The chairman of the Camden County GOP apologized Wednesday for Muslim-bashing political memes that appeared on the party’s Facebook page and said they would be removed.
“It’s not who I am as a person. It’s not who this organization is,” chairman Rich Ambrosino said in response to a WHYY story about the posts that published Monday.
“There’s no place for that kind of stuff, not only political discourse, but in society as a whole,” he said. “I’m embarrassed by it because I’m the chairman and ultimately the responsibility rests with me.”
At the same time, Ambrosino denied that the most offensive memes — including one showing Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar laughing above an image of the smoldering World Trade Center buildings, and another joking that Obama was the leader of ISIS — were shared by the Camden County GOP. That was despite the fact they appeared on Facebook as posts directly from page administrators.
Instead, Ambrosino suggested they could have been posted by a member of the public or someone with unauthorized access to the account, although he didn’t explain how a visitor’s post would show up in the page’s main feed or assert the page’s security had been compromised.
Before the publication of WHYY’s original story, Ambrosino said the Facebook page was central to a two-year-long effort to boost party morale and recruit candidates in a part of South Jersey that has historically been dominated by Democrats.
To an extent, the strategy worked. The page quadrupled its followers to more than 6,000 in less than a year and — in tandem with monthly breakfasts and happy hours — helped the GOP field candidates in four towns that had not seen Republican candidates in years.
By Wednesday afternoon, the page had been pared down. Where previously there had been hundreds of posts, there were only a couple dozen remaining after most appeared to have been deleted.
The anti-Muslim posts were still accessible through the account’s photo archive, but Ambrosino said those would also be removed.
Ambrosino added he still wants to use the page for party building, albeit in a more “responsible” way.
“We’re going to make damn sure that never happens again,” he said.
Ambrosino, a lobbyist who also serves as a commissioner at the Camden County Board of Elections, said three people besides himself have administrative access to the Facebook page: Dawn Briggs, Erick Ford and Tom Crone. According to Ambrosino, Crone schedules the “vast majority” of posts.
Crone and Briggs are staffers at the Camden County Board of Elections, according to public records. Ford is executive director of the industry lobbying group NJ Energy Coalition and a former executive director of the county party, according to his LinkedIn profile. Crone currently serves as executive director of the Camden County GOP.
Ambrosino said he spoke to the three of them about the posts and all denied making them.
“I believe them because, listen, they’re people like me,” Ambrosino said. “They’re not people that espouse those views and they are smarter than that to have put that stuff up there.”
Not all the content on the Facebook page had been objectionable. The posts covered a wide range of conservative talking points, from gun rights and climate change to state property taxes and Democratic leadership in Washington.
But a few targeted Omar, who is Muslim, and other congresswomen of color with not-so-subtle memes likening them to terrorists.
One, for example, depicted an imaginary back-and-forth in which Omar says, “I hate Trump,” and President Trump responds, “Most terrorists do.” Omar, who was born in Somalia and fled the country’s civil war as a child, was among the Democratic congresswomen of color Trump told to “go back” to their “home countries” in a widely condemned July 2019 tweet.
In another post, page administrators referred to Omar as a “despicable creature.” They also posted content that was later flagged by Facebook’s independent fact-checkers as “false information.”
Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of New Jersey’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the Facebook page “an unapologetic hotbed of Islamophobic and anti-Muslim propaganda.”
Both the Attorney General’s Office and an Islamic center in Cherry Hill said they worried the posts could encourage people to act on hateful beliefs at a time when bias incidents are on the rise in New Jersey and nationwide.
In a statement the Camden County GOP issued Wednesday, Ambrosino encouraged more participation by Muslims in politics.
“Our country will only be better for it,” he said.