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Local Democrats denounce Mastriano ties to right-wing social media site

State Rep. Dan Frankel spoke out against Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano's ties to the right-wing website Gab on July 21, 2022.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
State Rep. Dan Frankel joined other Democrats to criticize Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano's ties to the right-wing website Gab on July 21, 2022.

Pittsburgh-area Democrats gathered Thursday to denounce Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano for supporting Gab, the right-wing social media site that provided an online home for the man charged with killing 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

“Doug Mastriano is mining this racist, antisemitic haven for votes,” thundered state Rep. Dan Frankel, who represents Pittsburgh’s heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

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“There’s not a Jewish person in Pittsburgh who can get through a Saturday without thinking about what happened on Oct. 27, 2018,” said Frankel in a reference to Robert Bowers, the man accused of committing the worst act of anti-Jewish violence in American history. “Ever since a hate-fueled gunman murdered 11 people as they gathered for Shabbat services, anyone in my community can tell you that a certain kind of peace was lost forever.”

The Thursday-afternoon event, held at the City-County Building, was part of a continuing attempt by Democrats to raise alarms about Mastriano’s embrace of Gab, which Frankel called a “festering cesspool of intolerance.”

Mastriano attracted attention from WESA and national media by spending $5,000 for what his campaign reports called “consulting.” He has posted scores of times on the site this year, and comments posted in response frequently engage in antisemitic slurs directed at Mastriano’s rival this November, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro.

Mastriano, who typically does not respond to media inquiries, has not commented publicly on the controversy. But last weekend, Gab founder Andrew Torba spoke on it for more than a half-hour in an online video. Torba denounced media outlets as “liars” and “deceivers,” noting that $5,000 is a trivial sum in a statewide political campaign. He also said it was unfair to single out the content on Gab for criticism.

“All the other mass shooters were on Facebook, they're on Twitter, they're on Twitch, they're on YouTube,” he said. Those sites, he said, featured "demonic, degenerate content and evil people. Livestream suicides, live murders all the time — this is a commonplace on these platforms”

But he did not deny that antisemitic content appears routinely on Gab, and in comments made on Mastriano’s own Gab posts.

Torba himself referred to Shapiro as a “puppet” of George Soros, a billionaire supporter of progressive causes whose influence and Jewish ancestry has been the target of antisemitic conspiracies. (It’s not clear what Torba believes links Shapiro and Soros beyond their shared religious faith. Soros has donated $15,000 to Shapiro’s campaigns since 2016, a negligible portion of the $40 million Shapiro has raised since that time.) And he singled out Jewish conservative media commentators David Rubin and Ben Shapiro as people who “aren’t conservative” and “have inverted values from us as Christians.”

Torba’s goal, he said, was to create “an explicitly Christian movement” of “Christian nationalists.”

Christian nationalism broadly argues that the United States has been defined by Christian faith from the outset and that Christians should lead it today. Mastriano hasn’t identified himself with the term, but Torba appears to embrace the label, saying the county should embrace “Christian candidates at the state, local and federal levels [who] are going to take this country back for the glory of God.”

Mastriano’s own campaign launch in January featured a supporter in a Jewish prayer shawl who spoke on his behalf and the blowing of a shofar, the ram’s horn used in Jewish ritual. (That fact has garnered attacks from some Gab users.) But Pittsburgh attorney Jeffrey Letwin, who has spent his life in the Tree of Life congregation, said he wasn’t impressed.

“Obviously it's a staged thing because you don't wear a prayer shawl except on Saturday mornings in synagogue,” he said. “It's a travesty because it belittles what the symbols really reference.”

The ideas of Christian nationalism, he said, were similarly “antithetical to what this country is all about. We’re founded on freedom of religion and the concept that all people are created equal. It’s a horrific attack on our fundamentals.

State Sen. Jay Costa said that in Harrisburg, where he and Mastriano both serve in the state Senate, Christian nationalism has “galvanized a handful of members who feel the way he does, no doubt about it.” But he said its reach would likely prove smaller than its adherents hope.

“I don’t see that building as a movement,” he said. “We’re starting to hear from some [Republican legislators] that there is a desire to move away from the far right, and I think you’ll see that as time goes on.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.