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Jacksonville GOP convention? Republicans open arms, Democrats fear Trump divisiveness, COVID-19

"Why in the world would we turn around and open our state up to that?" asked one Democrat of visitors potentially bringing coronavirus to town.
Image: Republican National Convention: Day Four
Delegates stand and cheer at the end of the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on July 21, 2016.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images file

Jacksonville, Florida, is going to be the new host city for the Republican National Convention. For local officials, there's a mix of excitement, concern — and hostility toward President Donald Trump's renominating event coming to their city.

"The unfortunate circumstance is that we have the most divisive president ever," Democratic state Sen. Audrey Gibson told NBC News. "And the idea of the disruption that would be created in Jacksonville is something we can live without."

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel announced late Thursday that Jacksonville had been selected as the site for Trump to deliver his acceptance speech. The president will speak at a 15,000-seat arena in the city.

As four Republicans familiar with the discussions told NBC News on Wednesday, Jacksonville was emerging as the most likely location for the president's official acceptance speech and major convention addresses in late August. It's still the plan to hold all convention business in Charlotte, North Carolina, due to contractual obligations between the city and RNC.

State Rep. Jason Fischer, a Republican who will be attending the convention as a delegate, said Jacksonville "has really been on the rise with Republican leadership."

The city is one of the largest in the U.S. to be led by a Republican mayor, Lenny Curry, who used to run the Florida Republican Party and is an ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, making the city an attractive location for the president.

"The opportunity to highlight all our city has to offer and the tremendous economic impact is one I enthusiastically welcome, and we look forward to hosting an exciting event for all delegates and guests to enjoy," Curry said in a statement.

Jacksonville is also a key battleground in what's traditionally a major battleground state.

In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum bested DeSantis in Duval County, home to Jacksonville. That was a flip from recent elections in what has traditionally been a more conservative part of the state, though registered Democrats outnumber their Republican counterparts. Trump carried the county in 2016 while Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., won it in his 2014 gubernatorial race.

"Tim Russert famously, and correctly, predicted that the 2000 presidential election would be all about 'Florida, Florida, Florida,'" state Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican, told NBC News "Mr. Russert was right then and the same is true in 2020. The winner of Florida will win the presidency."

"North Florida is Trump Country — he will be welcomed here with open arms," he added.

But as others noted, the day of Trump's acceptance speech, traditionally the final day of a convention, falls on the 60th anniversary of one of Jacksonville's most horrific events during the Civil Rights movement.

It's known as "Ax Handle Saturday," and began when members of the NAACP's youth council participated in a peaceful protest sitting at a whites only lunch counter were later chased through the streets of downtown Jacksonville by a mob of 200 white people, who raced after and attacked them with ax handles and baseball bats.

"That is the day that Donald Trump will accept the Republican nomination," Garrett Dennis, a Democratic Jacksonville city councilman, told NBC News. "And the city was already planning events to commemorate that and for that to happen here in our city of someone that's intolerant of minorities, it's just not good. It's just not.

"So I don't think the investment and exposure will be worth the reward or the return on the investment," he said.

As protests in the aftermath of George Floyd's fatal arrest continued, Jacksonville officials predawn Tuesday quietly removed a statue of a Confederate soldier that stood for more than a century outside of its City Hall ahead of a protest in the city. Curry, who had avoided taking a stance on the issue of such monuments, said other statues will soon be removed.

"We hear your voices," he said. "We have heard your voices."

Traditionally, such a convention can deliver a host city hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing thousands of visitors to town. But amid the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest in the aftermath of Floyd's death in Minneapolis, Dennis said his email has "been flooded with people from the city saying, 'Please do not support this, it's bad for our city.'"

With the GOP gathering coming to town, Dennis said the "rhetoric needs to be toned down a lot."

"These leaders need to pay homage, respect to the contributions of the African Americans and even acknowledge 'Ax Handle Saturday,'" he said.

City Council President-Designate Tommy Hazouri, a Democrat and former mayor of Jacksonville, said Thursday he had mixed feelings about the possibility of Jacksonville landing the convention. On one hand, the economic benefit is potentially great. On the other, with pandemic and social unrest could lead the event to go south.

"It's hard not to remember the Chicago convention in 1968," he said.

As Gibson noted, the state took extreme measures earlier on in combatting the pandemic, like blocking New York travelers from entering.

"And so to have people from everywhere after" that, she said. "Why in the world would we turn around and open our state up to that?"

Rev. Mark Griffin of Wayman Temple A.M.E. Church in Jacksonville told NBC News it's not the right time to bring such a convention to Jacksonville, with the pandemic ongoing and social unrest throughout the country.

"Our city is divided right now, but we’re trying to come together," he said. "No one invites guests to their home when the family isn’t unified."

Fifteen years ago, Jacksonville famously resorted to using a fleet of cruise ships to make up for a lack of hotel availabilities to host everyone in town for the Super Bowl. Some officials expressed concern over the potential for a lack of space, while others said there had been progress made on building out such infrastructure in the city in the years since.

"I still think that Jacksonville is better poised than other places to be able to handle it," Fischer said of the convention and any protests that may take place. "And we'll have great state and federal partners."

A convention typically brings with it a throng of national media attention that shines a light on a host city. Pointing to infrastructure issues, food scarcity in underserved communities and local health disparities with regard to the coronavirus, Gibson said there is "a lot in Jacksonville that we need to pay attention to."

"Multiple things can be exposed to people willing to look at it," she said. "But they'll be focused on whatever it is they'll be doing, if they come at all, and I hope they don't."