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First Coast

Duval GOP Chair Says Jax Is ‘Best City’ To Host RNC; Petition Organizer Disagrees

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BILL BORTZFIELD / WJCT NEWS
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Local GOP leaders are lobbying to bring the Republican National Convention to Downtown Jacksonville.

The head of Duval County’s Republican party says Jacksonville has an “excellent chance” of landing the GOP’s national nominating convention in August.

“We think that Jacksonville is clearly the best city in the entire country to host this convention for a number of reasons,” said Duval GOP party chair Dean Black Thursday on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.

President Donald Trump has been threatening to pull the Republican National Convention out of Charlotte, N.C. because that state’s governor, a Democrat, wouldn’t permit a full capacity gathering due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

In turn, the Republican Party of Duval County has renewed its call to bring the convention here.

Black said the COVID transmission rate in Jacksonville has been “remarkably low,” adding, “It's been an exemplary model really for other states and other nations even around the world.” 

 
 
He said the city’s leadership has been very responsible in its COVID-19 response. “But more than that, Jacksonville has the capacity to do it. We also have a demonstrated ability to have peaceful protests. And unfortunately, that's a consideration these days. We also have uniform, unified Republican governance and a welcoming business community and a downtown that's second to none.”

Black’s sentiments echoed those of both Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, who led the pitch to bring the convention to Jacksonville shortly after Trump originally threatened on Memorial Day to pull the convention out of Charlotte. He suggested hosting the convention at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Downtown Jacksonville, calling it a "world class" facility, and reiterated his interest earlier this week, Tweeting: 

When asked about the convention during a Thursday news conference, Curry said: "We can put on events in our city that some may disagree with. And we can do it peacefully and create jobs and an economic boom.” He also addressed concerns surrounding COVID-19 and the protests:

“We've got to get back to business in our city. We've just had an entire economy shut down because of a global pandemic. And anything you do in life, there's risk, there are no certainties. But we've demonstrated the ability in the city over a number of years to host events and move forward responsibly.” 

Curry said security protocols would also be in place if Jacksonville is selected.

Related: Curry Says Work On Closing Gap On Racial, Economic Disparities 'Isn't Something New'

“I'm not going to make economic decisions for this community out of fear. If we were doing that, heck, we probably would all still be in our homes right now, because COVID-19 is still with us. So we've got to make responsible decisions. And make sure that the safety and security of our people are first and that's what we've done,” the mayor said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who  has previously expressed support for moving the convention to Florida, reiterated his support Wednesday, citing Jacksonville, along with Orlando and Miami, as potential host sites. 

When asked about the logistics of putting such a massive event together in such a short period of time, Black said: “We have a demonstrated record under this mayor's administration of dealing with great enterprises with limited notice, we've been through two hurricanes COVID-19 We've had protests. And every time we deal with it in a responsible manner.”

Related: Listen to the full GOP RNC segment on Thursday's First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross

Ross noted that the critics of the plan are concerned that it could draw large and globally watched protesters from all over the world to Jacksonville, and that the economic benefits might be outweighed by the negative attention, to which Black responded:

“Melissa, that is patently ridiculous. Of course, we want to be able to host the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville. It will be the largest thing to happen to our city since the Superbowl. We could very much use the $100 million impact at a time when our businesses very much need it, absolutely we should want to host this,” Black said, adding it would be a great opportunity to showcase the city. 

Black added going after the convention shouldn’t be a partisan consideration. “Everyone who cares about and loves Jacksonville should want this for our city's sake.”

Jacksonville resident Richard Borders started a petition against bringing the Republican Convention to Jacksonville. 

The petition, which went live Wednesday, had close to 2,900 signatures at the time of this story’s publication. 

He believes that the convention would draw the largest protests in the history of this country, because it is currently so divided, and also appeared on Thursday’s First Coast Connect: “I agree with Dean that this is an incredible city. I agree that our mayor and our sheriff work very hard and do so much work and handle so many events at once...But the one thing that I don't agree with him is that I was around in 1968. I wound up having to sound for protests and saw riots and got in the middle of riots.” Borders was an audio technician at the time and has also previously worked for WJCT.

He said if the Republican National Convention (RNC) comes to Jacksonville it will go far beyond what the city has seen recently. “If you're bringing people from all over the country and world off of, not only one philosophy of Black Lives Matter, but many philosophies of both parties. It's a perfect storm for conflict.”

Borders doesn’t think the 2020 RNC is worth the risk.

“There is no assurance that giant crowds can be controlled. We had trouble with a small crowd, like I said, vocally controlling it, once it got out of hand. And stores were damaged, there were losses, but it was limited,” he said. Border also expressed concern that holding the RNC in Jacksonville could spread COVID-19.

The subject generated a lot of emails, social media comments and calls, both for and against hosting the RNC. 

Among the First Coast Connect callers was Nell Toensmann, who chairs the St. Johns County Democratic Party, who expressed concern about spreading COVID-19.

“There is a big concern for the health issues, we still need to be careful, we still need to watch what's happening,” she said, adding,  “I think that everybody needs to consider the scientific aspect of this. So that we need to know where we stand. I mean, North Carolina, the numbers are still going up.”

Related: Local, State, And National Coronavirus Coverage

When asked what he plans to do with the signatures he collects, Borders said he thinks there should be a public forum before a final decision is made. 

“I would hope that the mayor's office or the council would have some kind of vote on this. This should not be an individual decision. It should be a public decision. And I would hope then, to submit that as something that I will send it to the mayor's office. I just want to do whatever I can to keep the city safe. I love the city.”

In addition to Orlando and Miami, other cities being considered to host the convention include Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans Las Vegas, Dallas, New Orleans and Phoenix.

Heather Schatz can be reached at hschatz@wjct.org or on Twitter at @heatherschatz.