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Canceled Trump rally in Mobile leads to political finger-pointing



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    MOBILE, Alabama (WALA) — The cancelation of an Independence Day rally featuring former President Donald Trump has sparked finger-pointing inside and outside of Alabama.

The Alabama Republican Party had former President Donald Trump lined up to speak at the event Saturday against the backdrop of the USS Alabama Battleship. But planning hit a snag over concerns that the even would violate the USS Alabama Battleship Commission’s ban on partisan political events and, perhaps, even state law.

A member of Trump’s team, who spoke on FOX10 News on condition of anonymity, rejected that explanation on Tuesday. He laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, calling it a “purely political decision by the governor’s office.”

State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who is mulling a primary challenge against Ivey, echoed that complaint.

“The only thing missing was the approval of the commission of the battleship,” he said. “Now, all of those commissioners are appointed by Governor Ivey, and she serves as an ex officio chair of the commission. … All she had to do was ask them to approve it, and they would have.”

Zeigler offered a host of possible explanations for why Ivey would want to snub Trump – from her role as Alabama campaign chairwoman for the 2012 presidential campaign of Trump nemesis Mitt Romney to fears that Trump would praise Senate candidate Mo Brooks, who is running against former Business Council of Alabama president Katie Boyd Britt. The BCA has endorsed Ivey.

Ivey denied any effort to stop the rally. Her office released a statement reading in part, “Governor Ivey did not get involved to prevent a Trump rally at the USS Alabama. She is fully supportive of President Trump and worked closely with him as governor and appreciated his support of our state.”

A spokeswoman said the governor’s office suggested the Battleship Commission ask for an Attorney General’s Opinion on the legality of holding the event. Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote the commission back on June 16 saying there wasn’t sufficient time for formal opinion but added that it would be OK as long as the battleships grounds were available for use by any political organization.

Attorney general’s advice Marshall cited previous Attorney General’s opinions indicating that public buildings could be used for purposes like new conferences and filming political ads as long as those areas are available to all candidates on an equal basis.

“Accordingly, the Commission may allow Commission property to be used for a ‘partisan political event’ provided that access to use the property is available for all political parties and candidates on an equal basis and subject to the same reasonable scheduling restrictions,” he wrote.

The attorney general added that his analysis may be “superfluous” because the event “does not appear to be associated with a candidate for office.”

Marshall also warned that a policy allowing some events and not others could run afoul of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and assembly. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that such restrictions, he wrote, must be “narrowly tailed to serve a significant governmental interest.”

Bill Tunnell, chairman of the Battleship Commission, told FOX10 News that confusion over the proper way to submit the formal question to the Attorney General’s Office delayed when the commission sent the question. He said by the time Marshall responded, the Alabama GOP had moved on because there was not enough time to plan and promote the event.

What’s more, Tunnell said, the response left open questions.

“It didn’t exactly answer the questions that we had posed, and certainly didn’t tell us whether our no-partisan political activities stance was legal or not legal. … We would prefer to have a little bit more clarification,” he said.

Tunnell said the commission decided to change its policy on partisan political evens after Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum held a campaign event there several years ago.

Tunnell said the concerns have nothing to do with animosity toward Trump.

“It didn’t matter who it was, or what it was,” he said. “We certainly – I mean, my gosh, to have a former president visit the park, that’d be wonderful.”

GOP chairman disappointed Alabama GOP Chairman John Wahl said he started trying to bring Trump to Alabama shortly after assuming his position earlier this year. He said Trump specifically requested the event take place in Mobile, where he held one of his first big rallies of the 2016 campaign, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in 2015.

“He loves the Mobile area,” he said. “It was his choice in the state.”

Wahl said he is disappointed the Fourth of July celebration will not take place and that the Battleship Commission never gave a firm answer to its request from early May.

“We have never received confirmation from the Battleship Commission that we were allowed to have the event or that we were not allowed to have the event,” he said. “And because of that lack of communication, we were not able to find another venue and had to cancel this rally.”

Pete Riehm, a tea party activist who was helping organizers, says it is a big missed opportunity for the region.

“It would have been great to have an incredible, Mount Rushmore-like type of Fourth of July celebration for everybody in Mobile to see out on the bay – fireworks and everything,” he said. “It would have been a great opportunity to highlight the battleship. Think of the publicity.”

Riehm said he is suspicious of the official explanation that the event would be legally problematic. He points to the language of the statute that “no person in the employment” of state or local government can use government funds or property for political activities.

The people organizing the event were not government workers, Riehm said.

“I don’t see how it applies,” he said.

Riehm also suggested that the commission has been inconsistent regarding political events. In addition to the Santorum event, he noted that former state Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile) used the park in 2017 to kick off his run for governor.

Riehm said that his training as a salesman tells him the battleship commission did not want the event but did not want outright reject it.

“I know when I’m being slow-walked,” he said.

Riehm said he hopes to arrange for Trump to visit the area later this summer, and the former president’s adviser said he is eager to come.

“The president is still going to come to Alabama to celebrate Alabama,” he said.

As for Trump, the former president will be speaking a rally on Saturday – in Sarasota, Florida.

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