Vice President Mike Pence strolled Saturday in the South’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, where a few lucky fans behind sidewalk barricades got hugs or selfies and a small band of protesters followed nearby waving signs and rainbow flags.
Pence swooped into Savannah on its busiest day of the year. The historic city has been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day since 1824, and the March 17 holiday has grown into one of the South’s biggest street parties after Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Organizers of Savannah’s parade estimated crowds would swell to 500,000 or more.
Wearing a striped green tie with a navy blazer, the vice president overall spent about an hour among the festivities. Flanked by his wife, Karen, and his mother, Nancy Pence-Fritsch, he stood on a second-floor balcony of City Hall with Mayor Eddie DeLoach to watch part of the procession of marching bagpipe bands, classic convertibles and floats pulled by pickup trucks.
Then, Pence and his entourage hit the street for nearly 30 minutes, walking past gaudy green revelers cheering and chanting “U-S-A!” behind security barriers lining the streets and two of Savannah’s oak-shaded squares. He ignored a group with rainbow flags and signs reading “Mike Pence Is A Homophobe” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” then stopped to hug a woman next to them with a banner saying “Team Trump Rebuild America.”
A few blocks later, Shannon Lennon of Orlando, Florida, and her friends in shamrock glasses and leprechaun hats were stunned when Pence grabbed Lennon’s cellphone and snapped a selfie with the group.
“He said, ‘This is a great picture, give me that,'” said an ecstatic Lennon, who admitted some of her friends weren’t quite as thrilled. “There’s two out of six of us who are fans of his. But we all respect each other.”
Elsewhere in the U.S., Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar joined in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York on Saturday, while Chicago continued its 56-year-old tradition of dying the Chicago River bright green.
In Savannah, about a dozen sign-toting protesters on the sidewalk managed to keep pace with Pence, who walked roughly 0.3 miles (0.48 kilometers) of the parade’s 2.25-mile (3.6-kilometer) route. City officials had said signs would be prohibited in the parade area secured for Pence, but backed off Friday after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court.
Savannah Kite brought a sign reading “Black Lives Matter, Protect Dreamers” and wore a T-shirt with the words “Gay, Irish and Proud.” She and other demonstrators chanted “This is what Savannah looks like” a few feet from where Pence shook a final round of hands before being whisked away by his motorcade.
“I’m a married lesbian, I’m 30 years old, and I’d like to adopt children,” Kite said. “I think his policies have hurt queer people, and that bothers me.”
Protesters and others had ample room to maneuver because crowds in the 12 square blocks secured for Pence were notably lean in spots. People stood four deep behind barricades on one side of the street, while big gaps between spectators could be seen directly across the street.
Many parade-goers simply chose to celebrate elsewhere. Spectators wanting to see Pence had to pass through metal detectors. Party tents, coolers and folding chairs were off limits. So was any outside food or drink other than bottled water.
Ray Landin of Savannah and his brother stuck to their usual parade-watching spot a block outside the secure zone. Before dawn they arranged chairs on the sidewalk and a party tent draped with an Irish flag. Their food and drinks were divided between at least six coolers.
“We’ll welcome him and we’ll show him a good time,” Landin said of Pence. “But it does seem a little restrictive.”
Thinner crowds inside the secure zone before Pence arrived meant fewer customers at Rise, a biscuit and doughnut shop on the parade route. Owner Shane Johnson said his workers made 2,000 doughnuts anticipating hungry hordes, but only six people stood in line about an hour before the parade.
“It looks like it’s going to kill our business,” Johnson said. “We should be slammed wall-to-wall right now.”
As an evangelical Christian, Pence may seem like an atypical guest considering Savannah’s reputation for boozy excess on St. Patricks’ Day. 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.
Kathy Richey of Savannah didn’t mind that many St. Patrick’s Day revelers steered clear of Pence’s leg of the parade. Wearing her red “Make America Great Again” cap, she got a prime curbside spot on Johnson Square to get an up-close look at the vice president, even though she showed up more than hour after the security checkpoints opened.
“I can see why people aren’t here,” Richey said. “For a lot of people it’s a big deal with the tables and the whole setup. Usually when I come to the parade, I just walk around. Getting to see Mike Pence is an added bonus.”