Pence celebrates St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah

Russ Bynum
Associated Press

Savannah, Ga. – Vice President Mike Pence left Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Georgia’s oldest city after walking a short leg of the procession.

Pence paused briefly to shake hands with supporters while walking about 1/3 mile from Savannah’s City Hall and around two of the city’s oak-shaded squares. He hugged one woman standing with a Trump sign, and the vice president took a group selfie with parade watcher Shannon Lennon and her friends.

A small group of protesters with rainbow flags followed Pence on the sidewalk, waving signs that read “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” and “Mike Pence Is a Homophobe.”

Pence walked with his wife, Karen, and his mother, Nancy Pence-Fritsch.

Security measures for Pence’s visit resulted in crowds that are more sparse than normal on St. Patrick’s Day. There were gaps of a few feet between some people along one sidewalk barricade near City Hall. Crowds are often elbow-to-elbow in the heart of downtown Savannah on St. Patrick’s Day.

Organizers of the parade estimated about 500,000 or more gaudy green revelers to pack the sidewalks and oak-shaded squares of Savannah’s downtown historic district, though nobody conducts an official crowd estimate. But the 12 square blocks secured for Pence’s visit remained largely empty. Erin Perry said “it’s a ghost town” as she smoked a cigarette on a sidewalk with plenty of elbow room. Normally, she said there would be standing room only.

Pence chose the busiest day of the year to visit Savannah. Irish immigrants held the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Georgia’s oldest city 194 years ago. Since then, the March 17 holiday has turned into one of the South’s largest street parties after Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Those wanting a glimpse of Pence needed to accept serious limitations on their party plans. Authorities secured a dozen square blocks for Pence’s visit. Spectators entering the secure zone had to pass through metal detectors. And no party tents, coolers or folding chairs were allowed. Parade goers also couldn’t bring booze into the secure area – just bottled water.

The list of items prohibited for Pence’s visit at first included signs and posters. But city officials quickly backed off Friday when the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of protesters planning to attend, arguing a sign ban would violate their free speech rights.

Security measures affected only a short leg of the 2.25 mile (3.6 kilometer) parade route. But the secure zone was located in the heart of Savannah’s celebration, covering an area popular with parade goers that includes City Hall and two of the city’s park-like public squares.

At least two sitting presidents – William Howard Taft in 1912 and Jimmy Carter in 1978 – have visited Savannah on St. Patrick’s Day to address the evening banquet of the local Hibernian Society, the Irish social group that started Savannah’s parade in 1824.

Brian Counihan, chairman of Savannah’s parade organizing committee, said he’s not aware of any president or vice president attending the parade before Pence.

As an evangelical Christian, Pence may seem like an atypical guest considering Savannah’s reputation for boozy excess on St. Patrick’s Day. Many bars open at 7 a.m. and don’t close until after midnight. Drinking on the street is perfectly legal.

However, organizers of Savannah’s parade have long stressed the holiday’s religious roots and celebration of Irish heritage. Pence has proudly noted in speeches that his maternal grandfather, Richard Michael Cawley, came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1923.