At a League of Women Voters House District 58 candidates forum Monday night, two of the candidates were accused of being disrespectful to the Muslim community.
The forum was held at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay in Temple Terrace, and featured Democrat Jose Vazquez, Libertarian Bryan Zemina and non-party affiliated candidate Ahmad Saaldaldin.
Republican Lawrence McClure, who leads in fundraising, was a no-show.
Vazquez ignited a firestorm of criticism from Muslims who attended the event for a Facebook post in which he wrote that he had stopped eating pork and drinking wine.
“I want, therefore to deny such an outrage and to affirm categorically that at no time I try to stop drinking or eating pork; I did not think of such a ridiculous idea, much less dreamed of such a possibility,” Vazquez wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page on Dec. 2, adding that they were “lies invented by my enemies.”
“How is that related to you serving the community?” a member of the crowd asked Vazquez shortly after the Q&A between the audience and the candidates commenced. “Don’t you see this as an offensive announcement?”
Vazquez said that he meant no disrespect. Holding a sheet of paper in his left hand that he said was his blood work, he said that he had been admitted to Tampa General Hospital a month ago with chest pain.
“My cardiologist told me I had to reduce my drinking, drinking soda, anything with a lot of sugar and my eating habits,” he explained.
Saaldaldin said that he was offended about reading how “outraged” Vazquez was about being accused of not eating pork or drinking wine, substances that most observant Muslims do not indulge in.
“When you say it’s ridiculous, outrageous and it’s dangerous – that’s offensive, whether you meant to or not, that’s what you did,” Saaldaldin said, as many members in the audience cheered.
Some members of the Islamic faith also were unhappy that C.L. Townsend, who is working with the Vazquez campaign, had written a letter to the League of Women Voters calling for the event to be moved to a different site, saying it was “not a neutral site” and unfairly favored one candidate (meaning Saaldaldin).
“The current event, as planned, should be cancelled and rescheduled to a more neutral site,” he wrote.
Townsend is the husband of Ione Townsend, the chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee. He said as a member of the League, he thought they were always the “gold standard” for acting in an impartial nonpartisan manner, a standard that he feels they fell short of on Monday night.
And he called it “unfortunate” that some interpreted his letter as being anti-Muslim, saying that was definitely not his intention.
The candidates also noted McClure’s absence.
“Lawrence McClure, the Republican that is not here, does not think he needs to talk to any of you, probably because you’re Muslim,” charged Saaldaldin.
Later in the forum, the candidates were asked what they would do to combat Islamaphobia.
“If I could reach up and flick a switch somewhere that said, ‘racism gone. Sexism gone. Islamaphobia in particular to your question, gone,'” replied Zemina. “But there’s no switch to flip.”
The 30-year-old Libertarian said that there is much less racism within his generation than in the past, though he acknowledged a resurgence over the past year. He said he would oppose any legislation in Tallahassee that would restrict access to citizenship based on religion and or sexual orientation.
Vazquez said he had a plan to educate the community about discrimination, not just about Islamaphobia but about domestic violence, job discrimination and other society ills.
Saaldaldin acknowledged that as a Muslim (his family is from Kurdistan in Iraq) his people have suffered from prejudice, but said it paled in comparison to the racism suffered by blacks and Hispanics in the U.S.
“Our freedom, our liberation is all tied together,” he said.
Although the district officially has more Democrats than Republicans, HD 58 is considered to be conservative country, as it encompasses Plant City, Temple Terrace, Dover, Mango, Seffner, Thonotosassa, and parts of Tampa and East Lake-Orient Park.
The candidates were asked how they could attract Republican votes.
Zemina said that in fact, he was the true conservative in the race, saying that in contrary to current GOP politics, he actually believes in balancing the federal budget. He also accused McClure of buying the election.
McClure did not immediately return our call for comment on Tuesday.
The election takes place on Dec. 19.