Profit versus People: Charlotte debates, votes to host Republican convention in 2020
Updated: July 16, 2018 at 6:36 pm
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After a rancorous meeting lasting more than three hours, the Charlotte City Council voted Monday afternoon to host the Republican National Convention in 2020. Charlotte had been the last remaining city in the country willing to officially sanction a bid to host the national event in two years.
The 6-5 decision came after hearing from more than 100 speakers both opposed to and in favor of the convention. Nearly every comment — during both the public comment and Council debate — in favor of the RNC cited economic development and potential profitable gain for businesses, while nearly every comment against it cited the effect of President Donald Trump’s hostile policies on women, people of color, LGBTQ people and other minorities.
Several Council members had publicly stated they would vote against hosting the RNC prior to the meeting on Monday. Democratic District 3 Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, the city’s only openly LGBTQ elected official, had been opposed to the idea since its inception late last year.
Mayfield spoke strongly against hosting the RNC and Trump during her comments from the dais. At one point, she quoted Trump’s several quotes encouraging, endorsing or inciting violence against others.
“This makes no sense to me,” Mayfield said. “I am still black, female and gay. There is nothing about this administration that tells me I am welcome in my own country.”
In recent days, Mayfield’s outspoken opposition was joined by Democrats Justin Harlow (District 3) and Dimple Ajmera (At-Large).
“It’s important to ask why no other local government in America is bidding on this convention — not even in the states where the president carried the electorate and still has a lot of supporters,” Harlow said during Council debate. “To me that’s odd, at best, and certainly telling.”
Harlow added: “No amount of money is worth our city’s reputation. I am opposed to putting financial interest above people or morals.”
Harlow also pushed back against President Donald Trump’s controversial, xenophobic positions and the support he’s gained among self-admitted white supremacists.
“When someone shows you who they are, I tend to believe them the first time,” Harlow said. “I’d no sooner bring Donald Trump and the RNC to Charlotte … any sooner than I would support a Klan rally in this city. The president may not be a klansman, but some of his supporters are. … Not all Republicans are bad. … It’s not a generalization of all conservatives or all registered members of the GOP. For me, my opposition is rooted in the idea that we can’t get to where we want to be … until we acknowledge the most unreasonable, the worst of us have no place at that table at all.”
Braxton Winston, an At-Large Democrat who won office in 2017 after rising to the civic forefront as a protester during and after the September 2016 Charlotte Uprising, had voiced several concerns with the convention. He and Republican District 6 colleague Tariq Bokhari had debated the merits of the convention in a series of joint radio and TV appearances last week.
On Monday, Winston, who hadn’t yet firmly or publicly commented on how he would vote, ultimately voted against the convention. Democratic District 5 Councilmember Matt Newton also publicly announced his no vote for the first time on Monday.
In the future, Winston said, he’d love to host a Republican convention, but not this time and not for Trump.
“Trump is not a Republican,” Winston said. “He is an avatar of white supremacy.”
Winston accused Trump of having “hijacked the democratic process by taking advantage of the gray areas in the democratic process.”
Winston said Charlotte had the opportunity to vote against the RNC and send a strong message that Charlotte will join every city in America and say, “We will not allow our city to be beautiful backdrop to Donald Trump’s diabolical leadership.”
Those in favor
Bokhari, perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the RNC, voted yes, joined by the Council’s second Republican, District 7’s Ed Driggs.
Democratic Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt also voted for the convention, joined by other Democrats including At-Large Councilmember James Mitchell and District 1 Councilmember Larken Egleston.
“I don’t support this president. I just don’t,” said Eiselt. “I decided to support this bid because we’ve been through a lot in the past. It feels like we’re constantly fighting,” referring to several controversial flash points in the Council’s recent past, including toll roads, LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinances and the Charlotte Uprising.
“The only time we move forward like we’ve seen with housing is when we say let’s work together, even if we don’t agree,” Eiselt added. “Let’s work together moving forward on common goals.”
Mitchell has a long record of supporting most economic development proposals in the city and had long been considered a yes vote.
Egleston, who represents one of the most diverse, most progressive and LGBTQ-friendly districts in the city, was a nearly unknown going into the Monday vote.
Egleston said being an elected official often means making tough choices.
“Hosting the RNC in no way implies our endorsement of this president or the policies of his administration,” Egleston said. “It only proves that Charlotte is a strong and diverse city capable of taking on the responsibility of hosting this convention.”
In closing remarks after the vote, Mayor Vi Lyles reiterated her support for the RNC bid.
“This has been among the most difficult decision in my career, not just as mayor, but as a mom and as friend to many of you in this room,” she said.
Lyles also reasserted that hosting the RNC does not mean the city endorses the current administration.
“This is a chance for us to take an active role in the democratic process,” she said. “I would hope that everyone would exercise their rights. It is an opportunity to express the values that this city believes in through peaceful protest.”
