Freshman state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz has already been at the center of one controversy involving a House invocation that rankled some lawmakers and constituents, but her actions at a gun rights rally in Harrisburg might have ignited another.
On Monday, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, held his annual gun rights rally in the Capitol where, among other things, he advocated for the impeachment of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto for passing gun restrictions in the city. The rally attracted a slate of pro-gun activists, gun control opponents and some members of known white nationalist and hate groups.
Borowicz, who represents Clinton County and parts of Centre County, made an appearance at the rally and was photographed in the crowd posing for a selfie with three members of the American Guard, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group and the Anti-Defamation League calls an extremist group with known ties to white nationalism and white supremacy.
Sean Kitchen, who writes for progressive blog Raging Chicken Press, spotted Borowicz with the three men and took a picture, which has been circulating on Twitter. In the photo, all three men are wearing American Guard T-shirts and one has a cellphone out taking a selfie with Borowicz.
In a statement Tuesday, Borowicz responded to what she called a Twitter thread falsely accusing her of racism for appearing in the photograph.
“On any given day as a state lawmaker, I am frequently approached and honored to have my photo taken with individual constituents, groups and organizations, as are most of my colleagues,” she said in the statement. “We do not, nor should we, require ID or background checks as a condition for being photographed with the people of Pennsylvania — our constituents! The many photos taken of me at this year’s Rally to Protect Your Right to Keep and Bear Arms are no different.”
The American Guard is a self-described “constitutional nationalism” group, with the goal of “voluntary community protection, activism, and service based around the ideals of American Constitutional Nationalism and the preservation of western culture,” as reported by the ADL, a non-governmental organization that tracks anti-Semitism, racism and hate groups and advocates for an end to bigotry, racism and the defamation of Jewish people.
While the American Guard emerged from the white nationalist movement, it is not classified as a white supremacist group, said Chris Magyarics, a senior investigative researcher for the ADL Center on Extremism.
Formed in 2016 as the Indiana chapter of the Soldiers of Odin by white nationalist Brien James, the organization went national in 2017, and currently has members in 22 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, New York, Florida, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Soldiers of Odin USA is an extremist anti-immigrant and anti-refugee chapter of a group formed in Finland in 2015, according to the ADL.
In 2003, James co-founded the Vinlanders Social Club, whose members have been linked to several murders and violent crimes. He has said publicly that the American Guard has moved away ideologically from white nationalism to constitutional nationalism and promotes an “America First” agenda that is not exclusive of other races, reported RTV6 in Indianapolis.
That is true, said Magyarics, who pointed out that there are some non-white members of the American Guard operating in different chapters across the country. But, he said, “that’s not to say there aren’t white supremacist members in their ranks.”
“It is irresponsible for state legislators to pose for selfies with white supremacists,” ADL Philadelphia Regional Director Nancy K. Baron-Baer said in a statement Tuesday. “ADL can confirm that the individual in the photo is connected to multiple right-wing extremist movements, and there is simply no excuse for anyone in a position of leadership in the Commonwealth to appear to legitimize extremism. Whether or not Representative Borowicz knew who this individual was or what he stood for, she knows now, and should immediately apologize and condemn white supremacy.”
State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia, who clashed with Borowicz over her March opening prayer, said though the American Guard’s presence at Metcalfe’s rally wasn’t new, lawmakers need to be wary of these groups.
“Unfortunately, representatives like Stephanie Borowicz may not even know that they are posing for pictures with white nationalists, but the political climate has made these folks bolder, showing up at these conferences wearing shirts with the name of their groups without fear of retaliation,” she said in a statement.
Though Johnson-Harrell said the American Guard members identify themselves as constitutional nationalists with no ties to racism, their social media pages show anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“We need our elected officials to be aware and conscious of who they are meeting with, and the message that sends to the public,” she said. “Being seen smiling next to members of a hate group is not the image I would choose for myself. Hate has no place here in the state Capitol.”
Borowicz called the Twitter thread “a typical, calculated move” from the left to “take a photograph, distort the truth and assassinate my character.”
“This nonsense is exactly what Americans are tired of, lies and distortions of the truth. I will not sit idly by and take the lies and smears to discredit what we stand for,” she said in the statement.