Amy Lee, left, a Vietnam native now living in San Diego, offers one of her custom sold-copper "MAGA" fish to Anchorage residents Kenny Gentry and Hunter Kern at about 5:30 a.m. Saturday outside the Alaska Airlines Center. They were among the first in line for the Save America Rally that started more than seven hours later.
(Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Entering the political arena

MAGA rally faithful—and Trump —come to Alaska.

ANCHORAGE — Kenny Gentry and Hunter Kern found themselves welcome strangers in a rarefied community as the first-timers stood at the front of the entrance line chatting with the likes of Amy Lee, a Vietnam native who brings small customized copper ”MAGA” fish as gifts to those she meets at these events nationwide.

Gentry and Kern, who live and work in Anchorage, arrived at the Alaska Airlines Center at 3 a.m. Saturday, three hours before they were officially allowed to wait in line to see the Save America Rally starting at 1 p.m., with main attraction and former President Donald Trump still at least 13 hours away.

“We tried but they kicked us off the campus,” Gentry said. “We didn’t sleep. We paced and such.”

They were hardly the first arrivals — plenty of others arriving starting Friday evening were kicked off the University of Alaska Anchorage arena parking lot, as well as nearby campus parking garages where they hoped to sleep in their vehicles overnight.

But the two men returned at about 5:15 a.m., by which time the powers-that-be had relented, and they found themselves among a group of well-acquainted fellowship at the front barrier closest to the arena.

Lee, who left Vietnam many years ago with her husband Covan Nguyen and now lives in San Diego, rewarded their perseverance with one of the copper fish she normally gives to children waiting in line at the 17 Trump rallies she’s attended so far.

“We wish we could give them to everybody, but they’re heavy,” she said.

Lee said it’s not just the first-timers caught off-guard by the banishment of early arrivals.

“We normally camp overnight,” she said.

Another regular rally-goer coming from far abroad is Julianna Balogh, who was born in Hungary many decades ago, so “I know what I didn’t want when I came over here.” She said her inspiration came from her recently deceased-husband, who fought for the revolution of 1956.

“He told me what to do and I go everywhere with him,” she said.

Balogh said she lived in Los Angeles, but in recent years “I had a change of direction” due to inflation and now lives in Middle America. For her 20th Trump rally she was wearing various handmade namesake clothing from friends including a denim rhinestone cap and pants with “Trump Rumps” on the rear seat.

“I wanted to see what’s going on because not everyone is supportive where I go,” she said, explaining her long trip to Alaska.

While no protesters were evident during the early waiting hours, those in line compared stories of previous encounters such as when all the tires in a parking lot for supporters were slashed.

Flags, including one bannering profanity, fly in the morning breeze near the entrance of the Save America Rally at the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Flags, including one bannering profanity, fly in the morning breeze near the entrance of the Save America Rally at the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Flags, including one bannering profanity, fly in the morning breeze near the entrance of the Save America Rally at the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire) Flags, including one bannering profanity, fly in the morning breeze near the entrance of the Save America Rally at the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Many of the regulars call themselves “Front Row Joes” (yes, an interesting poetic everyman choice, give the name of their idol’s successor). Among those wearing attire with the group’s name was Mike Boatman, a southern Indiana resident, wearing a trademark red cap with different words, who said this is his 39th rally and 48th Trump event, and “he actually knows who we are because we’re always in the front.”

There’s no magic secret to that once the doors open, Boatman said.

“Get here early,” he said. “Sometimes we get here a couple of days early so we’re always at the front of the line.”

But for his Alaska trip, Boatman arrived Wednesday and chose to spend a bit of time sightseeing in Whittier and Alyeska.

But perhaps the biggest bragging rights for the Alaska group of “Joes” goes to Sandra Kiczenski, attending her 64th rally since Dec. 21, 2015. She wrote a book about her experiences and, in the inevitable exchange of phone photos among peers, she highlights one of her with Trump holding her book, taken during a paid fundraiser.

“I gladly paid $500 to ask if he read the book and if he liked it,” she said. “It was worth every penny.”

Kevin Kurka, a freelance Alaska journalist, takes a midmorning break on his motorcycle in the media parking lot at the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Kevin Kurka, a freelance Alaska journalist, takes a midmorning break on his motorcycle in the media parking lot at the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

While taking a glacier cruise before the Alaska rally was a novel experience in her prolific travels, Kiczenski said the most interesting rally was at The Villages in Florida, where didn’t have a front-row seat on purpose.

“I decided to go up in the bleachers to see the helicopter he was coming in,” she said. “There was sand and dust in your eyes, but you didn’t care because you wanted that picture.”

For less-devout visitors, the long wait offered other ways to pass the hours. Sitting on a curb working on a laptop computer was Trendon Dunn, a Utah resident doing marketing work for a company back home. But this summer he’s also working at a Kasilof resort with his wife, Ariah, lured first by the place for the season and subsequently by the event for the day.

“We honeymooned here last year,” Dunn said. “We’re thinking about moving here. We’ve got another year until we graduate.”

The couple is spending most of the summer fishing, and “my wife and I are helping out at a fishing lodge, helping them clean and give tours,” Dunn said, noting “she was never into politics until she started dating me.”

Mike Lindell, a pillow and political celebrity, greets an enthusiastic crowd outside the Alaska Airlines Arena a few hours before the afternoon’s Safe America Rally. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Mike Lindell, a pillow and political celebrity, greets an enthusiastic crowd outside the Alaska Airlines Arena a few hours before the afternoon’s Safe America Rally. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

No protesters were evident during the early waiting hours, but those in line compared stories of previous encounters such as when all the tires in a parking lot for supporters were slashed.

