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GOP says Harris County party chair is reneging on commitment to step aside after sharing racist Facebook post

Harris County GOP Chairman-elect under fire
Harris County GOP Chairman-elect under fire

Harris County GOP officials are increasingly convinced that chairman-elect Keith Nielsen plans to take office next month despite saying he would step aside weeks ago after sharing a racist image on social media.

Nielsen announced in early June that he would not take office after he was criticized for making a Facebook post displaying a Martin Luther King Jr. quote next to a banana. The juxtaposition of the quote and the banana can be read as an allusion to equating black people with monkeys, a well-worn racist trope. Based on that announcement, the party made plans to hold an Aug. 8 election to pick a new chair, and candidates started lining up.

But Nielsen made an unexpected appearance at an organizational meeting for that August gathering Saturday morning and made clear to Senate district chairs in attendance that he intended to take office, according to multiple sources who were there.

"He announced that he would be taking office on Aug. 3," said Nancy Scott, a precinct chair who was in attendance.

Furthermore, to actually relinquish the post, Nielsen would need to formally notify the party's secretary — something he has not done yet, according to a party spokesperson, Genevieve Carter.

Neither Nielsen nor a person who previously served as a spokesperson for him has responded to repeated messages seeking comment on his appearance at the Saturday meeting.

There has been speculation for weeks that Nielsen would renege on his promise not to take office, but the attendees at the Saturday meeting said he gave his clearest indication yet that he planned to stick around.

There were a lot of rumors, but "nothing definitive until" Saturday, said Howard Barker, a Senate district chair who was at the meeting. Barker and other attendees said Nielsen offered a message of unity at the meeting and promised he had a plan for party going forward.

Nielsen taking office would eliminate the need for the Aug. 8 meeting, which was also set to include an election for the GOP nominee for county clerk, and it would be up to Nielsen to call the next meeting. Bob Sumicek, another Senate district chair who attended the Saturday meeting, said Nielsen said he's "gonna be taking charge of" the next meeting and "that we need to go on and start running the party."

Nielsen's apparent reversal is alarming news to Harris County Republicans who had hoped to put the controversy behind them to fully focus on a challenging November election. The county is the state's largest and while it was once a battleground, Republicans have quickly lost ground there over the past few election cycles.

Nielsen's Facebook post had drawn condemnation from prominent GOP officials including Houston-area U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Michael McCaul, as well as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who called on Nielsen to "withdraw immediately from any further consideration as county chair." Nielsen initially said his Facebook post was being misinterpreted and refused to give up the chair job.

The party had taken Nielsen at his word when he announced he would not take office and laid the groundwork to hold the Aug. 8 election where precinct chairs would pick a new party leader. The race got underway: At least three candidates emerged, and there was a forum late last month hosted by the Houston Young Republicans.

Nielsen was one of several county party leaders who came under fire for social media posts after George Floyd’s death in May. Some of them had shared conspiracy theories about Floyd’s death, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to call for their resignation.