Politics & Government

Why did council Democrats wait to oppose RNC? An inside look at Charlotte’s bid.

Weeks after being sworn in as a new Charlotte City Council member in early December, Democrat Justin Harlow received a phone call from Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles.

Her question: What do you think about hosting the 2020 Republican National Convention?

“I was like, ‘OK, that sounds like a decent opportunity,’” Harlow said.

Harlow said this week he didn’t think much about the idea of bidding, believing there would be time later to debate the merits of hosting.

Mayor Vi Lyles has scheduled a special meeting at 2 p.m. Monday to debate and vote on hosting the convention. As of 4 p.m. Friday, 126 people had signed up to speak on hosting the GOP.

Harlow recently said he will vote no on bringing the convention to Charlotte — an announcement that further fueled an intense debate among Democrats and independents about hosting the RNC.

He said he and other council members should have pressed for more information earlier, and should have considered how local Democrats would react to bringing President Donald Trump to Charlotte.

“We didn’t (fully vet) it the way we could have or should have,” Harlow said Thursday. “But we also didn’t get great briefings on it either.”

On Wednesday night, Lyles spoke to the Democratic Women of Mecklenburg County, who questioned her about her leadership role in pursuing the GOP convention.

During her speech, the mayor said hosting the convention would show the world that Charlotte is inclusive and welcomes all political viewpoints.

But in speaking to skeptical activists, Lyles said later she would not personally welcome the GOP.

“There will be no welcome address by the mayor,” Lyles said.

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Having a host mayor snub a political convention would be highly unusual — and a sign of how hosting the GOP has divided local Democrats. In at least the last 12 major political conventions to 1996, host mayors have welcomed delegates from the convention stage, even when they were of different political parties.

Business leaders, a key part of the city’s bid, believe it will help the city’s economy and raise its profile. Trump supporters say they are excited about the president coming to Charlotte. Republicans also said Democrats should support the bid, because the GOP backed the city’s hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

Democrats who initially supported the convention or didn’t oppose it now say the city needed to do more outreach. Other Democrats are saying it’s too late to back out now.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the issue, several business and political leaders involved in the effort declined to comment publicly for a story.

Charlottean Hugh McColl Jr., a Democrat and former Bank of America CEO, was not involved with the city’s bid. But he is still active in local politics, supporting council members like Democrats Dimple Ajmera and Braxton Winston.

“If we have invited them and they have accepted, then we should honor our invitation,” McColl said.

He added that it would “be a serious mistake” to reject the convention now.

A majority of council members — at least six people — are expected to vote yes. But growing opposition has caused the city to attempt to mollify the GOP, in accepting the convention Monday before winning it.

The only other city bidding is Las Vegas. The Las Vegas bid does not have the backing of the city or tourism officials there, and it also doesn’t have a site lined up.

The Republican National Committee is expected to formally award the convention at its summer meeting in Austin next week, according to city officials and state GOP leaders.

“All indications are Charlotte is the leading candidate and people connected to the process believe it is coming, but that is not finalized,” a Republican official familiar with the proceedings told McClatchy. The official was not authorized to talk about the private discussions on the record.

In this July 21, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses delegates during the final day session of the Republican national convention in Cleveland. A small group of Charlotte officials are planning to attend the RNC's summer meeting in Austin, Texas, in July, where they expect the RNC will name the winning city for the 2020 convention. Patrick Semansky AP file

Few objections, at first

Looking back, two things are clear about the city’s efforts to win the convention.

One is that almost all Democrats on City Council gave their tacit approval for hosting, at least initially, Lyles and council members say. The second is that the Republican National Committee convinced city and business leaders that competition was fierce, even when it appears Charlotte was the only city to present a serious bid, according to interviews with numerous officials over the past four months.

Local leaders believed they were one of a handful of interested cities, but no other city expressed public interest in hosting.

A Republican official in Nevada touted Las Vegas as a host city, but the city of Las Vegas is not part of the bid.

It appears Charlotte was competing against itself.

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The Republican National Committee sent the city’s mayor’s office a letter on Dec. 8, asking Charlotte to bid. The letter was addressed to Jennifer Roberts, even though Lyles had been sworn in days earlier.

(Roberts recently said she opposes bringing the RNC to the city.)

Soon after that letter was sent, Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority chief executive Tom Murray asked Lyles whether the city should bid.

The mayor’s response: Absolutely.

Lyles then began meeting with council members individually. She asked them what they thought about hosting. All except Democrat LaWana Mayfield said the city should pursue a bid, Lyles said.

“I said to City Council, ‘Is this something we should do?’” Lyles told Democrats on Wednesday. “One person said, ‘Nah I’m not into that.’ Ten people said, ‘Yes, let’s move forward.’ “

Republican council member Ed Driggs was also a key player, acting as a liaison between the city and Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and other Republicans. He also spoke to his colleagues on council.

“The opportunity to say something (among council) came and went,” Driggs said. “The email traffic (from residents) was small. It looked like we were moving toward an easy decision. We felt that on balance this was worth it.”

Lyles said she then began speaking with the city’s large corporations about whether they would be willing to handle the extra security and street closures during the convention.

“They all said yes,” Lyles said. “With that mandate, we began to put together a bid.”

Winston, the at-large council member, also said he didn’t object when he spoke with Lyles. He touched off second-guessing about the convention with a video he made earlier this month that questioned whether the city should “host a celebration for a brand of politics that has been highly divisive and some would say dangerous to our community.”

Driggs has asked why Winston didn’t question the bid much earlier. Winston told WFAE he was focused on the city budget during that period.

When the city announced in February it was bidding, Ajmera said she would be “looking forward to showing our southern hospitality.” Months earlier, Ajmera had blasted Trump voters, saying they should have no place on City Council or in the mayor’s race.

Ajmera said on Friday she will vote against the convention. She said she is worried taxpayers could be at risk.

Republican Tariq Bokhari said the proposed contracts for the convention protect taxpayers, and that Ajmera is mistaken. The city declined to release the contracts Friday, saying they are not public records under state law.

Harlow said he was troubled by the Trump administration’s decision to separate families at the border. That policy influenced his decision to reject the convention, he said.

Republican political consultant Larry Shaheen said he believes Democrats never thought they would win the convention.

“I’m sure there were a lot of folks who said, ‘They aren’t coming here,’” Shaheen said. “Then it was, ‘Oh my gosh, they might be coming.’ Then it was, ‘Oh they are coming here!”

Shaheen said he doesn’t think opposition is widespread. But Democratic Party activists are threatening the council members with primary opponents next year if they support the RNC, he said.

“I dare City Council to turn this down,” he said. “Nothing would energize our candidates and our voters than having the Charlotte City Council very rudely reject an opportunity for $160 million economic impact.”

Only one other bid

Early in the bidding process, there were signs that Charlotte was alone.

The RNC extended the Feb. 28 bid deadline. There were no news stories about other cities bidding, which is unusual for political conventions.

But Charlotte officials, in speaking with the state and national Republicans, were convinced the competition for the convention was fierce. The officials said the GOP told them several cities were bidding, including cities in hot climates.

That could have been a reference to Las Vegas, which made a late bid that didn’t have the support of the city or tourism officials.

It also could have been about San Antonio. A 2016 Trump campaign official with Texas ties mounted a public campaign for San Antonio to bid. The City Council there said no after Hispanic activists objected to hosting.

Some council members believe it’s too late to back down now, after five months of pursuing the convention.

Former council member Patsy Kinsey, a Democrat, said council members always have the right to vote no, no matter how many meetings they have had on an issue.

“It’s not over until you vote,” Kinsey said this week. “You can always say no, anytime.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs