Spicer met with protest during lecture at NEIU
by KEVIN GROSS
Former Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer and former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile discussed the role of the press and the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections during a lecture Thursday, Sept. 12, at Northeastern Illinois University, while protesters objected to Spicer’s appearance at the school.
"You must admit there’s no other agenda here, there’s no political angle, there’s no other theme. We have simply invited people from different walks of life, people that are well known … and I think we have a good balance," event donor Daniel Goodwin said.
"This university is committed to free speech, it’s committed to free thought …. And that’s why we were all in agreement to give the protesters a chance to demonstrate and a chance to be heard. And we respect their right to demonstrate, in the same vein that we respect the Constitutional First Amendment."
Phil Ponce, host of WTTW’s "Chicago Tonight" moderated the event as part of the privately-funded "Daniel L. Goodwin Distinguished Lecture Series."
Despite representing opposite sides of the political spectrum, Brazile and Spicer agreed to the importance of mobilizing voter turnout in "battleground" states for the 2020 election.
"We don’t have a large margin of error, so we’re trying to get into places like New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado," Spicer said, noting the sub 1 percent margins that Trump emerged with in Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016. "This is going to be a mobilization election. It’s about getting your ‘base-plus’ out."
Brazile said the failure of Democrats to organize in such states have cost them the 2016 election.
"We took a lot of people for granted in 2016," she said. "In the past, Democrats have taken their 18 states and the District of Columbia, which produced 242 electoral votes, for granted. So when it came time to put resources into the so-called battleground Rust Belt states, what happened? We saw the Clinton campaign looked at the data and said ‘oh, we’re winning.’ So they stopped, we stopped organizing, they stopped voting. The African-American turnout in places like Detroit, the women’s turnout in places like the suburbs of Milwaukee, they all went down because no one was talking to them."
She said that as vice chair of the DNC she expanded the 2016 Democrat debates to include more black voter-centered topics, but that efforts to mobilize African-American turnout or address their concerns didn’t go far enough.
"If we go back to what we did in 2016 and don’t localize, don’t expand the electorate, don’t communicate with people, don’t use social media in ways that inspire people, then Donald Trump will win a second term," she said. "We (Democrats) have a huge fight on our hands."
The two speakers agreed that polls can be misleading and serve as a snapshot of moods at a given time, and that broader use of data will play a key factor in the 2020 election.
"The one advantage that Republicans have hands-down this cycle is that our data is far better than where the Democrats are," Spicer said. "The reason is because when you got 10 people running, they don’t have the time to focus on the general election."
Spicer said that the final Democratic nominee to emerge out of a crowded race would also affect Trump’s chances in 2020.
"People didn’t like Hillary Clinton in Michigan. So if the Democrats put somebody up that doesn’t have the same negatives she has, that’s going to be a different race than with Hillary, because we had the advantage of … just knowing that a lot of people just didn’t like her. That’s a different dynamic."
When asked which Democrat candidate is the favorite, Brazile admitted that they know the current front runners are Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but she noted that predictions often change.
Although discussion between Spicer and Brazile remained largely civil, the tension between Spicer and Ponce became apparent as Spicer attacked Ponce over some of his questions.
"This is what undermines journalism today, is that you ask a silly question and you’re smug about it," Spicer said replying to a question about Trump’s possible mental health disorders. "You (Ponce) are literally the problem with what’s going on with journalism today."
"I disagree with the president calling the press the ‘Enemies of the People’," Brazile said. Spicer, when discussing his own actions as the White House press secretary, backtracked on his past claims that Trump’s inauguration ceremony drew "the largest attendance ever," but also defended the claim by saying that modern online media platforms allowed a larger global audience to tune in.
When discussing his own role as Trump’s press secretary, he said "I was a spokesperson for an individual. My job is to go out and repeat the thoughts and views of whomever is the principal at the time. If they don’t like the answer or policy, that’s not my problem … That’s like if I blamed you, the reporter, for putting out a story and saying ‘how dare you bring it up as part of this story’ even though that’s your job."
Later, Brazile said that as a press secretary "you’re representing your bosses’ ideas … but hopefully you’re still representing the truth." Brazile also demeaned the media coverage of President Trump’s tweets and social media accounts as "dumbing down" news, after which Ponce told Spicer, "You said that the president’s tweets constituted official statements to the press. So there’s a reason to cover tweets if they are, in fact, official statements for the press."
As the discussion continued, protesters could be heard outside the auditorium. The group, which possibly numbered at more than 200 protesters, assembled outside of the building about an hour before the event before marching inside and shouting slogans such as "shut it down" and "no Spicer, no KKK, no racist USA."
"I hear that shouting outside. To me, that’s a sign of health," Ponce said. "People can be yelling and engaging in protest, and at the same time we have the ability to have a robust conversation in here."
Before Ponce had introduced Spicer and Brazile, a male student rushed the stage before being tackled by campus police officers, and cried "you’re hurting me" as he was handcuffed and dragged off stage. Another man, a faculty member in his 40’s or 50’s, climbed on-stage about midway through the event as Spicer "invited" him to the stage following taunts toward Spicer, and he sat cross-legged on stage and said some words before he was escorted out by campus security.
Neither man was charged or arrested, according to NEIU chief marketing and communications officer Mike Dizon.
Before the event, a letter written in protest to Spicer was penned and signed by a student-led coalition of about 500 people including NEIU faculty, students, alumni and the student government association, organizers from other groups, and Alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd).
"Dear (NEIU president) Dr. Gibson, we are appalled that former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been invited to speak at Northeastern Illinois University. This is an insult to all NEIU students and employees who are members of groups targeted with violence and vitriol by the Trump administration," read part of the letter.