Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie sought and received the endorsement of a Virginia Beach Republican who is organizing dozens of protests on Saturday around the country for a group that says Islam threatens America.
Scott Ryan Presler works for ACT for America, which has been labeled an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and is sponsoring marches in more than 20 cities this weekend to protest sharia law.
Presler is also the vice chairman of the Virginia Beach Young Republicans, and Gillespie called him earlier this year to ask for his support in the three-way fight he faces for the GOP nomination in Tuesday’s primary.
His spokesman said Gillespie did not know Presley was affiliated with ACT when he asked for his endorsement.
Gillespie’s campaign confirmed that Presler is a supporter — and a Gillespie campaign volunteer — but did not respond when asked if Gillespie would denounce Presler’s support.
Gillespie’s spokesman, David Abrams, said the candidate does not agree with every supporter on every issue. “Ed does not condone hatred or discrimination under any circumstance or in any form,” Abrams said in a statement.
Presler also backs Jill Vogel, who is running for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, and John Adams, who is the party’s nominee for attorney general.
Brian W. Schoeneman, editor-in-chief of the conservative Bearing Drift blog and a former head of the Fairfax County Electoral Board, said he was surprised to learn of Presler’s work with ACT.
“We have a large vibrant Islamic community in Northern Virginia,” he said. “And I don’t want to turn these voters off, because we want them to vote Republican. You win elections by addition, not subtraction.”
Presler, 29, became well known to Virginia Republican activists after the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting.
“I decided enough is enough,” he said in an interview Friday. “I’m going to stand up to extremism, and I’m going to come out as a gay Republican.”
Presler, who was also a regional field director for the state GOP for about a year in 2015 and 2016, said he was inspired to join the group after hearing ACT founder and president Brigitte Gabriel, who frequently speaks about the need to preserve the country’s “Judeo-Christian culture.”
Presler said he has been volunteering with ACT for about three months and was hired about three weeks ago.
ACT for America is a nonprofit organization that bills itself as “the NRA of national security.” The Southern Poverty Law Center lists ACT for America as an extremist group and “the largest grass-roots anti-Muslim group in America,” claiming 280,000 members and over 1,000 chapters.
Presler strongly disagreed with that characterization and said the group works to help young women and girls impacted by sharia.
“I want to completely shut that down,” he said. “Plenty groups that have that rhetoric — we want to tell them about the Muslims who are marching with us in solidarity.”
Presler is listed as the host on Facebook event pages for nearly 30 protests, including one at Mount Trashmore Park in Virginia Beach.
While counterprotests are planned in cities such as Lansing, Mich., Rajeeb Islam, chairman-elect for the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission, said he was wary of legitimizing ACT’s message with a coordinated response and that the group had a right to march.
“I don’t like when any group imposes their wishes on another group,” Islam said. “Everyone has the right to freedom of speech.”
Jimmy Wood, chairman of the Virginia Beach Young Republicans, said he is troubled by the protests, especially in the holy month of Ramadan, but there are no plans to strip Presler of his leadership position in the group.