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Thanks to Trump, Jacksonville Becomes Political Roadkill

2020-07-25 07:00:08

MIAMI — For Jacksonville, it wasn’t all that fun while it lasted.

Over 43 long days, Florida’s largest city insisted it could play host to the Republican National Convention in the middle of a pandemic.

Republicans bowed out of Charlotte, N.C., the previous host city, after the state’s Democratic governor insisted that the convention would follow health protocols Mr. Trump resisted. Public health experts in Florida and elsewhere warned the city against mass gatherings. The people of Jacksonville expressed skepticism that the city should take on a shotgun political convention.

Mayor Lenny Curry, a Republican, grabbed the hot potato anyway. And on Thursday, he got burned.

Jacksonville’s brief time as a convention city ended ignominiously when President Trump, facing mounting pressure by local and party officials concerned about the virus surge, on Thursday abruptly called off the event in his adopted home state. What might have been a rare moment in the sun for Jacksonville, a city often eclipsed by Atlanta and its Florida counterparts, went poof.

“It has a place near and dear to my heart, but the ‘first coast’ has always been very much the last coast in Florida politics and culture,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida political strategist and former Republican who grew up in Gainesville, about 70 miles away. “They strive mightily and frequently come up short — and this would be another example of that.”

Jacksonville’s R.N.C. experiment was painful. But at least it was short — and probably for the best, everyone agrees. In retrospect.

“They may have inadvertently dodged a bullet,” Mr. Stipanovich said. “Despite no small amount of embarrassment and perhaps some disappointment, I suspect that behind closed doors there’s a big sigh of relief.”

Out in the open, too.

“How do I feel? Relieved,” said Tommy Hazouri, a Democrat and the president of the Jacksonville City Council. “Turn off the lights — the party’s over.”

By virtue of its consolidated county and city governments, Jacksonville, a Navy and shipping town, is the largest city by area in the continental United States. But it hardly attracts the tourists, media attention or big business as its neighbors. Mr. Hazouri recalled how, as a state legislator in the 1970s and 1980s, his Miami colleagues would tease his city over its toll roads and the exhaust from its paper mill, which made parts of Jacksonville smell like rotten eggs.

The city cleaned its air and got rid of the tolls. Then came Jacksonville’s long courtship of the National Football League, an effort that lasted well over a decade before the Jacksonville Jaguars debuted in 1995.

“We are always the little city that could,” Mr. Hazouri said. “We’re not like Tampa and Miami.”

Without the convention, there will be no need to dig into city coffers, draft plans to keep convention delegates from spreading the virus or focus on presidential politics in a city dealing with its own local problems, including high infection rates, a troubling spate of violent crime and the legacy of racial segregation.

Had the Jacksonville convention gone ahead, Mr. Trump would have accepted the nomination on the same day as the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, when white supremacists severely beat a group of mostly Black civil rights activists.

“No one had really spoke to the community about what we thought about the R.N.C. coming,” said the Rev. Lee Harris of Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church, one of more than 70 local pastors who had signed a letter asking the city to reconsider. Nearly 200 physicians had signed another letter, urging the same thing.

Polls showed that Jacksonville voters were concerned about the coronavirus and feared that the convention would worsen the contagion and draw massive protests. Mayor Curry’s popularity was also taking a hit.

The state last hosted the R.N.C. in 2012 in Tampa, when Mr. Curry led the Republican Party of Florida, an experience hampered by cumbersome logistics and a tropical storm.

“I kind of feel bad for the mayor,” said Councilman Matt Carlucci, who worried that the convention would hurt the city’s finances. “He’s very partisan — I’m not, I’m more of a Jeb Bush Republican — but this would have been great for him. Under normal circumstances.”

Pat McCrory, the Republican former North Carolina governor and Charlotte mayor, said that playing host to big events has lost its luster among big and midsize cities, largely over security concerns.

During the pandemic, he added, “there’s a desperation to try to help the hotels. But that conflicts with the goal to try to protect citizens.”


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