Controversy over an on-again, off-again speaking invitation to a Muslim group has spiced a tea party convention set for this weekend in Daytona Beach.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations complained to convention planners when it learned that Pam Geller, a prolific critic of radical Islam, was on the speaker list. One of the organizers then proffered an invitation to give CAIR equal time.
“We accepted only after guaranteeing we would receive (the) same treatment and respect as other speakers and that ‘Muslim-bashing would not be tolerated,'” said Hassan Shibly, Tampa executive director of CAIR Florida.
But amid continued jousting over the program and the ground rules, simmering suspicions boiled over, with Geller threatening to pull out.
Pam Dahl, the chief convention organizer and head of the Tri-County Tea Party, told Sunshine State News on Wednesday that Geller is in and CAIR is off the agenda.
“This was never my intention,” Dahl said of the CAIR invitation, which was extended by fellow organizer Geoff Ross.
Ross said he wanted to offer CAIR “equal opportunity” to air its views. “But when a CAIR leader in Washington called Geller ‘a ranter’ and ‘a liar,’ this was clearly not the intention of my invitation,” he said.
“If you’re not going to show restraint and respect to our speakers, then I will disinvite,” Ross related.
Shibly, the jilted invitee, was unimpressed with the tea party’s rescission.
“They are, in effect, brainwashing their audience and depriving them of an opportunity to make informed choices,” he said.
Confusion over a shifting speaker lineup has dogged the convention, which is scheduled to run Friday through Sunday at the Volusia County Ocean Center.
The convention website initially listed Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio and Attorney General Pam Bondi as speakers. But Sunshine State News has confirmed that none of them will be attending.
The site continues to prominently advertise presidential and U.S. Senate “debates,” but none of the candidates in those races has confirmed their attendance.
“We’re trying to get Herman Cain in from Texas,” Dahl said.
In addition to Geller, Dahl said, headline speakers will include Faith and Freedom Coalition leader Ralph Reed, Tea Party Patriots co-chair Jenny Beth Martin and radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham.
Dahl estimated attendance between 1,000 and 1,500.
Befitting the diffuse and sometimes fractious nature of conservative politics, several tea party organizations are staying away.
The Tea Party Network, a coalition of 70 tea and patriot groups around the state, is not participating. Nor is the large Jacksonville-based First Coast Tea Party.
But John Long, chairman of the newly reconstituted TEA Party of Florida, is looking forward to the event.
“I am interested to see how a wide range of tea party groups can start to merge their common goals, even as they remain and operate separately,” said Long, who heads the only political tea party registered with the Florida Division of Elections.
Long added that he was grateful the Daytona convention parted ways with CAIR.
“It’s well past time that the tea party realizes it has nothing in common with CAIR. It’s time to move on without one another,” he said.
—Kendric Ward, Sunshine State News.