PHILADELPHIA -- An Arkansas delegate for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was barred from the Democratic National Convention on Thursday after displaying an unauthorized sign during a speech by President Barack Obama the previous day.
Frank Klein of Mount Ida said he was stripped of his credentials by the state delegation for holding aloft a placard opposing a trade agreement favored by the Obama administration.
Another Sanders delegate, Jason Thompson of Russellville, said officials threatened to eject him twice this week after he waved one of the signs and made comments to a reporter that were viewed as anti-Hillary Clinton. Clinton, a former secretary of state as well as former first lady of Arkansas and the White House, opposes the proposed trade agreement.
Klein's removal sparked a protest across the street from the delegation's headquarters. For several hours, a New Mexico Sanders delegate used a bullhorn to blast Arkansas officials, accusing them of "fascism" and foul play. He was joined from time to time by other Sanders supporters, including four of Arkansas' 10 Sanders delegates as well as a state member of the Democratic National Convention's rules committee. Later, the protest moved to the area in front of Independence Hall.
While the noise bombarded their building, Arkansas officials rejected allegations that they were stifling dissent by targeting Klein. They said Democrats encourage open debate.
"Republicans do not give a damn about the First Amendment," said Chris Burks, the state party's legal counsel. "We're free-speech absolutists. We believe in speech. More speech is better."
Klein is hardly the only Democrat to stray from the official convention script.
During this week's convention, hundreds of Sanders supporters hoisted signs expressing opposition to a multinational trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But few of the protesters were so close. As a member of the Arkansas delegation, Klein had a seat right up front because of the delegation's proximity to the stage.
Arkansas delegate Bob Nash, a former director of White House personnel, said Klein had been disruptive, creating conflict that would help the Republican presidential nominee.
"These individuals, in my opinion, are directly or inadvertently supporting Donald Trump," he said.
Sarah Scanlon, a former Arkansas director for the Sanders campaign who is committed to electing Clinton, said it was awkward to have Klein hoisting a message so close to the cameras during the president's nationally televised address.
Klein turned his back on a Clinton whip who confronted him about the placard. And when a Secret Service agent objected to the content of Klein's sign, the Arkansan rejected the officer's entreaties as well, she added.
Scanlon said she supported the decision to yank the credentials.
Convention officials had weighed how to deal with delegates carrying the signs, she said, but decided to let individual state chairmen determine how to handle the dissent in their ranks.
Klein, 61, said he wasn't disruptive while standing on the convention floor.
"I didn't cause any problems yesterday," he said Thursday. "All I did was hold up a sign. I didn't yell. I only stood when other people stood."
The "No TPP" logo, however, wasn't the message party leaders wanted. Other members of the Arkansas delegation stood throughout Obama's speech Wednesday evening in an effort to block such signs held by Klein and others.
Klein said party officials offered to allow him to stay if he would fall in line and follow instructions. He declined the offer.
The party's attorney said Klein's activism had violated a convention rule requiring that delegates "subscribe to the substance, intent and principles of the Democratic Party of the United States" and "participate in the convention in good faith."
Burks, the state party's counsel, couldn't point to any provisions explicitly authorizing officials to strip a delegate of his privileges.
The rules, he said, empower party officers, including Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Vince Insalaco, "to take such lawful action as may be necessary and appropriate to preserve order throughout the Convention Hall."
Burks called the "No TPP" sign an "unauthorized item" that violated party rules.
Thompson, the Sanders delegate from Russellville, had committed a similar infraction but was allowed to continue as a delegate after promising to obey the rules in the future, Insalaco said.
In an interview, Thompson said Democratic officials had threatened to bar him from further participation.
"They did take away my credentials today, but I did receive them back," he said Thursday. "I had to agree that I would not bring in any unauthorized signs and that I would only hold up signs that are given me by staff."
Earlier in the week, he faced similar threats after making statements about Clinton and Trump during a media interview that riled a Clinton deputy, he said.
In an interview, Scanlon, the former state Sanders' director, said the Clinton campaign had been monitoring Thompson's comments and was unhappy with what he had said.
Despite his problems, Thompson was able to satisfy party officials that he would stay in line on the convention's final day.
Klein, when confronted, responded in "a very agitated, upset, trembling manner," Burks said.
Klein also caused a scene when confronted at the delegation's hotel Thursday morning, resulting in his credentials being revoked, Burks added. Ultimately, Klein's failure to comply with party wishes created a "security issue," he added.
Scanlon, on the other hand, said it was bad manners for Klein to carry the sign, but portrayed him as typically mild-mannered. "He's not a belligerent guy. He's a relatively nice guy," she said.
In an interview, Klein said he had been duly elected by Arkansas Democrats and was entitled to participate in the proceedings.
"I'd just like to be able to represent my people at the national convention, and I want to represent democracy," he said. "I think this is nothing but trying to put me down and keep me from speaking my mind, and I have that right under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States. I don't care what the [convention] rules say. As far as I'm concerned, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights trump [convention] rules."
Klein said he doubted Sanders would have silenced dissent in a similar manner, adding, "He is for freedom of speech. He's for the Constitution."
Rusty Pearce, the Sanders supporter with the bullhorn, said he was appalled by efforts to silence Klein. "I don't think our right to freedom of speech should be censored. We have that guaranteed in the First Amendment," he said.
He dismissed claims that the signs showed disrespect for Obama, accusing the president of "being disrespectful to the people" by pushing for passage of a trade pact opposed by Clinton, Trump and a majority of Americans.
New Mexico Democratic officials, he said, haven't attempted to silence trade-pact critics.
Amanda Kennedy, a national rules committee member from Greenbrier, Ark., said there's little tolerance for dissent.
"Yesterday, I sat in a chair for five hours to watch Obama speak. I'm a very big fan of Obama. I love him. But I was treated as if I must hate Obama and everything that he stands for just because I held up a sign that said 'No TPP.'"
The Clinton camp, she said, has been "cruel" this week.
"Instead of trying to bring us together, they actually pushed us farther and farther away," she said.
Insalaco denied that Sanders followers had been mistreated.
He noted that he had ensured that they got front-row seats for their candidate's speech and said he had built solid relationships with many of them.
"I have had six of the 10 Bernie Sanders delegates hug me, thank me for all of the hard work. One of them was in tears this morning, thanking me for all that we have done," he added.
A Section on 07/29/2016