DULUTH – Local airport officials told Vice President Mike Pence he could not host a campaign event on their premises in late October after President Donald Trump flouted state health guidelines while holding a rally there weeks earlier.
In an Oct. 22 e-mail to the Duluth Airport Authority’s (DAA’s) seven-person board of directors, the airport’s executive director said he’d learned that Pence planned to host a rally in Duluth on Oct. 26.
“The Trump Campaign is in breach of their previous agreement with the DAA on a couple of significant items,” Tom Werner wrote. “Therefore, I will not allow the event to take place at our airports.”
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Pence instead held a rally at Hibbing’s airport, where about 650 gathered to hear the vice president speak eight days before Election Day despite Minnesota’s 250-person cap on events due to the pandemic.
Trump tested positive for COVID-19 two days after headlining a Sept. 30 rally at the Duluth airport, which officials estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people attended. The campaign had previously signed a contract agreeing to follow the state’s capacity rules implemented by Gov. Tim Walz in attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
E-mails and other documents obtained through a public records request show that local officials had concerns Trump’s rally would violate Walz’s order but felt they could do little to hold the campaign to its word.
Another e-mail from Werner to the board said the state told Duluth officials they were not going to help enforce health guidelines.
In a statement after the Sept. 30 rally, an airport spokesperson said: “It was made clear to the Trump Campaign, in the lead up to the event, that compliance with the State of Minnesota’s current public health executive orders was an expectation of the DAA.”
Steven Hanke, who works in Duluth’s city attorney’s office and was representing the publicly owned airport, sent a letter the following week notifying the campaign that it breached the contract by exceeding crowd limits and failing to require attendees to wear masks and practice social distancing.
The state traced four COVID-19 cases to Trump’s rally in Duluth and 16 cases to a Sept. 18 event in Bemidji, where two people were later hospitalized with the virus. Another four cases were traced to counterprotests.
Trump held another rally Oct. 30 in Rochester, where the president complied with the state’s rules but complained about Walz and other state Democrats limiting his crowd.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, nor did airport officials clarify how the decision to deny Pence the airport space was reached or communicated to the campaign.
Trump and Pence each made two visits to northern Minnesota during the last months of their campaign, but the ticket ultimately gained little ground in the Iron Range region they had hoped would be a Republican boost.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478