California Republicans Bannon

Steve Bannon, former strategist for President Donald Trump, speaks at an Oct. 17, 2017, campaign rally for Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward in Scottsdale, Ariz. Bannon will headline the Citadel Republican Society's 8th annual Patriot Dinner on Nov. 10. File/Ross D. Franklin/AP

A leader of the Citadel Republican Society said it stands behind its decision to invite President Donald Trump’s former top strategist Steve Bannon to speak next month, even as public criticism mounts.

"Like some members of our community, I don't agree with everything Mr. Bannon says, but I also understand that my disagreement with someone does not make him or her a racist or an anti-Semite," Society President Cameron Brown said Friday. "Diversity strengthens the Republican Party and our nation."

Brown's statement, issued just after 9 p.m. Friday, came several hours after Nick Pinelli, a 2016 Citadel graduate, issued a similar statement in defense of the society's decision.

"At no point would we get to a moment where we would disinvite Steve Bannon as a club. If he doesn't end up coming, it's going to be because of outside forces, which we will fight against," Pinelli said.

After Pinelli issued his statement, some cadets contacted The Post and Courier challenging the notion that he speaks for the society. 

The society announced Thursday that Bannon will be the featured speaker at its Patriot Dinner, one of its largest fundraisers, at 6 p.m. Nov. 10 in the Holliday Alumni Center. Past speakers for the annual fundraising dinner include high-profile Republicans such as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford and Trump.

"It's a faux controversy because it is not a big deal whatsoever that Steve Bannon is coming to speak to a bunch of Republicans. Steve Bannon is a Republican. Trump spoke to the club right before he decided he was running for office," said Pinelli, who did some subcontracting work for the Trump campaign.

For Republicans and Democrats alike, though, Bannon can be a polarizing figure.

For Republicans, the former White House senior adviser remains in the middle of GOP political infighting, which pits more populist and outsider candidates against more established party figures. Democrats criticize Bannon for the way Trump responded to the deadly attack at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., this summer.

As the debate simmered Friday, The Citadel put out its own statement.

"The views of Mr. Bannon, or individual members of the Citadel Republican Society, are not necessarily those of the entire Corps of Cadets, our students, faculty or staff,"Col. John Dorrian, vice president for communications and marketing, said.

"Although all members of the college community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community,” he said.

The society said Bannon's lightning-rod status should not diminish his value as a speaker. 

Cadet Jonathan Clymer, who is the vice president of membership for the society, said in a Facebook post that Bannon is "by all measures an impressive and interesting speaker."

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"Mr. Bannon has been at the forefront of conservative thought and policy for the last 20 years," Clymer said in the post.

Others outside the society don't see it that way, including Sharon Risher, whose mother Ethel Lance and cousins Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders were killed at Emanuel AME Church by a self-avowed white supremacist in 2015.

Responding to a public call to protest Bannon's visit by bringing a mobile mural depicting all nine worshippers who died in the racially motivated mass shooting, Risher told the artist: "I wish I knew how to make this happen, but I don't. If I can help let me know."

Charleston County Democratic Chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan said in a statement Thursday that local Democrats are disappointed by the society's decision.

"Bannon is an unabashed white nationalist and racist and he is not welcome in Charleston," Quirk-Garvan said in a statement. "The Republican Society should be ashamed for bringing this racist bigot to the Holy City."

Brown, the group's president, said the society is not concerned.

"I respect Mr. Bannon's courage to stand up for what he believes in and to represent the hopes of millions of Americans of every race and socioeconomic background who feel their government has forgotten them," he said.

The society describes itself online as The Citadel's largest and most active club. The club is cadet-run and sponsored by private donors.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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