Former President Donald Trump won Alabama by over 25 points in a landslide victory last November, and he remains popular in a deep-red state where all statewide office holders are Republicans.
But the president has not hosted a rally in Alabama in a long time. Though he waved at the University of Alabama faithful in Tuscaloosa during a Crimson Tide-LSU football game in 2019, the last time Trump stumped in Alabama and delivered a campaign speech was nearly four years ago. That rally, held in Huntsville, was intended to give then-Senator Luther Strange a boost ahead of GOP primary runoff against Roy Moore leading up to the 2017 U.S. special Senate election. Strange lost the runoff to Moore, who then lost the general election to Democratic Senator Doug Jones.
A lot has happened in politics since then.
Hopes from the state GOP flourished in recent weeks that Trump would hold his second post-January 6 rally in Mobile at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. But Trump, instead, will spend the Fourth of July eve in Sarasota, Florida, and not in Alabama.
“Battleship Park was selected for the July 3rd Freedom Rally because of its patriotic symbolism,” said Alabama GOP chairman John Wahl. “Our goal was to celebrate our nation’s freedom and values, while at the same time honor our veterans with a visit from a former Commander-in-Chief.”
He added, “The only roadblock to this event was the Battleship Commission. Everything else was set and ready to move forward as soon as we heard back from the Commission. We never did.”
The commission that oversees the 155-acre USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park has been swatting back criticism in recent days, claiming that there was no official request presented to them about a Trump rally.
Bill Tunnell, the commission’s chairman, said that Trump’s name never came up during official presentations of the July 3 event during commission meetings in May and June.
“There was never a written request for a President Trump rally,” said Tunnell. “The request was not acted on. I’ve read that we’ve canceled and nixed it, but there was never an event ‘on the books’ that could’ve been canceled.”
The commission is not set to meet until August, and talks are underway about crafting a policy on political rallies and events. Wahl said he asked Tunnell for a copy of the group’s policy on allowing partisan political events, but never received one and was later told that one did not exist.
Tunnell said the commission does not have a “concrete policy” determining what kind of political activities are appropriate on the state-owned grounds. He is hopeful that Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall will offer a more “definitive official position” on what can occur on the battleship’s grounds beyond recommendations that were suggested in a June 16 letter. Marshall, in that letter, said he believed Battleship Park can be used for a “partisan political event” if its accessible for all political parties and candidates on an equal basis.
The July 3 “Freedom Rally” was canceled amid concerns from commissioners about the legality of hosting an event that could be construed as “partisan,” which they believe violates Alabama state law, Tunnell said.
“It would behoove the commission, and I speak for myself, that we need a concrete policy on whether we will do political events or not,” said Tunnell. “And if we are going to do them, do we restrict them from opening up to the public or do we only do private events? It needs to be cut and dry.”
He added, “We felt (the decision on the July 3 rally) was a cut and dry, but it’s been completely twisted around and as President Trump would say, it’s ‘fake news,’ that we would not want him. We would welcome any current or former president to a controlled private event here. But open to the public? It’s not something the commission, over the last nine years, has felt comfortable with.”
‘Picking and choosing’
Wahl said he remains “very frustrated” over what he said was a “lack of communication from the Battleship Commission.” Wahl called the commission’s decision a “double standard” over who can rent the Battleship Park facilities.
Indeed, the Battleship’s grounds have hosted multiple political events over the years, including two rallies for presidential candidates.
In 1984, then-Democratic U.S. Senator John Glenn held a political rally on the USS Alabama battleship during a final campaign stop ahead of the March 13 “Super Tuesday” election. According to Press-Register archives, Glenn criticized President Ronald Reagan and fellow Democratic presidential candidates for not letting voters “think for themselves” during that year’s primaries.
In 2012, then-GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum visited the Battleship’s aircraft pavilion during a “Rally for Rick” campaign event that Tunnell said was originally intended to be a “closed party.”
Tunnell, a member of the commission since 1991, said the Santorum rally led the commission to reconsider public political events as off-limits.
“But come to find out, it was a meet and greet, but it was not advertised and opened to the public as an event,” said Tunnell about the Santorum event that was held ahead of that year’s presidential primary in Alabama.
Still, partisan events have occurred in recent years. In 2013, the National Young Republicans held a banquet on the park’s grounds. Former state Senator Bill Hightower announced his candidacy in the 2018 governor’s race at the Battleship Park. And just last year, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions held a campaign-related event in front of the battleship to announce a host of endorsements ahead of the 2020 Senate race.
The park hosts an annual “Pork & Politics” event, but that is organized by the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and is open to all candidates to participate.
The decommissioned World War II battleship has served as a backdrop in campaign ads and public celebrity appearances – NBC Today Show weatherman Al Roker made a stop at the Battleship Park in 2015 to give a weather report during “Rokerthon.” The 1992 movie “Under Siege” was partially filmed at Battleship Park.
