Cruz calls hate group watchdog ‘leftist institution’ with ‘sorry record’

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, center, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, center, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

— Sen. Ted Cruz was talking to a receptive audience, eager to cheer him on. And he delivered.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-group watchdog, is a “leftist institution" with a “sorry record,” the Texas Republican insisted.

“If they’re coming after you, you’re probably doing something right,” he told the appreciative crowd at the ACT for America National Conference and Legislative Briefing.

ACT for America, a nonprofit lobbying organization founded in 2007, calls itself a “national security grassroots” organization

It’s been sharply criticized by civil rights groups, including the SPLC, for promoting anti-Muslim and xenophobic views. It organized marches opposing Islamic law in cities across the country this summer. ACT for America’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, says she is not “anti-Muslim,” but was quoted in 2007 by the The Australian Jewish News saying, “Every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim.”

Cruz made the comments after receiving ACT for America’s highest honor, its National Security Eagle Award, for 2017.

He joins a host of voices on the right questioning SPLC’s authority as a watchdog. A group of nearly 50 conservatives, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, signed an open letter last month calling the group a “discredited, left-wing political activist organization that seeks to silence its political opponents with a 'hate group' label of its own invention."

In July, conservative Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. wrote to ABC News complaining that the news organization had characterized a conservative legal advocacy group, Alliance Defending Freedom, as an "anti-LGBT hate group," based on SPLC’s assessment, rather than any “actual crime or action.”

Cruz’s office sent the media a notice about his talk just over an hour before it was to begin. It didn’t list the location but provided a link to watch the speech livestreamed on his Facebook page. Cruz made his speech at the Capitol Visitor Center.

“I understand that this conference has generated a little bit of controversy and you have attracted the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” Cruz said at the event.

“Given the sorry record of that leftist institution of targeting groups that have the temerity not to be bound by political correctness and to speak out the truth despite PC orthodoxy, let me commend you,” he said.

In an interview with the Star-Telegram Tuesday, SPLC President Richard Cohen responded to Cruz’s remarks, saying “it’s unfortunate that a United States senator would lend his credibility to a bigoted organization like ACT for America.”

After white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, and one counter-protester was killed, Cruz called the marchers “repulsive and evil.” Cruz said at the time: “[A]ll of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate.”

ACT for America did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In his speech, Cruz drew standing applause for highlighting legislation he introduced calling on the U.S. State Department to formally designate the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Members of President Donald Trump’s administration have also called for this designation.

Opponents say doing so could give cover to discrimination against any Islamist group. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said “there is not a single American expert on the Muslim Brotherhood who supports designating them as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

Cruz disagreed. “It’s important to recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood, despite their claims, does not represent the entire Muslim community, indeed they antagonize and threaten it,” he said.

“I would encourage non-profit organizations and others that are focused on enhancing dialog with Muslims, to explicitly denounce the Muslim Brotherhood and their expressed campaign and jihad against the United States of America,” Cruz added, in a nod to the SPLC.

Cruz listed the Muslim Brotherhood among three groups he said “pose significant threats” to the country, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the North Korean government.

ACT for America’s annual legislative conference began Monday and ends Tuesday. A nonpartisan legal group called Muslim Advocates sent a letter to Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorenson asking him to cancel the event, citing Marriott’s stated values of “diversity and inclusion.” Marriott declined the request, saying, “Acceptance of business does not indicate support or endorsement of any group or individual.”

Other 2017 participants included Republican Reps. Brian Babin of Texas, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Dave Brat of Virginia, Trent Franks of Arizona, Steve King of Iowa, Ron DeSantis or Florida, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.

Acknowledging the “controversy” ACT for America’s 2017 event had caused, Cruz told attendees it’s “a sad statement” when “the process of speaking the truth is deemed a radical act.”

“I live in a very simple world, where truth is truth is truth,” said Cruz.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch