National News

Charlotte Reluctantly Says It’s Willing to Host Republican National Convention

Through hours of public debate and a razor-close council vote on Monday, Charlotte, North Carolina, a city that prides itself on being a beacon of progress in the South, grappled with how to live up to its values. Should it be a haven for free speech and diverse ideas, or take a stand against a strain of politics that many residents bitterly oppose?

Posted Updated

Through hours of public debate and a razor-close council vote on Monday, Charlotte, North Carolina, a city that prides itself on being a beacon of progress in the South, grappled with how to live up to its values. Should it be a haven for free speech and diverse ideas, or take a stand against a strain of politics that many residents bitterly oppose?

At issue: whether to host the Republican National Convention in 2020.

To civic boosters and business leaders in a striving city, a political convention can look like a golden ticket, promising crammed restaurants, booked-out hotels and, perhaps most important, several days in the global spotlight.

But the leaders of North Carolina’s largest city found on Monday that they and their constituents were sharply divided on whether Charlotte ought to host this particular convention, which will presumably decide whether to nominate President Donald Trump for re-election.

The reluctance had little to do with the complex logistical and security challenges surrounding a convention, or any doubts about whether Charlotte was capable of meeting them. It was mostly about whether a Democratic-leaning city with a carefully cultivated reputation wanted to associate itself with what Trump and many in his party now stand for.

“I’d no sooner bring Donald Trump and the RNC to Charlotte, to the home that I chose and love, where my wife and I are raising our black son, any sooner than I would support a Klan rally in this city,” said Justin Harlow, a Democratic member of the City Council.

Mayor Vi Lyles, a Democrat who championed the city’s convention bid, insisted that “hosting the RNC is not an endorsement of the administration,” and argued that holding the gathering in Charlotte would offer “an opportunity to share the values that this city believes in — through peaceful protest.”

The mayor and other city leaders have been jockeying for months to win the convention, which would come eight years after Democrats gathered in the city to nominate President Barack Obama for a second term. Many political and business leaders argued that being chosen for 2020 would be vital to Charlotte’s continuing emergence as a leading American city, a point they made repeatedly on Monday.

“Denying the RNC the opportunity sends the same message of exclusion and divisiveness — we don’t want you because we don’t agree with you — that we’re all trying to eliminate not only in Charlotte, but across the country and the world,” said Vinay Patel, a Charlotte hotelier.

The Republican Party has not yet voted to award the 2020 convention to Charlotte, but it may do so this week during a meeting in Austin, Texas. The only other contender appears to be Las Vegas, whose bid was put forward without the support of the local government.

The Charlotte City Council’s meeting Monday was held to vote on certain contracts connected with its bid, and it was intended to signal to the Republicans that they would be welcome in North Carolina. The party may not have received much reassurance, though: The vote in favor was just 6-5. The Republican National Committee did not respond to requests for comment Monday, but Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, welcomed the outcome of Monday’s vote, tight as it was, and predicted that “delegates will have a great time and see a great city.”

“Any big city that’s going to host a convention is going to have some debate,” Woodhouse said. “The fact is — it’s just a reality — that more of the big cities in America are governed by Democrats.”

The public comment period before the vote brought an outpouring of arguments. Nearly 100 people spoke, slightly more than half in support of the city’s bid.

Many of the supporters emphasized the economic rewards from a national convention, an argument with particular appeal in a city that once advertised itself as “a good place to make money.” Others argued that Charlotte, a city of about 860,000 people that has elected both Democrats and Republicans to citywide office in recent years, had an obligation to remain a marketplace for political debate.

The fact that Trump would be the expected star of the show was no reason, they argued, to pass up millions of dollars in business and priceless publicity.

Charlotte’s generally favorable weather, well-connected airport and glimmering city center have helped it build a reputation as a reliably sturdy site for major gatherings, leaving some city leaders stunned by the heated opposition to hosting the convention.

“A ‘no’ vote does not hurt nor impact the president,” Kenny Smith, a Republican former member of the City Council, warned during the meeting Monday. “It only hurts the city you have sworn to represent, both in terms of substantial lost economic opportunity and, more importantly, self-induced reputational harm for not keeping your word.”

But the council heard from nearly as many opponents as supporters.

“Far too many people have chosen to excuse or overlook this dangerous campaign, because doing so gets them things they want: Supreme Court justices, tax cuts, power,” Pamela Grundy said of Trump and his policies since taking office. “We in Charlotte are now faced with the same choice, the same opportunity to demonstrate where our priorities truly lie. We must refuse.

“Republicans have a place in our city like everyone else,” she said. “The 2020 Republican National Convention does not.”

The comment period remained notably civil, though it was laced with vehement opinions from the outset. “It is time for us to stand up, and against the oppressive, the xenophobic, the hateful that is this nation,” said Ray McKinnon, the afternoon’s first speaker.

Democrats have narrowed their list of 2020 convention candidates to Houston, Miami Beach and Milwaukee, and appear to have run into less resistance than Republicans have in Charlotte.

Harlow, the city councilman, said it was “important to ask why no other local government in America is bidding on this convention.”

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many cities have grown wary of hosting national conventions, with the security demands they entail. But the reservations about the 2020 Republican convention have been particularly pointed, in part because of the likelihood of large street protests against Trump. Pat McCrory, a Republican who was Charlotte’s mayor for 14 years, said left-wing activists were to blame for any difficulties the party has in arranging a convention site.

“I think there’s a great deal of political pressure from the fringes, from the far left of the Democratic Party, to show absolutely no cooperation with the Republican Party and our president,” McCrory, also a former governor of North Carolina, said in an interview after the vote. “Any sign of support can be seen as a political suicide from the political left wing.”

On Monday, though, four Charlotte Democrats on the council voted along with the two Republican members to support holding the Republican convention in their city.

“It just feels like we’re constantly fighting over toll roads, over nondiscrimination ordinances, over Black Lives Matter, over immigrants’ rights, over a lot of things, and I know that we’ll continue to have fights,” said Julie Eiselt, the mayor pro tem. “But the only time we move forward, like we’ve seen with housing, is when we say, ‘Let’s work together.'”