By Robert Downen
The Texas Tribune
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House Speaker Dade Phelan strongly condemned the leader of a major conservative PAC and demanded that elected officials — including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — return money they received from the group, one day after The Texas Tribune reported that it had recently hosted well-known white supremacist Nick Fuentes.
"This (is) not just a casual misstep,” Phelan said in a statement. “It’s indicative of the moral, political rot that has been festering in a certain segment of our party for far too long. Anti-Semitism, bigotry and Hitler apologists should find no sanctuary in the Republican party. Period. We cannot – and must not – tolerate the tacit endorsement of such vile ideologies.”
Shortly after, Patrick denounced Fuentes and anti-semitism, but accused Phelan — whose statement noted Hamas' attack on Israel on Saturday — of exploiting the war for “his own political gain.” He called on Phelan to resign as speaker before 1 p.m. on Monday, when the Texas House is expected to gavel in for a special session on school vouchers and other contentious legislation. Patrick's statement did not mention Stickland — or his ties to and financial support from Stickland's PAC.
The Tribune reported Sunday that Jonathan Stickland, the leader of Defend Texas Liberty PAC and a related consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, hosted Fuentes outside Fort Worth for nearly 7 hours on Friday. Fuentes is an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler, has called for “holy war” against Jews and said that "all I want is revenge against my enemies and a total Aryan victory.”
Acting on a tip, a Tribune reporter and photographer observed Fuentes and others — including Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted of homicide after killing two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020 — enter the one-story office of Pale Horse Strategies near Fort Worth. Republican Party of Texas Chair Matt Rinaldi also was inside the office for about 45 minutes, though Rinaldi told the Tribune that he had no idea that Fuentes was there, condemned him outright and said he wouldn’t meet with him “in a million years.”
Defend Texas Liberty is funded by two West Texas oil billionaires — Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks — who are also Attorney General Ken Paxton’s biggest donors. Earlier this year, the group made headlines after it gave $3 million in loans and donations to Patrick ahead of Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Texas Senate, over which Patrick presided.
Phelan — who has long been at odds with Patrick — directly called out Patrick in his statement, which comes as tension between the two have escalated to new heights in the wake of Paxton’s impeachment trial. Phelan also demanded Monday that “any elected official” who has received money from Defend Texas Liberty or its affiliated organizations “to immediately redirect every single cent of those contributions to a charitable organization of his or her choice.”
“Furthermore, I call upon elected officials and candidates to state unequivocally that they will not accept further contributions, including in-kind contributions, from the Defend Texas Liberty PAC,” Phelan said. “Recently, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick took $3 million from this organization. I expect him to lead the way in redirecting these funds.”
Phelan also called on the Texas GOP, which has taken $132,500 this election cycle, and Rinaldi to donate funds from Defend Texas Liberty even “if doing so would take the party into the red.”
Phelan continued, drawing a direct line between Fuentes’ visit to Texas and the violence that broke out in Israel over the weekend.
“The Republican Party, at its core, champions freedom, democracy, and shared values with nations like Israel,” he said. “...Every single elected official or candidate who has received funding from the Defend Texas Liberty PAC must publicly disavow their toxic affiliation."
Paxton and Rinaldi could not be immediately reached for comment.
Patrick, meanwhile, did not say whether he would return the $3 million given to him by Defend Texas Liberty. In the statement, he slammed Phelan for what he called a “disgusting, despicable, and disingenuous” political stunt.
“Nick Fuentes and his antisemitic rhetoric have no place in the United States. Those who spew such vile, loathsome, abominations will have to answer for it,” Patrick said. “For anyone to try to use these invectives for their own political gain is below contempt. I am calling on Dade Phelan to resign his position before the House gavels in this afternoon.”
Since 2021, Defend Texas Liberty has given nearly $15 million to ultraconservative candidates as it tries to unseat fellow Republicans, including Phelan, who it argues are not conservative enough. The group is a key part of a network of nonprofits, media companies, campaigns and institutions that Dunn and the Wilks brothers have given more than $100 million to push their ultraconservative religious and anti-LGBTQ+ views.
Phelan meanwhile is at least the second Republican to call on others to return donations. On Sunday, Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco,said his fellow conservatives should publicly donate funds from Defend Texas Liberty “or their astroturf groups” to an “Israel-supporting charity.”
“Unfortunately, this isn’t unbelievable,” he said in response to the Tribune’s reporting.
Campaign finance records show that in 2022, Defend Texas Liberty donated more than $5 million to candidates who challenged more moderate, incumbent Republicans. Most of that money went to Don Huffines, a real estate developer and former state senator who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Greg Abbott in the Republican primary.
Defend Texas Liberty has also bankrolled some of the most conservative members of the Legislature, including Reps. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Bryan Slaton of Royse City. Slaton was ousted from the Texas House in May after House investigators found that he gave alcohol to a 19-year-old aide and then had sex with her.
Fuentes’ visit to Pale Horse comes as the far-right of the Texas GOP continues to elevate extreme rhetoric, figures and conspiracy theories amid an ongoing civil was with Phelan and other more establishment members, and as antisemitism and hate crimes continue to skyrocket in the state and nationally.
Despite his open adoration for Hitler and his violent rhetoric, Fuentes has not been entirely cast out of right-wing circles. Hard-right Republicans, including U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona, have spoken at Fuentes’ annual conference alongside avowed white supremacists.
Fuentes’ acolytes have also been employed in powerful positions in the GOP. In July, the presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fired a staffer after it was revealed that he created and then shared a pro-DeSantis video that featured a Nazi sonnenrad. And, earlier this year, Ella Maulding moved from Mississippi to Fort Worth to work as a social media coordinator for Pale Horse Strategies.
Maulding has praised Fuentes as ”the greatest civil rights leader in history,” and her social media is replete with references to “white genocide” — a foundational ideology for neo-Nazi and other violent extremist movements.
Maulding was observed for several hours at the Friday meeting with Fuentes, and she spent some time outside recording a video for Texans For Strong Borders in which she called on Texas lawmakers to crack down on immigration when they meet for a special legislative session beginning Monday.
Texans for Strong Borders wants to stem both legal and illegal immigration. Its founder, Chris Russo, was seen driving Fuentes to the Friday meeting at Pale Horse Strategies.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
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