A GOP club divided

Ian Walsh Reilly, the new president of the Metropolitan Republican Club. Photo courtesy Ian Walsh Reilly
Ian Walsh Reilly is the new Metropolitan Republican Club president, emerging as victor in contested election in the aftermath of Proud Boys violence
By Michael Garofalo

A hotly contested Jan. 30 election to determine the next president of the Metropolitan Republican Club highlighted tensions among members, returning the historic political organization to the public eye four months after chaotic street violence erupted on the Upper East Side following a club event featuring the founder of a far-right group.

The bitterly fought campaign, which pitted two supporters of President Donald Trump against one another, divided the club’s membership and raised questions about the Republican Party’s future in Manhattan — mirroring currents that have roiled the GOP nationally.

Metropolitan Club members elected Ian Walsh Reilly, 38, to serve as president at the club’s annual meeting. Reilly defeated his opponent, Robert Morgan, 66, by a margin of 324 to 270.

Some members cast the contest as a generational struggle between Morgan, a past club president who was supported by a number of notable figures within the Republican Party establishment, and Reilly, who is seen by some as representative of a more strident brand of far-right politics.

Contested elections have been unheard of in recent decades at the storied Metropolitan Club, historically a bastion of establishment Republicanism stretching back to the days when it counted President Theodore Roosevelt as a member.

Reilly, in a message to supporters on his campaign Facebook page, which features a sketch of President Donald Trump in profile and the slogan “Keeping the Met Club Great,” warned of “anti-Trump forces of the Republican Establishment [...] reasserting themselves and plotting a takeover of the Metropolitan Republican Club.” Reilly’s campaign won public support from the right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos, who denounced Morgan’s campaign against Reilly as an “anti-MAGA coup d’état” in a New Year’s Eve Facebook post to his 2.4 million followers.

In a telephone interview with Our Town, Reilly said he does not consider his political views far-right. “I don’t think supporting the president is a far-right position, so I don’t characterize myself in that way,” he said.

Morgan won the backing of many members of the city and state Republican Party establishment — including Manhattan Republican Party Chairwoman Andrea Catsimatidis — as well as support from several recent Republican candidates for public office in New York, such as former mayoral candidate and current Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis and former East Side State Senate candidate Pete Holmberg.

‘A cancer that is growing within the club’

Morgan wrote of the need “to keep the club away from needless divisions and controversies” in a campaign message to members, apparently a reference to a now-infamous Oct. 12 event at the club featuring the right-wing provocateur Gavin McInnes.

McInnes is the founder of the Proud Boys, a self-described “pro-Western fraternal organization”’ whose members have been involved in political violence in recent years Charlottesville, Va. and Portland, Ore., among other incidents.

Following McInnes’s Oct. 12 speech, members of the Proud Boys engaged in violent clashes with anti-fascist protesters on the streets surrounding the Metropolitan Club’s stately East 83rd Street headquarters. The incident and ensuing fallout attracted national media attention and the club was widely criticized for hosting McInnes and allowing Proud Boys to attend the event.

Some Morgan supporters claimed Reilly was responsible for inviting McInnes to the speak at the club, a charge Reilly and his supporters deny. McInnes spoke at the club the previous year without incident and was rescheduled by the club as a matter of course, Reilly said. The Metropolitan Club promoted the program as “an unforgettable evening with one of Liberty’s Loudest Voices” and hailed McInnes for having “taken on and exposed the Deep State Socialists and stood up for Western Values.”

One club member, who supported Morgan and asked not to be identified, characterized the election as a referendum on the McInnes incident and the club’s response to the aftermath.

“The Gavin McInnes incident was like a cancer that is growing within the club, and we were hoping to eradicate it by handing Ian Reilly a humiliating defeat,” the member said. “It didn’t work, and we’re kind of screwed.”

“There are a lot of issues that need to be worked out within the club, and within the Party overall,” the individual said, adding, “There could be a mass exodus from the club, and that would be a form of accountability.”

Reilly said that the Metropolitan Club does not bear responsibility for the violence that followed the event. Instead, he noted that the club was vandalized prior to the event and blamed anti-fascist protesters for instigating the violence that followed McInnes’s speech. (The New York Times obtained surveillance footage of one violent incident on East 82nd Street that shows a Proud Boy charging at a group of left wing protesters, sparking a brawl that lasted less than a minute and broke up upon the arrival of NYPD officers, who made no arrests at the scene.)

“That violence took place away from the club,” Reilly said.

“I don’t think that you can blame the victim,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate response.”

McInnes distanced himself from the Proud Boys following the Metropolitan Club incident, which ultimately resulted in the arrest of at least 10 Proud Boys members and three anti-fascist protesters. McInnes has advocated for the use of violence against political opponents in the past, calling it “a really effective way to solve problems.”

“Gavin is a performance artist, a satirist,” Reilly said.

Reilly said that while McInnes will not be invited back to the Metropolitan Club anytime soon, as president he will continue to extend invitations to other controversial conservative speakers the club has hosted in the past, such as Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter.

A struggle for the party’s future

John William Schiffbauer, a Republican campaign consultant and former deputy communications director for the state Republican Party, said that an embrace of the far-right fringe at the club would not bode well for the party’s electoral fortunes in New York. “The Met Club comprises the large majority of people who vote in primaries and work on campaigns” in Manhattan, he said. “Anything that pushes the party further to the right and toward supporting extreme candidates hurts us statewide.”

“If [Reilly] keeps going in the direction his campaign went in, I think it’s going to further fracture and alienate the GOP in Manhattan.”

Alexandra Sherer, a 23-year-old club member who worked on Morgan’s campaign, took issue with the notion that the divide between the candidates was split along generational or ideological lines. For her, the key issue was whose supporters were best prepared to do the work of grassroots organizing.

“I have nothing against Ian personally,” Sherer said. “It’s more some of people he’s associated with that I’m not the biggest fans of,” referencing a “MAGA group” of “Facebook warrior-types” that supported Reilly, who she said were more interested in fighting online than being active in local party politics.

Like a number of other Morgan supporters — including Catsimatidis, who issued a statement congratulating Reilly — Sherer said she is hopeful the club and party can unify following the election. “This was a very nasty, horrible fight that we’ve had among fellow Republicans and we want to find a way not to have this happen again,” Sherer said.

Reilly downplayed frictions within the club and said he doesn’t expect the outcome of the election to result in lasting divisions within the membership. “Our membership is over 600 people,” he said. “Of course there are going to be members who don’t like someone who comes to speak or how something is done.”

“And if it was a referendum, I’ve won,” he added.

A handful members of the East River Democratic Club braved freezing temperatures to protest the Jan. 30 election outside the Republican clubhouse. Patrick Bobilin, vice president of the East River Democratic Club, said he was disappointed that more demonstrators didn’t turn up, given his view of what the club’s failure to “accept some accountability” for the Proud Boys incident represents.

“I don’t think they want a discourse,” Bobilin said. “I think they want violence and aggression and trolling to be the de facto basis of politics in this country. And now it’s in Manhattan, and the absence of more protestors says to me that people are removed from the reality of it.”

“Violence as an element of political discourse is something we can now expect in Manhattan and on the comfortable Upper East Side. I don’t know where we go from here.”