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Pence speech at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry will be ‘impressive TV’ but convention preparations briefly hit a snag

A walkway leading inside Fort McHenry in Baltimore was closed for preparations for Vice President Mike Pence's speech Wednesday as part of the Republican National Convention.
A walkway leading inside Fort McHenry in Baltimore was closed for preparations for Vice President Mike Pence's speech Wednesday as part of the Republican National Convention. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Vice President Mike Pence is to deliver his Republican National Convention address Wednesday night at Fort McHenry following a week of preparations that hit a snag when a forklift damaged a brick walkway at the historic landmark.

The star-shaped fort with a replica of the Star-Spangled Banner will serve as the backdrop for Pence as he promotes President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term.

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The attendees will include local Republican officials and candidates for various offices, said convention delegate Tom Kennedy, a Baltimore lawyer who will be there. Because the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of plans for a traditional convention, Kennedy said the Fort McHenry invitation was meant as a substitute — a “reward” of sorts — for party loyalists.

“Needless to say, Baltimore is happily receiving the attention it deserves,” Kennedy said. He said the GOP hopes to spotlight “failed” Democratic policies in the city with the suggestion that “we could do better.”

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Vice presidential candidates’ convention speeches typically include pointed criticism of the opposing party’s ticket. The GOP chose a site for the speech that is steeped in American lore.

“With that flag flying, there is no question it’s impressive TV,” said Rebecca Harriett, a board member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a watchdog group.

But the organization issued a statement expressing concern about “resource damage” at the national monument, and said it was “inappropriate” for national parks to be used for such campaign events.

The coalition released a pair of photos showing damage to a brick walkway at the fort, where 1,000 U.S. soldiers withstood a British bombardment in 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In one photo, a forklift sits atop bricks that appear damaged and displaced.

During setup, “parts of a brick walkway in the fort were damaged by a forklift,” National Park Service spokesperson Stephanie Roulett confirmed Tuesday. “As noted in the permit, the permittee is liable for damages and associated costs.”

The permit mandates that the permit holder — the Maryland Republican Party — should require contractors responsible for any damages to pay for the repairs.

State party chair Dirk Haire did not return calls or texts Tuesday.

Pence is to speak on the third night of the convention, one night before Trump’s acceptance speech. The permit suggests there will be an audience at the fort, but it is not clear how many spectators will attend.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan won’t be there, said spokesman Mike Ricci. Ricci previously said Hogan planned to be working in Annapolis during the convention.

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented both parties from hosting the usual mass gatherings of convention delegates during a presidential election year.

On Monday, a half-dozen Marylanders represented the state in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Trump was formally nominated. They were tested for COVID-19 before they left and again upon arrival.

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“I’d say we were probably one of the safest places in America during this period,” said Ben Marchi, a Talbot County owner of a company that provides home care for seniors. He made the trip as a member of the Republican National Committee’s credentials committee.

The national party abandoned its original plan to stage the entire convention in North Carolina following a disagreement with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who wouldn’t guarantee the availability of a full-scale convention because of concerns about the virus.

Marchi said he would watch Pence’s speech on television and be present at the White House when Trump delivers his speech Thursday.

The state party secured the “special use” permit last week, allowing the Baltimore fort to be used for a partisan political event. While commercial activities are not permitted, the Trump-Pence team is allowed to display campaign signs at the site.

“Signs such as ‘Trump/Pence 2020′ are protected political speech and are allowed in permitted First Amendment areas of NPS sites,” Roulett said in an email.

Rangers and other park service staff are permitted to work at the event but not to engage in the political program.

Equipment and satellite trucks were spotted Tuesday around the perimeter of the park. The permit called for an outdoor stage to be constructed.

A spokesman for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has said he hopes Pence and his campaign staff adhere to local laws when delivering the speech. Baltimore City caps outdoor gatherings at 25 people to minimize the spread of the virus.

Trump spoke at the fort on Memorial Day, attracting groups of supporters and protesters outside.

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