Trump plan for rally at USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park sparks controversy
al.com June 30, 2021
(Tribune News Service) — Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration informed the USS Alabama Battleship Commission that state law “would not bar” a rally featuring former President Donald Trump from occurring July 3 on its grounds.
An Ivey spokeswoman, on Tuesday, confirmed that the governor did not get involved to “prevent a Trump rally” at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, a 155-acre state-owned facility that features the a World War II battleship, along with a submarine, historic military aircraft, tanks and more.
Ivey, by the nature of her elected office, serves as the honorary chairman of the commission.
“(Ivey) is fully supportive of President Trump and worked closely with him as governor and appreciated his support of our state,” said Gina Maiola, spokeswoman for the governor. “The Battleship Commissioners approached our office out of concern of a statute that says you cannot use state property for political purposes. The governor and her team expressed that the law would not bar this event from happening and encouraged them to seek an opinion from the Attorney General.”
The rally was never advertised nor was it in the planning process. Battleship Park commissioners, since May, had been seeking a legal opinion on whether the rally could occur without legal problems on the park’s grounds.
In the end, the commission, a state agency with members appointed by the governor, ruled the event could be viewed as “partisan” and opted to scuttle the former president’s appearance during the holiday weekend. y.
“I don’t understand why some are making a big issue out of the Battleship’s position,” said Tim Russell, a USS Alabama Battleship commissioner and former Republican probate judge in Baldwin County as well as the former mayor of Foley. “Those Naval ships are not ours. It belongs technically to the U.S. Navy. You cannot go to a Navy base and hold an active rally using governmental property. To me, those aircraft (featured on the property) are on loan from the Department of Defense. I seem to be more concerned about that than some of the non-veterans who don’t understand that issue.”
‘Partisan political event’
Russell’s comments come as news surfaced Monday that Bill Tunnell, chairman of the Battleship Commission, said that commissioners reached out to Marshall’s Office about the legality of holding the Trump rally at the scenic park that runs alongside the Spanish Fort Causeway and sits adjacent to the Mobile Bay near downtown Mobile.
Marshall, in a three-page response, said the commission’s request for a formal opinion arrived to him on June 14, just 20 days away from the July 3 event. He said the letter had been dated on May 26, and postmarked on June 11.
Marshall said there was too little time to render an “official position.”
But he said that the event didn’t appear to be “associated with a candidate for office” and thus wouldn’t trigger a requirement of state law that the Battleship Commission make the park available for other candidates or political parties that sought access.
But he also warned the commission of violating the Constitution by restricting free speech based on the “identity of the speaker.” He said that such “restrictions would be subject to strict scrutiny.”
Tunnell and Russell said they viewed the USS Battleship Memorial Park as a place to showcase Alabama’s military history and to teach about the contributions of the state and its people to the nation’s armed forces.
Tunnell, in an interview on 106.5 FM’s “Midday Mobile,” said the Battleship’s enabling legislation signed in 1963 — ahead of the USS Alabama’s 1964 arrival to its current site – was to “educate the public about the sacrifices” made by veterans. He added, “the last thing we want to be known as is ‘what a great place for a political event.’ That’s not our priority purpose. It’s the last thing we want to do. Our core mission is Alabama and American veterans.”
It’s unclear exactly where exactly the rally would have been held at on the park’s grounds. The commission is not scheduled to meet again until August.
Russell, in a comment to AL.com, said, “We’ve allowed candidates to go there and have a picture taken with the battleship in the background, but we’ve not had an open rally. The (law) is clear on it (but) we know at some point someone might challenge it and say, ‘is that prohibition (of) free speech?’ That would be for the courts to decide. We have to follow the statutes we are under. I think most of all of the commissioners feel that way and a majority felt that way.”
While there was no indication the rally was being held to support a political candidate, Trump has already endorsed U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R- Huntsville, in the 2022 U.S. Senate race to replace retiring Senator Richard Shelby.
