters.
“I don’t agree with Nancy Pelosi’s agenda, but this is absolutely the wrong way to express those disagreements,” he said Friday on Twitter. “If you want to stop her policies, don’t threaten her, VOTE! That’s how we settle our differences.”
Lee’s name was included in press releases issued ahead of the event by Shalala and fellow Democratic Congressional candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. She was quickly removed from the list of expected guests.
Lee’s expected appearance was publicly announced during a debate on Tuesday between Shalala and her Republican foe Maria Elvira Salazar, a Cuban-American former broadcast journalist.
Shalala is running in a district that is home to some 280,000 Cuban voters. On Saturday, she blamed Salazar for the protesters’ ferocity.
“If Salazar as a candidate is willing to unleash hate groups at peaceful campaign events that she disagrees with, what will she do if she is a Member of Congress?” Shalala posted in a tweet. “This is the choice that voters of #FL27 will make: these thuggish attacks, or the politics of unity and problem-solving that our campaign represents.”
In a statement to the Herald, Salazar distanced herself from the protest, saying her campaign “did not participate in the protest, much less encourage this behavior.”
“We strongly condemn this and any acts of aggression and reckless mob-like actions,” she said. “The right to free speech is sacred and must always be protected, regardless of how distasteful a view a person may have. It is our sincere hope that those on the right and the left condemn these acts.”
Mayra Joli, the independent candidate running against Shalala and Salazar in District 27, has appeared in multiple photos with the Proud Boy who heckled Pelosi.
Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who is running against Mucarsel-Powell in District 26, likened the actions of protesters Wednesday with over-the-top political fanaticism.
“While Barbara Lee’s presence in our community was understandably offensive to the many victims of radical left-wing dictatorships, some of the protestors were clearly out of line,” he said in a statement Saturday. “Political intoxication is a serious problem in our society that is diminishing our democracy. The antidote is civil public discourse and bipartisan cooperation.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Nelson Diaz, the chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County, told the Herald he did not organize Wednesday’s protest outside the campaign headquarters of Congressional candidate Donna Shalala. But an official Republican Party of Miami-Dade County email, obtained by the Herald, encourages the public to “please join me” in protesting the event and lists Diaz as a primary contact.