Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Bogus Protest, the House Race, and the MAGA Grocer

Bizarre Florida episode is a warning of 2022 craziness to come.
by Jim Swift
February 2, 2022
Video still frame from Christopher Heath, WFTV

Just north of Orlando lies Florida’s 7th Congressional District—at least for now. The Sunshine State is set to gain a new seat due to redistricting, and Florida hasn’t yet finalized its new map.

For more than two decades, the seat was held by Rep. John Mica, who came in with the mini-wave of 1992, when the GOP netted nine House seats, two years before the huge wave of the Republican Revolution. Florida’s congressional map was redrawn in 2015 due to a court order, as groups sued to ensure compliance with a law meant to curb gerrymandering. Mica’s district hadn’t been as gerrymandered as others in the state, but it was redrawn, and in 2016, a year that was generally good for Republican candidates, Mica lost in a squeaker to Democrat Stephanie Murphy.

In late 2021, Rep. Murphy, a centrist Blue Dog who serves on the House January 6th Committee, announced that she won’t be seeking a fourth term. Nine Republicans have already thrown their hats in the ring but only one Democrat has so far, newcomer Allek Pastrana. Pastrana had planned on running against Rep. Val Demings in the primary for Florida’s 2022 Senate race, hoping to unseat Marco Rubio, but instead opted to be the first Democrat in for the fightin’ 7th.

As with any open seat, there are a few no-names running. Then, as you might expect of a Republican primary, there’s your typical conservative businessman, your small businesswoman, your retired Navy captain, and, uh, your Navy SEAL sniper-turned-Christian minister.

But then there are your crazies—like your Trump-loving veteran who wants to “stop the steal,” your gun-loving veteran who is part of the Three Percenters militia who wants to add Republicans as a federally protected class because of the gays, and your state representative who tweets out things like “Fauci should spend the rest of his life rotting away in a federal prison” and who is pals with Laura Loomer, the far-right fringe conspiracy theorist best known for chaining herself to Twitter headquarters after being banned from the platform.

And while the primary is still nearly seven months away, the crazies are getting an early start in stirring things up. Over the weekend, a handful of Floridians protested outside an extended-stay hotel in Maitland, Florida (just outside Orlando) that they believed to be occupied by masses of illegal immigrants brought there by President Biden on buses.

Why?

Because Loomer filmed a video of the men in question getting off the buses. The video was amplified on far-right social media sites by the likes of Roger Stone. On Twitter, a failed inventor who goes by the name J. Hutton Pulitzer shared the video. (Pulitzer was last in the headlines for helping the Cyber Ninjas—remember them?—look for bamboo in supposedly fraudulent ballots.)

This came to the attention of Anthony Sabatini, the state representative vying for the 7th District congressional seat. Sabatini promoted Pulitzer’s post of Loomer’s video, apparently without doing any research of his own. (You can always rely on those big-brained Claremont types—Sabatini was a Claremont Institute fellow last year—to see an internet video and immediately know all of the answers. Or maybe Loomer’s word was good enough for him.)

Sabatini then took a potshot at Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, whom he called Speaker “Strawberry Shortcake,” wondering why nothing had been done about the “hundreds of illegals” being “shipped” into the district. He then encouraged followers to sign his campaign’s petition calling for Florida to deport illegal immigrants under powers he believes the Tenth Amendment leaves to the states.

Jeremy Liggett, the Three Percenter militia candidate in the 7th District race, also promoted the claims about the “hundreds of illegal immigrants” that “Joe Biden dumped” in the district and encouraged people to protest outside of the hotel.

One problem with all this: The supposed illegal immigrants staying at the hotel are actually in the United States legally on H-2A visas. We know this thanks to Christopher Heath, a reporter from WFTV, who did some actual reporting.

Heath attended the protest and talked to those who seriously believed that President Biden would fill up buses with illegal immigrants and put them up at an extended-stay in Maitland. Some of their responses and their signs are almost beyond parody, but then again, this is Florida:

I was curious to hear if Sabatini was there at the protest and, since his claims had been debunked, if he cared to comment—especially since, again, he had chastised the speaker of the Florida House for not responding. When I emailed Sabatini’s campaign for comment, I received the following odd reply: “The situation is still being investigated. Florida has over 1 million illegal aliens—if it’s the case that these individuals were legally present, that would be a rare occurrence.”

It’s unclear who, if anyone, is “investigating” the hotel’s residents. The company, Dewar Nurseries, that employs the workers who were at the hotel has confirmed that these are legal workers with H-2A visas. Legal immigrants. Hundreds of thousands of people are working the fields of America under this highly restricted program. The companies that participate in the program are all in the public record. Isn’t that what we hear Republicans always saying they support—legal immigration, people who jump through the appropriate hoops? Alas, Laura Loomer saw a busful of men with brown skin, and of course, there must be a nefarious conspiracy afoot.


A final irony: Sabatini wasn’t at the protest because, according to his social media, he was apparently busy hobnobbing with “Florida legend” Alfie Oakes, who endorsed him. Oakes is known not only for Seed to Table, his store/restaurant in Naples, Florida, but also for his hatred of mask mandates and of vaccines, and for being part of the Jan. 6th insurrection. Oakes sent two buses full of people to Washington for Jan. 6th (but went by private jet himself).

But get this: Oakes has been busted for using illegal labor before, telling CBS: “Forty to 80 percent can be undocumented on any given day, and I can tell you, if we were to lose 40 to 80 percent of our workforce, we would be crippled here.”

So Sabatini would rather shake that guy’s hand than join the brigade protesting with threatening signs outside of a hotel housing legal immigrant farm workers.

Allek Pastrana, the lone Democrat in the race for the 7th District seat (so far), offered this comment on the viral lies and overall nuttiness: “I’m for immigration reform, what I’m not for is political candidates jumping the gun without facts, posting false information to social media, just to push a xeonophobic narrative. These workers are here legally on H-2A visas thus making these individuals legal to work in our country.”

If other competitive Republican primaries around the country are any guide, the craziness is bound to get worse as the primary election approaches. Buckle up.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.