HUNTINGTON — Marshall University and Sodexo have received a petition with more than 750 signatures from concerned citizens, requesting the university and its contracted food vendor cut ties with Stewarts Original Hot Dogs following comments on social media by its owner, West Virginia Del. John Mandt Jr., R-Cabell.

The comments came after a vigil in Huntington at the Muslim Association of Huntington, the local mosque, to honor the lives lost during a March terror attack at a mosque in New Zealand.

"This event was in Huntington last night," the initial post read above a copy of The Herald-Dispatch's coverage of the vigil. "... I (am) choosing to distance (myself) from this. Anything Muslim is going to be associated with Democrat's (sic). It's better to stay away than be associated with them."

The initial post mentioned another delegate, though Mandt later edited the post, saying he mentioned the lawmaker without his permission.

Mandt said he was referencing House Democrats specifically, some of whom had recently invited The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to the Capitol following an Islamophobic sign displayed in the rotunda during the session on GOP Day. CAIR has been accused of supporting terrorist groups, and Mandt said he did not want to attend an event that possibly could have CAIR members in attendance as well.

No one who organized or spoke at the vigil was known to have ties to CAIR.

The post sparked outrage from some area residents, including Dakota Nelson, a community activist who had run against Mandt and others in the 16th District during the 2018 election. Nelson said Mandt's comments went beyond politics; instead, he dismissed an entire population of his constituency based on their religious choices.

Nelson said this is more than disagreeing with Mandt's votes on the House floor.

"When he has to vote, he can't control what is on the floor to be voted on," Nelson said. "Do we wish he would have voted differently? Sure. But he was put in the situation to make those votes. It's different when he actively on several instances now has chosen to on his own create these vacuums of racially disparaging statements."

Mandt said Friday he would never show hatred toward another person, and though his business is not part of the city's Open to All campaign to promote acceptance of all people, his business has always been open to all.

Mandt said he has a great working relationship with Sodexo, and Stewarts has sold hot dogs at Marshall since 1988. He said his profit goes right back to the university.

He said he believes Marshall would take a hit if they cut ties with him, and it would affect other local businesses like Heiner's Bakery.

"It's unfortunate someone would want to hurt an individual because I don't agree with them," he said.

Nelson met with officials of Marshall and Sodexo last week, and he said he was pleased to find both organizations have firm stances on inclusivity and diversity within company policies. Nelson said he was told a show of community support would help as they navigate potentially ending the contract with Stewarts Original Hot Dogs.

The petition asks Sodexo to "honor their own values stated on the company website: 'It's more important than ever for organizations to do well by doing good. Whoever they are, wherever they operate, businesses must act for the benefit of everyone in order to create true value.' In addition, one of the company's 'nine commitments to a better tomorrow' (is) Drive diversity and inclusion as a catalyst for change."

The online petition has 605 signatures, and Nelson said paper petitions were also distributed and signed. As of Friday evening, even after the petition had been turned in, people were continuing to sign the online petition. Nelson said while many of the signatures are from university students, many are also from community members, religious leaders, Marshall alumni and current/former faculty.

"Muslims are as much a part of our community as people of any other religion," Angela H. commented. "The shooting was a tragedy that goes beyond party lines. There are people of all walks of life in this town and at Marshall, and this kind of behavior should not be tolerated and certainly not rewarded!"

Nelson said he has heard criticism from others, including Mandt himself, saying the business should not be targeted because of Mandt's political beliefs. But Nelson said Mandt actively connects his business to his politics, placing Stewarts Original Hot Dogs stickers on his office door in the Capitol and on his legislative-issued computer.

Nelson said he will file an ethics complaint against Mandt for that connection.

On Friday evening, a spokesperson for Marshall confirmed the petition had been received and forwarded to Sodexo, which holds the contract with Stewarts.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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