Wall Street protests force Cantor to cancel economic speech

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) abruptly canceled a planned economic address Friday at the University of Pennsylvania after learning the event could be flooded with protesters aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Cantor was to deliver a speech titled, “A Fair Shot at the American Dream and Economic Growth” at the university’s elite Wharton School of Business, but the school announced the event was off about three-and-a-half hours before Cantor’s scheduled 4:30 p.m. start time.

ADVERTISEMENT
The majority leader planned to address the issue of income equality at a time when activists in New York, Washington, Philadelphia and other cities have been rallying against the rising gap between the rich and the poor.

“The office of the majority leader was informed last night by Capitol Police that the University of Pennsylvania was unable to ensure that the attendance policy previously agreed to could be met,” Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon told The Hill. “Wharton is an educational leader in innovation and entrepreneurship, and the majority leader appreciated the invitation to speak with the students, faculty, alumni and other members of the UPENN community.”

Cantor’s office said it scheduled the speech several months ago with the understanding that the audience would be composed of about 250 “members of the Wharton community,” including students, faculty and invited guests. But on Friday morning, the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, reported that between 500 and 1,000 protesters affiliated with Occupy Philadelphia planned to rally outside the hall where Cantor was to speak.

The majority leader’s office also said it learned Thursday night that university security planned to open the speech to the public and allow the first 300 people in line to attend the speech, regardless of affiliation, raising the possibility that Cantor would be addressing a room full of protesters.

Instead,Cantor published his planned remarks in an op/ed on the website of The Daily Pennsylvanian on Friday afternoon.

In the undelivered speech, he wrote about rising fears that the American Dream is in jeopardy for many people, and he said policymakers must “ensure fairness at every level,” but without resorting to “wealth redistribution.”

“Instead of talking about a fair share or spending time trying to push those at the top down, elected leaders in Washington should be trying to ensure that everyone has a fair shot and the opportunity to earn success up the ladder,” Cantor planned to say. “The goal shouldn’t be for everyone to meet in the middle of the ladder. We should want all people to be moving up and no one to be pulled down. How do we do that? It cannot simply be about wealth redistribution. You don’t just take from the guy at the top to give to the guy at the bottom and expect our problems to be solved.”

Earlier this month, Cantor drew criticism from Democrats when, during a speech to a conservative group, he referred to the Occupy Wall Street activists in Lower Manhattan as “growing mobs” and criticized elected officials who voiced support for the protests.

Days later, the majority leader shifted his tone and said the protesters were “justifiably frustrated.”

“They are out of work. The economy is not moving,” Cantor said. “Their sense of security for the future is not clear at all. People are afraid, and I get it.”

A lead organizer of the protest, Mike Morrill of the group Keystone Progress, said the demonstrators did not plan to try to attend Cantor’s speech and were told by university officials that they would not be allowed to, in accordance with a standing Wharton policy on such events.

“Nobody was planning on going inside. Nobody was planning on being disruptive,” Morrill said in a phone interview.

In a news release Friday afternoon, the university said it “deeply regrets” that Cantor’s speech was canceled but confirmed it would have been open to the public.

“The Wharton speaker series is typically open to the general public, and that is how the event with Majority Leader Cantor was billed,” the university said. “We very much regret if there was any misunderstanding with the Majority Leader’s office on the staging of his presentation.”

Keystone Progress, a liberal advocacy group, was coordinating a rally that planned to include nearly a dozen other organizations, including Occupy Philadelphia, MoveOn.org, the Philadelphia AFL-CIO and other labor unions.

The organizers announced after Cantor canceled the speech that the protest would go on at 4 p.m., although Morrill said he expected “a diminished turnout.”

“It says a lot about his integrity,” Morrill said of Cantor’s decision. He said that Cantor planned to speak only to “elites” in Philadelphia and that when he found out others would be there, “he runs and hides. That’s the height of cowardice.”

Cantor has spoken to skeptical audiences before. In February, he appeared at Harvard’s Kennedy School and faced pointed questions from students about the GOP’s plans to cut federal spending.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also piled on Cantor.

“As soon as Eric Cantor found out that everyday Americans would be able to hear his speech about Republicans protecting ‘people at the top’, he canceled it,” DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson said. “Not only does Cantor not listen to the American people, now he doesn’t even want them listening to him.”

— This story was originally posted at 1:19 p.m. and last updated at 3:45 p.m.