The Brooks campaign did not offer a reaction on Tuesday to the news about the short-circuited Trump rally. Two weeks ago, during a June 10 appearance in Foley, Brooks confirmed that Trump had been planning a rally at the Battleship Park, but it wasn’t going to happen. He gave not further details.
Brooks said he anticipated Trump to host rallies in support of his candidacy in Alabama leading up to next year’s elections.
“There are a lot of different options,” said Brooks. “Certainly, the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa area are a good area to hold a rally. Mobile and Baldwin counties are a good place to hold a rally. The Wiregrass is a good place. North Alabama, where I am better known and people are not at all affected by the negative politics of my primary opponents, there is not as much of a need to have a rally there because we’ll stomp the absolute living daylights of my two primary opponents in that area.”
The campaigns of his two opponents – Katie Boyd Britt and Lynda Blanchard – both provided statements on Tuesday about the issue. Neither linked the Trump rally to Brooks, and neither criticized the Battleship Commission for its decision.
“The USS Alabama is a perfect reminder ahead of July 4 of what it takes to preserve our freedom and ensure our men and women in uniform remain the best equipped and trained fighting force the world has ever known,” Britt said in a statement. “While China and Russia continue to ramp up military spending, Joe Biden has proposed an effective cut to our defense budget. The military and extended defense community mean so much to our national security and to Alabama and I will be a tireless champion for maintaining and growing America’s edge on the battlefield.
Blanchard, who served as ambassador to Slovenia under Trump, said she remains committed to the former president’s “America First” agenda, and said the state should welcome the former president.
“Few figures are as popular in Alabama as former President Trump, and he should be welcomed to our state with open arms and a good dose of southern hospitality,” she said in a statement. “We need Donald Trump’s conservative vision and leadership now more than ever in order to combat Biden, (Speaker of the House Nancy) Pelosi, and the other D.C. socialists who have done so much damage to our nation in so little time.”
‘Picking and choosing’
At least one political consultant pointed out that politicians have held small-sized rallies on the Battleship Park grounds. One recent example was former state Senator Bill Hightower who, in 2017, announced he was running for governor during the 2018 elections while surrounded by supporters at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park.
Another example, which occurred almost one year ago, involved former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who famously quarreled with Trump over Sessions’ decision in 2017 to recuse himself from the Russia investigation into the 2016 election. Sessions, last July 5, held a campaign event at the park to announce a list of veterans who endorsed his Senate candidacy ahead of a runoff election against eventual winner, Tommy Tuberville. Among those in attendance supporting Sessions was Russell.
“This appears to be, in my opinion, an affront to the former president or people on the commission appear to be picking and choosing,” said Jon Gray, a political consultant based in Mobile. “For years, the Battleship Park has been a destination for political events. It looks like a group of people are taking an opportunity to stay out of what has become a divisive issue regarding the former president.”
Gray also noted that the park has been utilized for religious-affiliated activities and is the routine spot for a Pork & Politics that is hosted by the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Governmental facilities, for years, have been utilized for these purposes,” said Gray. “People pay the same rental fee anyone else would pay. You begin to discriminate when you pick and choose who cannot come. If you allow the board of Realtors (or other organizations) to hold an event at the battleship, but don’t allow a political group to host an event at the battleship, then what you do is create discrimination.”
Angi Stalnaker, a political consultant in Montgomery, said military sites are “sacred places” that should be considered off-limits for political rallies.
“The view of federal property among political consultants of both parties, especially military property, is that it’s not to be used for partisan (purposes),” Stalnaker said.
She said she doesn’t believe hosting a rally with the military equipment as a backdrop is a “good look for our nation’s military.”
She also said offering equal time for other politicians could make for an uncomfortable situation for Alabama conservatives.
“We are an Alabama state and we love Trump,” Stalnaker said. “But what happens when AOC ( Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal Democratic U.S. congresswoman from New York) wants to come down here and do something similar at the USS Alabama? Will we let her? I think it’s a bad precedence to set. If we, as Republicans, start politicizing those sacred places, we have to let the Democrats do that as well. I don’t think that is a door anyone wants to open.”
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