CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Vi Lyles, the Democratic mayor of the largest city in North Carolina, said championing a bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention was likely “the most difficult decision of my career.”
As word spread this week that Republicans have chosen Charlotte over other candidates, with a formal announcement due Friday, it’s almost certain the event will be one of the city’s biggest tests.
It promises to be more contentious than the 2012 Democratic National Convention in the city, when President Barack Obama was nominated for his second term in a time that — outwardly, at least — was less ferociously partisan. That gathering went off without a hitch and raised the city’s profile. The host mayor that year, Anthony Foxx, eventually went on to a post as secretary of Transportation in the Obama administration, even though the president barely lost the state he barely won in 2008.
Charlotte has always been anxious about its image and eager for a chance to be known without the “N.C.” following its name. In winning a prize most other U.S. cities said “no, thanks” to, the Queen City would join the short list that has hosted both Republican and Democratic conventions.
On Monday, more than a hundred speakers weighed in at a special meeting of the Charlotte City Council before a decision that many would have wanted to know more about weeks or months ago. Lyles, the city’s first African-American female mayor, said the majority of the 11-member council (nine Democrats and two Republicans) — which has a lot of power in the city’s council-manager form of government — had given her the go-ahead to explore a bid.
But as the possibility became more real, so did the obvious fact that this Republican convention will be different from those of the past because Donald Trump is different from most American presidents.
If anyone needed a reminder, Trump provided it by careening through his Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the press conference that followed as the Charlotte debate was in progress.
You can bet that was mentioned, as well as why a progressive (for the South, at least) Democratic city that has been battling control by a conservative Republican majority in the state legislature would invite Trump and the party that endorses his policies in for a visit.
With slightly more supporters than detractors allowed one minute each to speak Monday, many business leaders, hotel owners and cab drivers — along with Republican activists such as Kenny Smith, a former city council member and the GOP mayoral candidate defeated by Lyles — saw economic opportunity and a chance to welcome a range of viewpoints. Smith said Charlotte’s reputation would take a hit “for not keeping your word” if the council voted to take the city out of contention.
Those in opposition said their objection was not to all Republicans but to one in particular, and to those who would support his policies and pronouncements, such as separating children from parents at the border — an especially divisive issue in this diverse city — and finding false equivalency between neo-Nazis and the people protesting their message in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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Former city council member and North Carolina state senator Malcolm Graham said he came “as an American.” Graham, whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd was one of the nine parishioners killed in a hate crime at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, urged the council to vote “no.” It was “not about economic development,” he said, but about the “normalization of what’s not normal.”
Council member LaWana Mayfield, a Democrat, who was always against the RNC coming to Charlotte, said that while she had joined her GOP colleagues on some votes when it made sense, this time it did not. “I am still black, female, and gay,” she said. “There is nothing about this administration that tells me that I am wanted in my own country.”
In an earlier Charlotte Observer column on why she favored bringing the convention to the city, Lyles wrote, “While our country is at a tipping point of incivility, Charlotte is a place where we value diverse experiences and inclusive dialogue. The current political climate, with its divisive rhetoric and harmful policies, does not represent my values or the values of most Charlotteans. But if Charlotte is the site for the RNC, we can show that our city is about inclusion and leverage it as an opportunity to demonstrate our values of respect while honoring our differences.”
But recent clashes that have put the city and the state of North Carolina in the headlines — such as an infamous state bill passed in reaction to a Charlotte non-discrimination ordinance that said people could use the bathroom for the gender with which they identify — escalated over differences, and a question: When does inclusion of different opinions translate into exclusion of some citizens?
“Inclusivity without integrity,” one speaker called it at the hours-long debate I watched on a live broadcast.
Lyles has said that since she is not a Republican, she would not offer the traditional welcoming speech, a compromise that probably would please few on either side.
And while the 2012 convention featured tight but not oppressive security — along with, yes, police officers dancing as they directed traffic — many in Charlotte are concerned about security arrangements for the supporters and protesters that would be drawn to a Trump-centric convention. It was a concern for those who felt they might be in personal danger, and who remember protests that have torn cities (including this one) and past conventions apart. Scrutiny of contract and security details in any arrangement and liability for the city came up again and again.
No one wants a repeat of the scenes and events in Charlottesville, or of the Charlotte demonstrations, many peaceful and some that turned violent, such as after a police-involved shooting in 2016. There are predictable and unexpected tensions that could shake a city that likes to think it has everything under control.
Wild-card Trump would probably welcome the chance to stand in the same spot Obama once stood to accept the nomination, though we don’t know now where investigations and the economy will take the country in two years. With Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, both up for re-election in 2020, both parties surely see a chance to energize voters.
There is a reason the competition for the honor to host this particular convention has not been as fierce as most years. Las Vegas was named early on as another finalist, but its bid led by the Nevada GOP chair never had the support of the city government.
So it seems that this New South city in the Bible Belt is the one taking a gamble, with a close 6-5 council vote in favor of endorsing the bid eventually clearing the way. The payoff, though — being featured on the international and national stage and successfully pulling off a complicated, high-risk event — would definitely be a boost for a city that strives to be world-class.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.