CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As Charlotte, North Carolina, celebrates being chosen to host the 2020 Republican National Convention, an undercurrent of concern about the potential for violence runs through the Democratic-leaning city.
The GOP’s national committee selected North Carolina’s largest city over Las Vegas on Friday as hundreds of party activists gathered in Austin, Texas, for the committee’s summer meeting.
“The city that I represent has truly established its place on the national stage, and I want to thank you again for the opportunity to showcase our city and showing the world how special we are,” said Mayor Vi Lyles, Charlotte’s first black female mayor. “We’re a growing center of diversity and inclusiveness in the New South, and we’re going to show you the true meaning of Southern hospitality.”
Under Lyles’ predecessor, Jennifer Roberts, Charlotte passed an LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance in 2016 that included allowing people to choose whichever bathroom corresponds to their gender identity. The Republican-led General Assembly responded with House Bill 2, which prevented other local governments from passing similar laws and directed transgender people in schools and government buildings to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates.
A protracted battle marked by corporate pullouts and sports boycotts ended when state lawmakers rolled back the restrictions, but not enough to satisfy LGBTQ advocates.
Lyles led the campaign to bring the convention to Charlotte and said in a newspaper column that it would be a chance for the city to show its inclusiveness. At a public hearing Monday, more than 100 residents spoke for and against the proposed bid. The City Council voted 6-5 to extend the bid, and Lyles emphasized that the vote wasn’t an endorsement of President Donald Trump.
“I’m going to call for unity,” Lyles said after Monday’s vote. “Unity doesn’t come easily. It comes with hard work, and we’re trying our best to make that happen.”
Throughout the city council meeting, opponents of the bid said the convention would put Charlotte residents at risk. Tens of thousands of political activists, protesters and journalists are expected to converge on Charlotte in two years.
“I do not believe that something like ‘68 is going to happen in Charlotte,” said Larry Shaheen, a Charlotte-based Republican consultant, referring to the violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where Vietnam War protesters fought police in the streets.
Given recent events in the city, he said, it would be wise for Charlotte convention organizers to begin building civic unity now for the event despite political divisions to avoid a spark “fanning into the flame.”
The Rev. Amantha Barbee, one of speakers at Monday’s meeting, cast a dire view of what lies ahead. Part of her prediction stems from two nights of violent protests in downtown Charlotte after the shooting of a black man by a police officer in 2016.
“You can look at what happened in Charlottesville. You can look at what happened here in Charlotte. You can look at Ferguson,” Barber said. “And you can go overseas and see what happened when the president was visiting. I am afraid that people will be hurt or killed, and there’s not enough money on the planet to replace someone’s life.”
Barbee also chastised city leaders, saying the bid was “more of a financial concern versus a community concern.”
In North Carolina, Republicans will lavish money and attention on a swing state that backed President Barack Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016.
The state’s African-American community is viewed as particularly influential. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 22 percent of North Carolina’s population is black, a higher percentage than any other presidential swing state. The city hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012.
Las Vegas was a finalist for the GOP convention in 2016 as well. Some Republican leaders feared the city’s reputation, and the influence of casino moguls Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn on Republican politics, might cloud the convention’s message.
Democrats, meanwhile, have narrowed their 2020 convention choices to Houston, Miami and Milwaukee. Anticipating a crowded and contentious primary battle, they’re also planning to move up their convention date to give the party more time to come together before the fall general election.
Steve Peoples reported from Austin, Texas. Associated Press writer Gary Robertson contributed reporting from Raleigh, North Carolina.