The mood among the early-goers mostly matched the tranquility of the partly cloudy dawn as the sun rose above a horizon of snow-capped mountains. But when television news crews started showing up at 6 a.m. the chants of familiar slogans began, which along with the trademark rally rock tunes and other sounds would gradually grow in volume during the coming hours. The non-nature sights also got more colorful, including flags with profane messages flapping in the breeze against the nearby area nameplate next to the main entrance.

By the time the official 6 a.m. waiting period arrived the line stretched well beyond the snaking rows of people in the parking lot to the sidewalk along the western side of the arena.

Among the standouts in a sea of merchandise paying tribute to the 45th president (and 11th past/present/former one to visit Alaska for more than a refueling stop), was Ryan Bates, 18, a Wasilla resident wearing a Reagan 80/84 T-shirt that he purchased the day before the rally.

“Trump’s great. Reagan’s my favorite,” he said.

Being so far back in line so early came as a surprise to Bates and the four family members he arrived with, but none seemed too discouraged about not being among the 5,000 allowed into the arena instead of being forced to watch it on a Jumbotron in the parking lot.

A line extending well beyond the snaking parking lot barriers gathers outside the Alaska Airlines Center early Saturday morning. Even those at the back of the line expressed optimism they’d be among the 5,000 allowed in the arena for the afternoon Save America rally. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A line extending well beyond the snaking parking lot barriers gathers outside the Alaska Airlines Center early Saturday morning. Even those at the back of the line expressed optimism they’d be among the 5,000 allowed in the arena for the afternoon Save America rally. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

“We’re a little worried about getting in, but we’re optimistic,” Nichole Griffiths, Bates’ mother.

Playing cards on a blanket about 100 yards behind the family was Lani North, a North Pole resident, along with her daughter Mara and friend Mary Lucero. They left home in an RV at 4:30 p.m. Friday, but as with others got kicked out of a nearby parking lot when they arrived at 11:30 p.m.

“We found another parking lot,” the mother said when asked where they spent the night.

Occupying prime real estate in the parking lot was a row of merchandise tents and tables, where Russell Taylor was bustling about doing retail work he normally has contractors do while he does management duties in his hometown north of Tampa, Florida. But the decision to come to Alaska was motivated by the prospect of seeing a special person – no, not that one — his sister Tabitiha Taylor, who lives in Fairbanks.

“We bought land when my mom was alive,” he said. “The goal was for everyone to come here to retire, six months here and six months there.”

Keychains that were among the smallest items at the tables were eye-catching for their “Made in China” labels, but Russell Taylor said most of his goods are made in the U.S., and his magnets and stickers ‘they’re 100% American-made and veteran-made.”

Trump pins with “Made in China” tags are displayed on a vendor table at the Save America Rally on Saturday. The manager of the merchandise says virtually everything else is made in the United States. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Trump pins with “Made in China” tags are displayed on a vendor table at the Save America Rally on Saturday. The manager of the merchandise says virtually everything else is made in the United States. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

As for his sister who found herself working for the first time as a souvenir seller at a rally, she said it’s a pretty good seasonal job.

“I have loved it,” she said. “The people are amazing. I’m just really proud of my brother and Mark for doing this. They’re very inspiring.”

That said, it’s hard work.

“It is and I think I’ve underappreciated him,” she said.

But strong as family ties may be, business opportunities at upcoming rallies are still pressing in these times of recovering from the COVID-19 downturn.

“We leave tonight at midnight,” he said. “But then I’ll come back in August.”

A couple of lines were notably shorter, for people with paid admission tickets and those volunteering.

Among those paying the minimum of $250 to ensure entry instead of settling for the first-come first-served admission for free tickets was Dawn Maness, a nurse in Seward. She said she left home at 12:15 a.m., arrived at the arena at 6 a.m. and slept in her car until about 8 a.m., all for a place in line about 50 yards from the VIP entrance for what she called a largely unprecedented event on a political scale.

“Alaska political rallies generally aren’t big events,” she said.

A surprising — and perhaps secret shortcut — existed at the volunteer line, since in addition to the more than 100 who’d already pre-registered they were taking on-the-spot new sign-ups (although a person staffing the table said the U.S. Secret Service would screen anyone volunteering inside).

He wasn’t complaining about that, but nonetheless did have an organizational gripe.

“I think they didn’t plan this as well as they should have,” he said. “They should have planned this in August when fishing is over.”

The arena doors finally opened to the public at 11:45 a.m. — well after the scheduled time, but two hours ahead of what turned out to be a delayed beginning of the rally.But after waiting outside for nearly seven hours the priority for those first inside wasn’t seeking out water, a restroom or food.

“Find a good spot,” Boatman said, who along with Kiczenski and plenty of their regulars did indeed end up again just in front of center stage. Joining them were a couple more Alaska first-timers, including Arnold Peyton of Wasilla who had by then acquired hours of rally street smarts.

“I’m following this guy because he knows where to go,” Peyton said.

Boatman said comforts such as cuisine could wait until afterward, since a hearty dinner is usually a part of the ritual. But as for finding a fitting place for a fitting Alaskan feast, it was time for the grizzled veterans to look to their new first-time local friends for tips.

“That’s a good question,” Boatman said, looking at Peyton. “We don’t know.”

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

(Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Arnold Peyton, a Wasilla resident, watches a new video about former President Donald Trump’s new in-progress plane on a screen inside the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday afternoon. Peyton was among the few managing to arrive early enough to get a space in the front row directly in front of the stage podium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Arnold Peyton, a Wasilla resident, watches a new video about former President Donald Trump’s new in-progress plane on a screen inside the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday afternoon. Peyton was among the few managing to arrive early enough to get a space in the front row directly in front of the stage podium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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