Mitt Romney’s speech in front of a 98% empty football stadium was the result of a last minute security change, according to two highly placed officials with the event’s organizer, the Detroit Economic Club.
The stadium was only chosen after a smaller venue sold out. Beth Chappell, president and CEO of the group, told TPM that the new plan was to hold the event in the stadium’s atrium, which wouldn’t have had a panoramic view of the venue’s empty 65,000 seats, but that the security team — which included Secret Service, Detroit police, and Ford Field security — did not approve.
“The security team had concerns when they did walkthrough so we had to move meeting to the field,” she said. “I am just sick that this has become an issue where there is none. We were thrilled with turnout.”
Following Friday’s speech Chappell sent the Romney campaign a letter clarifying the process after the setting was widely panned by commentators across the political spectrum, a development she wrote was “very disappointing after such a terrific meeting.” She added, “I so apologize for the confusion.”
Another board member, who asked not to be named, confirmed Chappell’s account and noted that the attendance was impressive for a club-organized event.
“I’m just being really honest with you, 1200 is a good crowd. Twelve hundred is one of the largest crowds they’ve had,” the board member said. “It wasn’t sparse — it was the way that they set it up.”
The member confirmed the Club president’s story that the event was moved to Ford Field because there wasn’t enough time to find a smaller venue for the (relatively) large crowd. They also confirmed the Secret Service’s role in moving the event from the atrium to the field itself, where cameras caught the mass of empty space that ended up overshadowing Romney’s speech.
Even though the truth might help Romney, whom the board member opposes, the member said it was important “to be fair.”
“I was there. And it was not sparsely attended,” the board member said. “That was one of the largest economic crowds I have ever seen.”
A spokesman for the Secret Service said that as a rule, they never discuss deliberations with staff publicly, but that in general it’s “very common” for the Secret Service to coordinate with campaigns about selecting the location of events.
Romney may not have had control over the visual optics of the event, but not all the negative headlines came from the empty space at Ford Field. While the speech was mostly unmemorable, Romney waxed poetic at one point about the Cadillacs his wife owns, a gaffe that entered the pantheon of Romney missteps, right up there with “I’m unemployed” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
Chappell’s full letter to the Romney campaign explaining the stadium seating is below:
To: Katie Packer-Gage, Romney Campaign
Thanks so much again for a great day. It was a privilege to host Governor Romney and we were delighted to have such a terrific turnout of 1200 members and guests. Folks at the strolling luncheon afterwards were happily abuzz.
Sadly, I just heard that there is some confusion in the media regarding the selection of today’s venue. That is very disappointing after such a terrific meeting.
As I said in my remarks today, we sold out the previous venue in 90 minutes and were delighted that Ford Field was available and could accommodate the DEC. Further, we thought it a wonderful Detroit landmark to host this nationally broadcast meeting.
The original plan was to host the Romney meeting in the atrium, which is where we host DEC meetings when at Ford Field. During our walk through with the security team there were further issues raised due to the size of the crowd so we moved the event to the field. Had we followed our normal plan in the atrium, the football field would not have been visible - and the room would have been packed.
I so apologize for this confusion. Thank you again.
Ryan J. Reilly contributed to this report.