After a 3 1/2-hour debate, Charlotte City Council narrowly voted Monday to support hosting the 2020 Republican National Convention.
With their vote in favor of allowing the city manager to negotiate contracts with the Republican National Committee and the local host committee, city leaders expect to win the convention this week. The RNC site selection committee will make its decision at a vote in Austin, Texas.
The final City Council vote was 6-5. Council members debated whether Charlotte could host President Donald Trump without endorsing him and his administration’s controversial policies, but they ultimately decided that the potential benefits outweigh risks to the city.
More than 100 speakers who gave their opinion to City Council were passionate but mostly civil. However, the council debate showed how divided the city — like the nation — is, with a council member comparing Trump supporters to the KKK while others said the convention is Charlotte’s best chance to shine on the national stage.
Democrat Larken Egleston, who represents District 1, had been publicly undecided before the vote. He cast the deciding vote in favor of hosting the GOP.
“I will not combat the disappointing characteristics of this president by emulating them,” Egleston said. “Hosting the RNC in Charlotte in no way implies our endorsement of this president.”
The yes votes were Republicans Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari, and Democrats Egleston, Julie Eiselt, Greg Phipps and James Mitchell.
The no votes were Democrats Justin Harlow, Braxton Winston, Dimple Ajmera, LaWana Mayfield and Matt Newton.
“This president is dangerous,” said Harlow. “I’d no sooner bring Donald Trump to Charlotte . . . than I’d welcome a Klan rally to Charlotte.”
Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles, who championed the bid, said leading the effort was “the most difficult decision of my career.”
After the meeting, she reaffirmed her earlier position that she would not give a welcoming address. It’s common practice for a host city mayor to welcome delegates, even of the opposing party.
She said after the meeting she would fly to Austin this week if Charlotte wins the convention.
Several RNC members and other Republicans heading to Austin for the committee’s summer meeting, which runs Wednesday to Friday, shrugged off the dissent before the vote. They said the momentum continued to be with Charlotte, though they cautioned that nothing is yet a done deal.
“I think that’s just a lot of people that like to stir up something that’s not there,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa, speaking broadly about the prospect of Democratic pushback.
After the council vote, one RNC member familiar with the site selection process said: “I am personally pleased and look forward to advocating to fellow RNC members that we hold our 2020 convention in Charlotte.”
The official was granted anonymity in order to share internal thinking, upon hearing the news of the City Council vote.
Mark Brody, one of North Carolina’s two members of the Republican National Committee, watched the hearing from the lobby of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
Asked if he was concerned about the calls to not have the convention, he said, “To the extent I’m concerned, there’s much more vitriol against the Republicans than we saw in Cleveland (in 2016).”
Las Vegas, the only other location officially still in the running, doesn’t have the backing of the city or tourism officials there for its bid. The chairman of the Nevada GOP, Michael McDonald, has been pushing for Las Vegas to host the convention.
“Why aren’t other cities clamoring for this?” asked Charlotte speaker Naomi Brezi, who opposes the convention.
Supporters said the convention would boost Charlotte’s image and help the local economy, especially hospitality workers. They also said the city could show it’s inclusive.
“Democracy is bigger than one president or one party,” said Phipps, in explaining his yes vote.
Driggs said it would set a dangerous precedent for the city to reject the RNC because of the president.
“At a difficult time, we need to respect those institutions,” he said.
Others said that they would be OK with supporting another RNC but couldn’t stomach hosting the likely renomination of Trump.
“I don’t see him as a Republican, I see him as a human avatar of white supremacy,” Winston said.
Mayfield said the economic boost wouldn’t be worth it.
“You have to realize at some point that blood money is no good,” she said. “I’m still black, female and gay. There is nothing about this administration that tells me I’m wanted in my own country.”
Speakers before the vote were almost evenly split. Opponents said they were incredulous that a Democratic mayor and 9-2 majority on City Council would welcome the Republican Party’s convention.
They pointed to Trump administration policies, such as separating families at the southern border with Mexico, and said the convention would risk drawing major protests and civil unrest, potentially canceling out any economic benefits.
Those who spoke in favor of the convention — including hotel owners, Republican activists and taxi cab owners — emphasized the expected boost to local business the convention would bring.
The speakers ranged from local politicians and activists to business owners.
Former City Council member Kenny Smith urged council members to support the convention.
“A no vote does not hurt or impact the president,” he said. He said a no vote would cause “self-induced reputational harm for not keeping your word.”
Hotel owner Vinay Patel said council members should support the GOP, which he said would boost the city’s hospitality industry.
“I ask you to commit to being an inclusive city,” he said.
Malcolm Graham, a former Democratic City Council member, said before the meeting that the city “has a moral obligation to say no” to the RNC.
Graham, who also had served in the state Senate, said a vote for hosting the GOP “equates to silence.”
Democratic activist Ray McKinnon, a pastor, said he’s opposed to the city receiving a federal security grant for the convention because it would lead to what he said is an “over-militarization” of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.
“We didn’t vote for Democrats so they could roll over,” he said. “It’s time to say no to the bullies.”
He also warned Democrats who vote for the convention that they could face primary challenges in the next city elections.
“If they don’t say no . . . there’s an election upcoming, and we will say no,” McKinnon said. “That’s a reality check.”
A smaller group of demonstrators in red “Make America Great Again” hats gathered outside the Government Center. Inside, some pro-RNC signs were visible, including one in Spanish that read “Yo Quiero RNC 2020 in CLT.”
After the vote, Republicans applauded City Council.
“We are appreciative of the mayor and City Council’s effort and their vote,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP. “We have no way of knowing exactly what will happen in Austin, but this was obviously a necessary step.”
DNC in 2012
When Charlotte was awarded the 2012 Democratic National Convention in January 2011, there was no controversy.
Council members and then-Mayor Anthony Foxx were holding a budget retreat at Johnson C. Smith University when they heard they had won. They briefly celebrated, then voted unanimously in favor of hosting. The council’s three Republicans voted to bring the DNC to Charlotte.
The 2012 Democratic National Convention injected $91 million in new spending into the local economy, for a total economic impact of nearly $164 million, according to a consultant’s report released in 2013.
The three-day DNC was the city’s largest convention and its most lucrative, local leaders said. More than one in five dollars poured into the local economy came from the federal government, through a security grant.
Staff writers Hannah Lang, Julianna Rennie and Jim Morrill contributed.