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Jacksonville courts GOP convention, but some say it should stay away

Trump looks elsewhere after convention spat with North Carolina governor

Jacksonville courts GOP convention, but some say it should stay away
Jacksonville courts GOP convention, but some say it should stay away

RALEIGH, N.C. – As President Donald Trump seeks a new state to host the summer’ Republican National Convention, Mayor Lenny Curry continues to court Republican officials who are considering Jacksonville as an alternative site.

But not everyone is thrilled about the idea of bringing the convention to the River City.

Trump announced Tuesday night that the convention will be pulled from North Carolina because the state refused to guarantee the event could be held in Charlotte without public health restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

And on top of those same health concerns, some Jacksonville political leaders said drawing the attention of more protesters would be unwise.

“I think it makes it a powder keg for Jacksonville,” said Daniel Henry, chair of Duval County Democratic Party. “It would make Jacksonville the landing ground for every type of protest that may occur. I don’t think we’re ready for it.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis said his state could handle putting together plans for the convention over the next three months, and mentioned Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami as potential host cities.

Duval County has 18,00 hotel homes and of the eight hotels downtown and on the Southbank there are 2,361 rooms.

A traditional GOP convention brings together roughly 2,500 delegates, the same number of alternate delegates and many times more guests, journalists and security personnel.

On top of concerns about hotel space are worries over hurricane season still being in full swing in August, potential for a resurgence in coronavirus cases and public safety.

But Republican Party of Duval County chairman Dean Black said the city has proven it can handle those issues.

“Anyone that is saying we don’t want the convention here is not thinking about the best interests of Jacksonville citizens and they’re not thinking about the best interests of the Jacksonville business community either. It’s ridiculous,” Black said. “We have a demonstrated record of being able to live up to great challenges, whether they be back-to-back hurricanes, whether it be a COVID-19 pandemic, whether it be demonstrations or whether it be hosting the RNC convention or the Super Bowl or the Florida-Georgia game -- it is an absolute positive.”

His counterpart Henry, though, said hosting the convention in Jacksonville would be “irresponsible” and that he would say the same if it was the Democratic National Convention shopping for a new location.

“We are just getting off a pandemic. The idea that we are trying to fit 50,000 new people within the county and the surrounding area without doing the same precautions as North Carolina was asking for (would be irresponsible),” Henry said.

Officials in both parties have been preparing contingency plans for months given the uncertainty and dangers posed by the virus and evolving restrictions on large gatherings meant to slow the spread.

Trump's announcement came after a call with Cooper on Friday in which the president pressed his demands. When Trump "insisted on a full convention arena with no face coverings and no social distancing, the governor expressed concerns and suggested a scaled back event with fewer attendees,” Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner wrote in an email. “They agreed to continue talking about ways to have a safe convention in Charlotte.”

But Cooper made clear to Trump that those conditions would likely be impossible to accommodate. Cooper formalized that Tuesday in a letter to the RNC, before the Wednesday deadline set by the GOP for assurances from Cooper that he would allow a full-scale event in August.

Trump and the RNC had demanded that the August convention be allowed to move forward with a full crowd and that participants not have to wear face coverings. Those demands raised concerns in a state that is facing an upward trend in its coronavirus cases, with about 29,900 cumulative cases and 900 deaths as of Tuesday. About 700 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized, and Charlotte's Mecklenburg County has been a hot spot, with nearly 100 deaths.

“We have been committed to a safe RNC convention in North Carolina and it’s unfortunate they never agreed to scale down and make changes to keep people safe,” Cooper tweeted in response to Trump's announcement. “Protecting public health and safety during this pandemic is a priority.”

The RNC’s leader, Ronna McDaniel accused Cooper of “dragging his feet” on giving them guidance for proceeding with convention plans. While the party would like to hold its event in Charlotte, she said, "we have an obligation to our delegates and nominee to begin visiting the multiple cities and states” that have reached out to express interest in hosting.

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.