The 2020 Republican National Convention kicks off in Charlotte in a year, bringing the presidential race — and the president — to a battleground state and a wary city.
The convention will bring in 50,000 people, offer an economic bonanza of $200 million and give an image-conscious city a global spotlight.
Like the Democratic National Convention in 2012, it also will snarl traffic, inconvenience uptown workers and draw protesters from across the country.
The convention, from Aug. 24-27, 2020, will be the city’s second in eight years, something few cities can boast. When it’s over, Charlotte will have been the site where two of the 21st Century’s three presidents — Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 and Republican Donald Trump in 2020 — were nominated for second terms.
Officials say preparations are well ahead of schedule. Local organizers say they’re on their way to raising the $75 million and recruiting the 8,000 volunteers they need.
“We’re in great shape,” said host committee CEO John Lassiter.
But the convention will come to a city anxious over the possibility of violent protests and whose Democratic-controlled council last month voted to “strongly condemn” Trump’s “racist and xenophobic comments,” as well as chants of “Send Her Back” at a Trump rally in Greenville.
“I am leery,” said council member James Mitchell, a Democrat who supported bringing the convention to Charlotte. “My frustration is (that) the more this type of divisive rhetoric is displayed it’s going to put more pressure on us to . . . deal with protesters when they come. This is not what I signed up for.”
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat, said, “The president has had a way…to just really create a lot of turmoil, and I don’t want to see that in Charlotte.”
National Republican officials have avoided jumping into the controversy, refusing to answer questions about the council vote. They have continued to praise Mayor Vi Lyles and other city officials.
But the convention will reflect a polarized country and a president whose disapproval exceeded his approval rating by almost 11 points this week, according to Real Clear Politics, though he’s faring better in North Carolina.
“The big questions are issues out of Charlotte’s control,” said political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College. “If the president continues (his) base-only strategy, does the rhetoric get even more aggressive in terms of alienating persons of color or going after immigrants?. . . I don’t see any attempt to reconcile a great divide that typically presidential candidates try to do.”
As in 2012, security for the convention will be tight.
Officials say they don’t know what the the exact boundaries of the security zone around the Spectrum Center will be. And they offer few other details of security plans that will involve the police, FBI and Secret Service.
“There is a tremendous amount of advance planning and coordination in the areas of venue security, air space security, training, communications, and credentialing,” said Rob Tufano, a spokesman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.
Unlike 2012, officials will have to deal with a resurgence of white nationalist groups as well as the left-wing antifa movement, both of whom collided this month in Portland, Oregon. Adams said while she’s concerned, “I’m also very confident in our police department to provide security.”
Ron Kaufman, an official of the Republican National Committee and the man who led the process that ended with Charlotte’s selection, said, “Every city this day and age has to worry about security, unfortunately.
“Of course you’re concerned,” he added, “but I have great faith in the city and the citizens of Charlotte to handle the convention in a positive way so people get to have their say and have decorum.”
Ed Driggs, one of the city council’s two Republicans, said officials acknowledge the “tumultuous” times. He said he believes critics conflate their opinion of the president with their feelings of the upcoming convention.
“In my mind we should not let our feelings about a person influence Charlotte’s pursuit of an event like a national political convention,” he said. “I’m expecting that it will be noisy. I’m very hopeful that we will not see any violence.”
Security aside, boosters are looking at the benefits of the convention.
“This is an opportunity for Charlotte to differentiate itself as a center of influence and to expand the world’s understanding Charlotte as a destination and as a leader in commerce,” said Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners. “This is a unique opportunity for all the economic development agencies and the city and the county to all work together.”
In many ways it will be a different city that welcomes convention-goers.
Uptown counts 125,000 workers, a quarter more than in 2012, according to Smith. The number of hotel rooms will have risen from 4,400 to 7,300. The number of uptown residents has grown from under 18,000 to almost 21,000.
The city has new amenities such as BB&T Ballpark, Romare Bearden Park and an expanded light rail in addition to at least 22 rooftop terraces. Lassiter said the host committee is recruiting volunteers “with a smile and a welcoming spirit” to greet visitors at the airport, hotels and elsewhere.
Beside raising money, the host committee is securing venues, hotels and getting volunteers. Its staff is growing and will be about two dozen by the convention. The Republican Party’s convention staff also is expanding.
It’s led by Marcia Lee Kelly, a first-generation Korean American who has worked on three GOP conventions. Her staff is working on the logistics of the convention including arrangements for an expected 15,000 journalists. Organizers also are planning community projects and have been doing monthly events with nonprofits. In coming months, they plan to hold events like media walk-throughs of Spectrum Arena.
Democrat Larken Egleston voted with the 6-5 city council majority to bring the convention to town. Some Democrats are still critical of the decision.
“It’s a futile exercise to play games of ‘What if?’” he said. “We voted the way we voted. We’re going to be as prepared as we can be. We’ll do the best we can to be prepared and make it sure goes safely and smoothly.”