Sen. McCaskill veterans' event irks legionaires

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

ST. JOSEPH, Mo.—A routine campaign stop by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill at an American Legion Hall on Wednesday ultimately irked veterans and forced the McCaskill campaign to apologize after officials from the nonpartisan legion said they did not know beforehand that the event would be political.

In one of two public events yesterday, McCaskill appeared at American Legion Pony Express Post 359 here with Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who grew up in the city, to tout her efforts to reduce contracting waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hall Coordinator Janet Traylor and other legion officials said they granted McCaskill’s campaign free use of the facility because they were under the impression that the event would be a nonpolitical discussion of veterans’ benefits, similar to one McCaskill, with aides from her Senate office in tow, held there in 2010. Legion officials’ personal political preferences varied, but none called themselves McCaskill supporters or Democrats.

Before McCaskill’s remarks Wednesday, Post Commander Bernie Swartz, and District Post Commander Jerome Goolsby left the room, and Swartz said he scraped a plan to lead attendees in the pledge of allegiance.

Traylor, Goolsby, Swartz, and other legion officials said they were surprised and dismayed when they realized they were hosting a McCaskill campaign event. The American Legion is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization, and officials said they are prohibited from appearing at political events in legion attire or from allowing legion identification to appear in pictures or video or the event.

“When they slapped that [campaign] sign on, we scattered like roaches to clean everything up,” Traylor said. “We feel we were misled. I don’t appreciate as a hall coordinator being put in that position,” she said.

Legion officials said had they known it was a political event, they would have required the campaign to pay to use the hall.

The backlash was immensely awkward for the campaign because it threatened to undermine McCaskill’s effort to use the appearance to highlight her support for, and from, veterans. McCaskill last week traveled Missouri in what her campaign dubbed a “Vets for Claire” tour.

Webb, a former Marine, decorated Vietnam veteran and onetime Navy secretary, said during his remarks that he felt awkward talking politics in an American Legion post.

Traylor said that McCaskil's campaign outreach director, Justin Vail, who set up the event, left her with the impression the event would be nonpartisan when they arranged it.

McCaskill aides declined to discuss conversations with legion officials on the record, but attributed the snafu to a communication failure, not false information. An e-mail that Vail sent to Goolsby on Tuesday evening clearly described the event as organized by McCaskill’s campaign.

“We’re incredibly sorry that any miscommunication might have occurred,” said Erik Dorey, a campaign spokesman. “Claire takes her relationship with Missouri's veterans very seriously, and we would never do anything to put veterans' service organizations in an uncomfortable position.” 

Vail also personally apologized to legion officials on Wednesday after learning of their concerns; the apology seemed to partly mollify the officials.

“Senators need to know they can come here, but there are correct policies and practices that they need to follow so we can be a proper host for them,” Goolsby said. “So either they didn’t know it or they didn’t consider it, and we’re not happy about that, but they apologized for it, and it’s fine.”

Another legion official, Ron Rice, who helped arrange the event, downplayed the matter after speaking to Vail. “It was just was just a simple misunderstanding, and we’re not irritated at all and we’re not upset at all,” he said. “We just can’t endorse any political party.”

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