Lyles had been the champion for the RNC host bid. In the days leading up to the vote, she penned an op-ed in The Charlotte Observer citing the convention’s potential for positive economic development.
“The RNC’s economic impact on our city’s working class can make a genuine difference in the lives of families. This convention would provide our community with opportunities for employment and business growth,” Lyles wrote.
The mayor continued: “That translates to more people eating in our restaurants and shopping in our stores, new jobs for freelancers and additional shifts for our service industry. When I ran for mayor, I campaigned on values of community building, equity and job growth. The economic impact from the RNC is supportive of those values.”
Later, Lyles defended the convention bid at a meeting of the Mecklenburg Democratic Women, where she also said she would not be personally welcoming the convention with a speech at the event.
The city’s quest to host the RNC began soon after Mayor Vi Lyles and the new Council was seated in 2017. But public questions over the hosting of the event only came to light when it was revealed Charlotte was the singular viable bidder to host the convention. In recent weeks, it became clear GOP officials were likely to grant Charlotte’s bid at their meeting in Austin this week.
Las Vegas is the only other bid, being presented by a private group and not supported by their city government or tourism officials. That bid, notably, does not include details on where Las Vegas convention site would be located or hosted.
‘Profits over people’?
The meeting’s public comment period at times became tense and pointed. Speakers opposed to the RNC focused tightly on the GOP’s and President Trump’s record of xenophobic, racist and homophobic policies and practices. Several told Council members not to put “profit over people.” Those in favor of the RNC said the city had an obligation to be “inclusive” and “welcoming.”
Despite the later tense nature of, the public comment period began calmly with two opposed voices.
Ray McKinnon, a leading opponent to the RNC effort, spoke first, calling on City Council to reject the offer.
“It is time in this nation where we stand up to racism, bigotry and xenophobia,” McKinnon said during his allotted one-minute comment period. “To say this is about being fair to 2020 is intellectually dishonest. President Obama didn’t speak about people the way this president speaks about people. President Obama didn’t do the things this president does. It is time for us to stand up and against the oppressive, xenophobia and hateful that is [in] this nation. We must not be party to normalizing this hateful man.”
McKinnon also spoke briefly at a press conference prior to the Council meeting. He told local press that the RNC would bring an “over-militarization” of local police. He also reminded local Democrats to listen to their supporters and constituents.
“We didn’t vote for Democrats so they could roll over,” he said. “It’s time to say no to the bullies. … If [Democrats] don’t say no … there’s an election upcoming and we will say no. That’s a reality check.”
John Lassiter, a former Charlotte City Council member and leader on the local RNC Host Committee, followed McKinnon and asked Charlotte to approve the bid.
Lassiter promised a “financially sound and safe convention.”
“We will work very hard to leave this community in better shape than we found it today,” Lassiter said, committing to community service projects focusing on economic mobility.
He said the host committee would also recruit vendors and rely on the city’s “diverse talent base,” promising “inclusive and diverse voices in partnership with [Charlotte].”
Chris Turner, chair of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, said he supported the city’s 2012 hosting of the Democratic National Convention.
“I attended all four nights of the DNC,” Turner said. “I engaged with all the people who came from around the world to see our city. It was a wonderful opportunity to improve our brand. … This is our opportunity to do that again. What’s next? What could come from this, in getting us on the world stage again?
The Rev. Amantha Barbee, a well-known progressive and LGBTQ community leader, became impassioned during her short remarks.
“I’ve heard a lot about economic development. My life is worth more than $50 million,” exclaimed Barbee, pastor of Statesville Ave. Presbyterian Church and chair of Charlotte’s Clergy Coalition for Social Justice.
“I want you to think back to the night when Keith Lamont Scott was killed,” Barbee asked the Council, referring to the city’s September 2016 Charlotte Uprising. “I was out there with several of my colleagues. … I promise you, I will not be out there this time. … We cannot risk people’s lives for a dollar.”
Ash Williams, an organizer in the Charlotte Uprising, said the RNC would welcome hostility to the Queen City.
“Welcoming the RNC means welcoming white supremacist violence,” Williams said, adding that the violence in 2020 could be “a thousand times worse than in Charlottesville,” referencing last year’s violent clashes between neo-Nazis and antifascist protesters which resulted in one death.
Williams also criticized Mayor Lyles’ calls toward inclusion.
“Are we really being asked to be inclusive of white supremacy,” Williams asked pointedly.
Myka Johnson, a trans woman and also a Charlotte Uprising leader, told Council she fully expected Council to bring the RNC to Charlotte. City leaders, Johnson accused, already do not care about transgender people or other minorities.
“I know you think my life is worth less than $50 million and you want that money in your pocket,” Johnson exclaimed.
Walter Davis, the final public speaker after two hours of comment, also hit against arguments for economic gain in the city, asking if Charlotte wanted to have the same reputation as Judas, who “sold out for 30 pieces of silver.”
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About the author: Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.