Opinion

Is a blue city in a purple state having second thoughts about hosting a red convention?

Charlotte, site of 2020 GOP convention, condemns Trump’s “racist and xenophobic comments”

Charlotte saw green, not red or blue, when it bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention, Curtis writes. Now leaders and residents are having second thoughts. Above, Republicans celebrate their 2016 convention in Cleveland. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the Democratic National Convention hit town in 2012, the dancing traffic cop made headlines for his smooth moves and entertaining approach to law enforcement. The officer captured the party atmosphere of that event, leading up to the renomination of no-drama President Barack Obama for a second term.

City leaders and residents now look back at that time with nostalgia as they prepare for the Republican National Convention coming to town from Aug. 24-27 next year to renominate a president who is all drama, all the time — as chants of “Send her back” at a Trump rally in Greenville, North Carolina, earlier this month have reminded everyone of exactly what’s at stake.

Anticipating the economic and related benefits for the city after it was chosen by the GOP last year, Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO Tom Murray said, “Charlotte has the collaboration, infrastructure and hospitality that will make the 2020 RNC an unforgettable experience for its attendees.”

Now, some are worrying about just how unforgettable the experience will be.

On Monday, the Charlotte City Council approved a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s “racist and xenophobic comments” and behavior that included but was not limited to his attacks on four freshman House members, all women of color and U.S. citizens, telling them to “go back” to where they came from and culminating in those rally chants in Greenville aimed at one of them, Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar.

The resolution revisited a few of the president’s greatest hits — his characterization of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville as “very fine people” and his vulgar descriptions of asylum seekers in general and immigrants from African countries, in particular. Leading with support for the resolution was Democratic Council Member Justin Harlow, one of last year’s “no” votes on the close 6-5 decision to bring the convention to Charlotte.

The 9-2 vote, not coincidentally, reflected the 9-2 Democratic majority on the council. The two Republicans, in a split reflecting nationwide partisanship, voted against it, decrying the rhetoric of both sides. Reactions from North Carolina Republicans present in Greenville, including Sen. Thom Tillis who is up for reelection next year, varied. Tillis ducked the question and blamed the crowd. Rep. Mark Walker feared the language could define the GOP. State Sen. Dan Bishop, the GOP nominee for September’s special election in the 9th District, supported the president all the way, while his opponent, Democratic Marine veteran Dan McCready, condemned Trump’s remarks.

A question of values

Monday’s Charlotte City Council resolution was an effort by leaders to separate the city’s values from any red-meat division Trump or the GOP might stoke during and leading up to their week in the majority-minority city. Last month, the city adopted a compact on immigration, declaring Charlotte “committed to advocating for common-sense and comprehensive immigration reforms that strengthen our economy and attract talent and business to our city.”

While North Carolina voted for Trump in 2016, it was by less than 4 points, and like many states across the country, the urban-rural divide here is stark.

Vi Lyles, Charlotte’s first female African American mayor, said after Greenville: “The behavior didn’t demonstrate the values of our country and added fuel to already tense political and racial relations. It also certainly … didn’t represent the people of Charlotte. As an inclusive city that welcomes all people, we open our doors to many, including those attending the 2020 RNC. However, the city of Charlotte is no place for racist or xenophobic hate speech, and we simply will not tolerate it.”

From the start, the choice to bid on the GOP convention was controversial. Not many other cities showed interest. At the end of the process, there was Las Vegas, whose bid was neither backed by the city nor the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority. And then there was … well, that was about it.

You could see why Charlotte wanted host duties though. The city that’s good-naturedly mocked by its own for its desire to be “world class” could not resist the chance to join the short list of cities that have welcomed both Democratic and Republican conventions. Imagine being included in the company of New York, Miami and other cities that have long since dropped state abbreviations after their names.

In public hearings, business people on both sides of the aisle saw green rather than red or blue.

Lyles, who enjoys broad support in the city but has faced criticism over her support for bringing in the RNC, has said she would not make a welcoming speech. Under the city’s council-manager form of government, the council’s approval was key, and the close vote illustrated the mixed feelings about the good and bad attention, as well as protesters and counterprotesters the event would attract.

Keeping a distance

For its part, East Carolina University, site of the Greenville rally, has been distancing itself from the chants, explaining that it did not “sponsor, host or endorse” the rally. Presidential candidates of both parties have used its coliseum for gatherings. Hillary Clinton handily carried Pitt County, home of the university, in 2016. More than a third of its residents are African American, though you wouldn’t have known it from the crowd who came to see and hear the president.

Some in Charlotte are having second thoughts about RNC 2020, including former City Council Member Billy Maddalon, who wrote in a column in The Charlotte Observer that while he initially backed Lyles’ decision to pursue the convention, he has since changed his mind.

“Charlotte is an open and welcoming city, but good God almighty, we’re about to let the devil in the door,” he wrote. “Because of the silence and outright support of an entire party, it now appears RNC stands for nothing more than the Racist National Convention.”

Malcolm Graham, a former state senator and city council member whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd was murdered in the racist shooting at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, told Charlotte WB affiliate WCCB, “It’s never too late to take a stand against racism, hatred and bigotry.”

If this is happening one year out, it’s a sure thing that Trump will do and say something else, his supporters and opponents will react — and, no matter what, the convention will proceed as planned in Charlotte.

While the optics may be awkward, the city attorney has determined the deal is too far along to do anything but prepare for it, and hope that a dancing policeman is the least of Charlotte’s concerns come August 2020.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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