MIAMI — At the iconic Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, just after Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida rallied donors and activists to their feet during a well-attended April fund-raiser for the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County, a scuffle broke out by the valet parking station. Several men in suits and a woman in a cocktail dress tussled over who should and should not have been allowed at the $250-a-plate dinner.
Someone alerted the police. The next day, a woman who had been escorted out of the dinner renewed a request for a restraining order against one of the men involved in the dispute, writing in her court petition that he was part of a “Far Right Wing Extremist Cult.” She was referring to the Proud Boys, the far-right nationalist group that was at the forefront of the riot at the US Capitol last year.
The man was one of at least a half-dozen current and former Proud Boys who have secured seats on the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee, seeking to influence local politics from the inside. Their ranks include adherents who face criminal charges for participating in the Capitol attack: Gilbert Fonticoba has been charged with obstructing Congress. Gabriel Garcia, a former Army captain who says he has left the group, has been charged with interfering with law enforcement officers during the civil disorder on Jan. 6, 2021.
The concerted effort by the Proud Boys to join the leadership of the party — and, in some cases, run for local office — has destabilized and dramatically reshaped the Miami-Dade Republican Party that former Governor Jeb Bush and others built into a powerhouse nearly four decades ago, transforming it from an archetype of the strait-laced establishment to an organization roiled by internal conflict as it wrestles with forces pulling it to the hard right. The conflict comes at a pivotal moment for Republicans nationally, as primary voters weigh whether to wrench the party from its extremist elements — or more fully embrace them.
“Yes, we have fringe elements,” said René García, chair of the approximately 125-member Republican committee in Miami-Dade County, who is also a county commissioner and former state senator. “Yes, we have different points of view in our party. That’s how we are. And my job as Republican chairman is to protect everyone’s First Amendment right, however wrong they may be.”
The Proud Boys spent nearly half a decade engaged in often violent protests across the country over issues such as the removal of Confederate statues and the unsubstantiated spread of Shariah law. After the Capitol attack, however, as Proud Boys were being investigated by law enforcement and charged with federal crimes, they lowered their profile. The group dissolved its national leadership and encouraged chapters to get involved in local issues, with the goal of amassing support before this year’s midterm elections.
“The plan of attack if you want to make change is to get involved at the local level,” Jeremy Bertino, a prominent member of the North Carolina Proud Boys, told The New York Times last year in the midst of the shift.
What they intend to do with their power is unclear. Still, following a trend pushed by far-right figures like Steve Bannon, Proud Boys started showing up at school board meetings to protest coronavirus mask mandates and the teaching of antiracist curriculum.
In California’s Central Valley, members of the group have intimidated protesters who did not want a church to buy an LGBTQ-friendly theater in Fresno. A Proud Boy declared his candidacy for the Oregon Legislature. A former Proud Boy in Kansas lost a race for a Topeka City Council seat.
The Proud Boys’ encroachments into the Miami-Dade Republican Party are, by far, the group’s largest political success. The Fontainebleau incident was the latest to cause unrest within the party as a small but growing number of Proud Boys has deepened existing divisions and injected an unusual degree of aggression into routine dealings.
Such a rightward shift mirrors the evolution of state and national Republicans but is remarkable for Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county, which Democratic presidential candidates have won since 1992. Republicans vastly improved their showing in 2020, a swing that has soured Democrats’ prospects.
Chris Barcenas, a Republican committeeman and Proud Boy, said he started thinking about running for a committeeman seat about a year ago.
“Instead of sitting on the sidelines complaining about RINOs or whatever,” he said, referring to “Republicans in name only,” “I realized that in order to make changes, I had to be involved and be part of the process.”
Barcenas, 34, voluntarily testified a few months ago to the House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 about his understanding of the Proud Boys’ role in the Capitol attack. He protested at the Capitol that day but did not go into the building and has not been charged with any crimes.
Garcia, 37, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges from the Capitol attack, said the party was once the province of country club Republicans.
“I know a lot of people on the committee way before me were supporting people like Jeb,” said Garcia, who lost a state House bid in 2020. “But when Trump won, pretty much everyone started falling in line.”