The Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, a nonprofit that bills itself as “the state’s leading advocate for Second Amendment rights,” has endorsed for state Republican Party chairman a controversial former state lawmaker who drew the ire of Muslim groups when he called Islam “a cancer.”

John Bennett, a United States Marine who served in the House of Representatives from 2011-2019, famously called Islam “a cancer that needs to be cut out” of America in 2014. Later that year he told a Tea Party group of supporters at a meeting that there’s “no difference between moderate Islam and extreme Islam.”

Bennett is one of two people running to replace David McLain as state party chair. Charles Ortega, a former state representative from Altus, is also running to replace McLain. McLain, who is not seeking re-election, replaced Pam Pollard as party chair in 2019.

Ortega served for 12 years in the House of Representatives. In 2018 he, along with two others, unsuccessfully challenged Speaker Charles McCall for the role of House speaker.

While running for re-election in 2016 Bennett said he was introducing legislation to kick the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) out of Oklahoma, calling it a terrorist organization. 

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is a nonprofit focused on “enhancing the understanding of Islam, encouraging dialogue, protecting civil liberties, empowering Muslims, and building coaltions that promote justice and mutual understanding,” according to its website.

In 2017, during the annual “Muslim Day” at the Oklahoma Capitol, Bennett made Islamic students who wanted to visit with him first answer several written questions, including “do you beat your wife?” The questionnaire also asked students to denounce terror groups.

Bennett has also run afoul of other groups as well. He posted a news story about Hillary Clinton on his Facebook account in 2016 and added “2 words … firing squad.” In 2017, as a debate was ongoing about potentially raising Oklahoma’s Gross Production Tax on the oil and gas industry, Bennett called state agencies who supported the increase “terrorists.”

“We should not be negotiating with terrorists, period.” Bennett said on the House floor. Then-Gov. Mary Fallin called the statement “unacceptable” and Bennett later said he was referring only to state agency heads. 

“As soon as we heard that (Bennett was running) for party chair, we were pretty convinced that’s our guy,” said Don Spencer, the president of OK2A. 

Bennett, who could not be reached for comment, is an OK2A member, Spencer said, and a lawmaker who worked with the nonprofit to craft pro-gun legislation. 

“I have known him since 2010 and had a working relationship with him when he was in the state Legislature,” Spencer said. “He introduced bills and passed bills on behalf of OK2A and maintained an A+ grade with us. He’s an OK2A member, he’s right there with us.”

Spencer said he was throwing his group’s support behind Bennett because “in this atmosphere we’re in, we’ve got a broad problem of Republicans not holding up to the platform and we just don’t feel like they’re fighting for us like they should be.”

Pollard, who served as party chair from 2015 to 2019, said that when Oklahoma was heavily Democrat, the state’s Republican Party was more focused on recruiting candidates. But, she said, things have changed.

“Now that we have the majority in Oklahoma, the state party no longer does state party recruitment because the elections really are taking place in the primaries, and we don’t get involved in the primaries,” she said. 

The role of the party chair, Pollard said, is to oversee elections in the state, to organize the structure in all 77 counties and to educate voters about the party’s platform.

“I’m a strong believer that our platform should be a set of principles and not minute details,” Pollard said.

County conventions, where delegates are selected to vote for state party chair, are ongoing, with “the big ones” coming soon, Pollard said.

“Oklahoma County, Tulsa County, Cleveland County and Canadian County conventions are soon and we expect 300-plus people at each of those,” she said. “Interest and enthusiasm is very high right now.”

The state convention is set for April 10 in Oklahoma City at the Cox Convention Center.

Pollard looks back on her four years as state party chair with fondness, but she said she’s more pleased with the growth of the Republican party going back to the beginning of her political career in the 90s.

“To know that our message has resonated with voters and that our strategies are successful, it’s gratifying to know that the Republican party is in tune with the majority of voters in Oklahoma,” she said. “I’m proud to be a part of the party that’s in tune with the voters.”

Last November, voters in House District 88 elected Mauree Turner, D-OKC, a nonbinary Muslim, to the legislature. Turner, 27, is the first Muslim to serve in Oklahoma’s legislature and is the first openly non-binary state legislator in the country.

Back in time

Adam Soltani, the executive director of CAIR-Oklahoma, said hearing Bennett’s name again was a bit like going back in time.

“He’s said these allegations that all mosques in Oklahoma are jihadi training grounds, that I’m one of the biggest terrorists in Oklahoma, and just in general outright slander against a peace-loving community that has a history in our state of always doing good things and never doing any of these bad things he’s claimed,” Soltani told The Frontier. “I have a long history with John Bennett.”

In 2013, after Bennett had already drawn attention for his anti-Islamic views, Soltani posted a picture on Facebook of himself sitting behind Bennett’s desk at the state Capitol. Bennett said he received death threats after that picture was posted. 

Soltani, too, has complained of death threats he received years ago he felt were connected to Bennett’s vitriol. He noted that in 2016 when Bennett held anti-Muslim training that was sponsored by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, Bennett tried to have him banned from attending.

Soltani said that the potential that Bennett might be leading OKGOP “does not feel good at all.”

“It’s bad news for the Republican party,” Soltani said. “I say this as someone who serves a community that is both Democrat and Republican.”

Soltani said that, perhaps contrary to popular belief, Oklahoman Muslims are more diverse politically than might be imagined.

“People don’t realize that on a social level and quite honestly a cultural level, many Muslims here would be more open to being members of the conservative party if it wasn’t for attacks on them, because that party’s values are often more in line with theirs.”

Spencer said he was aware of Bennett’s past comments and statements about Muslims, but said he didn’t believe Bennett was “anti-Muslim” as much as he was “anti-Islam.”

“That’s a major difference,” Spencer said. “Our chairman of the board, who is a pastor of a Baptist church, was enthusiastic when we were discussing endorsing John Bennett for this.

“There’s always pushback, it’s whether the pushback is legitimate or not. And John Bennett, we’re very confident he will move the party to the direction it’s supposed to be and keep it there.”