“The battleship has been featured in so many things,” said Tunnell.
He said that some of the pieces on display at the Battleship Park are on loan from the U.S. Navy, and former Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell told AL.com earlier this week that he has concerns about the federal property serving as a backdrop in campaign-related or partisan events.
“I don’t know if the Navy would have any real heartburn with that,” Tunnell said. “I know (Russell) has a concern with that and those concerns are probably within good reason.”
Tunnell added, “We don’t want anyone to misconstrue that we are picking and choosing Joe Blow over anyone else.”
Critics of the commission’s position believe the opposition had more to do with Trump as the main speaker.
“It looks like a group of people taking an opportunity to stay out of what has become a divisive issue regarding the former president,” said Jon Gray, a Republican political consultant based in Mobile. “They’ve not sought a (legal) opinion before. This looks like the commission is picking and choosing.”
Tunnell, though, said that Trump’s name never came up during official presentations of the July 3 event during commission meetings in May and June.
He said an official request for the July 3 event came to the commission on May 10. Wahl said the GOP had been working with the Trump campaign on the rally since late February.
The May 10 request asked for the rental of the park’s grounds for a “commemorative and civic event” with fireworks and which would “be the biggest event that park” would ever host, according to Tunnell.
The official request did not include the name of any of the speakers or activities, but it did include fireworks, said Tunnell.
Commissioners then received phone calls from GOP elected officials who were “encouraging us to do the event,” Tunnell added.
Though not part of the official request, Tunnell said commissioners had heard about the Trump campaign hosting an event at the park. The commission, Tunnell said, then decided to seek clarification about the legality of hosting the event with Marshall’s office.
A committee within the commission was then formed, and they drafted a letter to send to Marshall’s office, Tunnell said.
Tunnell said commission then learned they had to draft a resolution and mail a formal letter to Marshall’s office requesting a review their concerns.
“That kicked everything back to the June meeting (on June 11),” Tunnell said, noting that the resolution had to be voted on during the group’s June meeting.
The letter was then mailed to Marshall’s office and received on June 14. Marshall said the receipt of the letter – 20 days before the July 3 event – did not give him enough time to respond with an “official opinion.”
The commission was criticized for stalling.
Pete Riehm, a local tea party activist and retired U.S. Navy commander who was helping in coordinating the rally, said he’s also “very disappointed” with the outcome.
Said Riehm, “It would’ve been a golden opportunity for the battleship to get publicity they never had before. We would have flooded the park with tens of thousands of people and broke all the attendance records on Saturday, July 3. Instead of the beaches, they would’ve all gone to Mobile on July 3.”
Tunnell said he had conversations with a representative with the Trump campaign and suggested that Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile be considered as an alternative location for the rally. The stadium, Tunnell said, is symbolic to Trump’s presidential win 2016 as it served as the first large stadium-style rally that became a hallmark of his surge to GOP frontrunner in 2015.
“It all made sense in that you have restrooms, and (stadium-style seating) and security and everything you needed right there,” said Tunnell. “The campaign was berthed there, for lack of a better word. But (the Trump campaign) said they wanted the battleship in the background.”
Tunnell and others have said that the deadly January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol did not come up during discussions about the July 3 event. Trump has held only one other rally since the riot occurred, involving thousands of his supporters during a joint session of Congress to count the electoral ballots that gave the 2020 election win to President Joe Biden. That rally, which was peaceful, occurred on June 25 at a fairground in Ohio.
Trump is scheduled to host a rally July 3 in Sarasota. That event that is generating some political intrigue. The office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 GOP presidential hopeful along with Trump, reportedly requested the former president postpone the rally due to the condo collapse in Surfside.
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, said he anticipates Trump in Alabama more than just once ahead of the 2022 U.S. Senate election. Trump has already endorsed Brooks ahead of the Senate contest.
The July 3 event was not connected to Brooks’ campaign, but Tunnell said he anticipated Trump stumping for the congressman.
“He has a track record of normally (endorsing) just about anyone running for anything of consequence,” said Tunnell. “I anticipated that if he was the featured speaker here, that certainly every Republican candidate for statewide office and national office would have been included.”
Wahl said the Alabama GOP continues with its efforts to bring Trump to Alabama for a rally and “remain optimistic that it will happen in the future.”
Tunnell isn’t sure the Battleship Park will be reconsidered, adding that the main focus for his group is on veterans.
“The park in the past may have been connected to political activities, but the last thing we want to have done is for someone to say, ‘they are Trump supporters’ or ‘they are Biden supporters,’” said Tunnell. “We are Americans. That’s what it boils down to. We appreciate the American way of life and we would prefer to never be mentioned in a political vein.”
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