Vermont Elects Nation's First Muslim Party Chair, Sends 'Strong Message to Trump'
Vermont Democrats elected Faisal Gill as the nation's first Muslim state party chairman. Gill will be the Democratic State Committee's interim chair, making him the nation's first Muslim state party chairman.Courtesy Faisal Gill
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Two days before the Trump administration rolled out the new version of what critics call a Muslim ban, Vermont Democrats elected the nation’s first Muslim state party chairman.
Faisal Gill, who was elected Saturday, said the decision of the Democratic State Committee to name him interim chair is a clear rebuke of Trump.
“To have a Muslim and immigrant to be the state party chair sends a really strong message to Trump and his type of politics that this is not where the country is at,” he told NBC News.
The White House released a new executive order Monday restricting travel from six Muslim-majority countries after a federal court halted an earlier version. Trump says the move is necessary for security, but Gill and other critics say it’s merely an attempt to legally discriminate against Muslims.
Gill is an outsider in ultra-white, ultra-liberal Vermont in more ways than one. In a state that is nearly 95 percent white, a Pakistani-born former Republican from Virginia stands out.
“Us and Wyoming keep going back and forth for least diverse,” Gill quipped.
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After emigrating to the U.S. and going to law school, Gill served five years in the Navy’s JAG corps before entering Republican politics in Virginia. That led to a post in the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush.
A clear majority of Muslim-Americans had voted for Bush in 2000, finding a natural home in the socially conservative, pro-business GOP. And after the September 11 terror attacks, Bush went out of his way to preach tolerance for the religous minority.
But Gill was a canary in the coalmine for a darker view of political Islam that crept into the party from its right flank, and eventually overtook it when Trump won the Republican nomination
Far-right activists like Frank Gaffney, who last year denied reports that he was advising Trump, accused Gill of hiding ties to shady Muslim groups, which led to critical coverage on conservative blogs and Fox News and then, most importantly, letters from leading Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and Charles Grassley calling on DHS to investigate Gill.
“The Republican Party is just not a party that speaks to minorities anymore.”
By the time the investigation was concluded, Gil was cleared of wrongdoing, but done with the Republican Party.
He became a Democrat and moved to California, where he volunteered on campaigns, before moving again to Vermont.
“The Republican Party basically has embraced this intense level of hatred and, to me, it’s no surprise that it led to Donald Trump,” he said. “The Republican Party is just not a party that speaks to minorities anymore.”
Gill supported Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s hometown hero, in the Democratic presidential primary last year and backed fellow Muslim Keith Ellison to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee this year. But he had to overcome a 29-year-old self-described “Berniecrat” to win the Vermont party chairmanship.
Ellison, a Minnesota congressman, would have been the first Muslim to lead a national party, but fell short in a vote this month to former Labor Sec. Tom Perez.
In a statement, Ellison also condemned Trump's new travel ban. “Let’s not kid ourselves: the new Muslim Ban is still a Muslim Ban. Yes, it’s lawyered up a bit, but that’s all," he said.
Gill will have to run again for a full term as party chairman, and could face stiffer opposition next time in a state where Sanders wins elections by 3-to-1 margins. He’s fairly new to the state and failed to win a Democratic primary for a state Senate seat last year.
Alex Seitz-Wald is a political reporter for NBC News.