Sanders anti-poverty town hall was too political, officials say

Gazette-Mail file photo
Then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a public meeting in McDowell County in May, shortly before West Virginia’s primary election.
F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to a sold-out hall at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium on Sunday evening.

A spokeswoman for the West Virginia National Guard on Monday cited a U.S. Department of Defense policy from last year as a reason why a planned town hall meeting with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in McDowell County was abruptly canceled.

Lt. Col. Melissa Shade said the Sanders meeting was blocked because of 2016 Department of Defense guidance that says commanders should not allow the use of military facilities for “political campaign or election events.” She sent a 2016 “Guidance on Political Activity and DoD Support,” which states, “Installation commanders shall not permit the use of military facilities by any candidate for political campaign or election events,” and then lists several types of campaign or election events, such as town hall meetings.

Sanders, the independent U.S. senator and former presidential candidate, was to appear at the Welch National Guard Armory on Monday. The event was to be broadcast on MSNBC, but Sanders’ staff said the event had been canceled Friday night.

Michael Briggs, spokesman for Sanders, said the event would not have conflicted with the guidance.

“That’s fine, because we’re not doing any of those things,” he said. “He is not a candidate for anything.”

Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, sent a statement on behalf of the West Virginia National Guard on Sunday: “U.S. Department of Defense policy does not permit the use of military facilities for political and election events and specifically includes town hall meetings as an example of such activities. The West Virginia State Armory Board has a similar policy.”

Monday, Messina sent links to two other policies he said were applicable, including a 2005 U.S. Department of Defense instruction which states: “Installations shall not engage in, nor allow their tenant activities to engage in, activities that could be interpreted as associating the installation with any partisan political causes, issues, or candidates.”

He also pointed to another policy from 2008 that says, “Installation commanders will not permit the use of installation facilities by any candidate for political campaign or election events.”

Messina also cited a screening questionnaire for audience members that asked whom they had voted for in the 2016 primary, 2016 general election and 2012 general election.

“It was these circumstances that led to the adjutant general’s conclusion,” Messina said. “As explained in the statement, this was a decision by the West Virginia National Guard. Given relevant U.S. Department of Defense and State Armory Board [which seeks to mirror and defer to the former] policy, the adjutant general has sought to keep the West Virginia National Guard out of the political fray.”

Sanders posted about the cancellation on his Facebook page Sunday. He said he had wanted to use the town hall to “focus attention on poverty in America.”

“Yesterday, I was informed that someone in the West Virginia state government made a last minute decision to cancel MSNBC’s use of a National Guard armory that Chris Hayes and I were going to use to hold a town meeting in McDowell County, West Virginia,” he said. “The arrangements had been agreed to several weeks before and hundreds of people in the area had signed up to attend the meeting that was going to be broadcast on Chris’s show.

“If anyone in West Virginia government thinks that I will be intimidated from going to McDowell County, West Virginia, to hold a town meeting, they are dead wrong. If they don’t allow us to use the local armory, we’ll find another building. If we can’t find another building, we’ll hold the meeting out in the streets. That town meeting will be held. Poverty in America will be discussed. Solutions will be found.”

Sanders previously appeared in McDowell County in May, shortly before West Virginia’s presidential primary, which he won.

In the past, several national politicians have used West Virginia National Guard armories and facilities for political rallies. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney made a campaign appearance at the Clarksburg armory in September 2004. Bill Clinton appeared at Charleston’s National Guard armory in May 1992, and his wife, Hillary Clinton, appeared there at a rally in November of that year. In October 2000, former President George H.W. Bush urged West Virginians at the Brushfork Armory near Bluefield to vote for his son, George W. Bush.

In one high-profile event held in another state more recently, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared at a rally at a National Guard armory in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, to raise money to pay off campaign debt for his political ally, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. About 1,000 people paid $200 apiece to attend that event in May, according to news reports at the time.

Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett, the now-retired adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, said he couldn’t specifically remember any political events held at armories in the past, although he said he did remember the late Sen. Robert Byrd being present for some dedications and former President George W. Bush holding a tribute to the military.

“I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be able to use an armory,” he added, although he noted he wasn’t sure what the applicable policy said.

Reach Erin Beck at 304-348-5163,, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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