WASHINGTON – Although Dallas is on the Republican Party’s short list as it scrambles for a new convention site, Mayor Eric Johnson made clear Friday that he has serious qualms because of the COVID-19 risks.
Nor has the city heard from the GOP, let alone sought to lure an event that entails packing an arena with 19,000 cheering party activists – despite a claim from the party’s national chair that site scouts are focusing on cities offering to step in on short notice.
“I am completely indifferent to the politics involved of any organization that we're talking about, but I am very much not interested in accelerating the spread of this disease in our community,” Johnson said during a taping of Sunday’s Lone Star Politics, a partnership of KXAS-TV (NBC5) and The Dallas Morning News.
In any case, he said, “We have not been asked about hosting the convention.”
Dallas is one of a half-dozen cities the Republican National Committee is eyeing as it scramble to replace Charlotte for the four-day event that starts Aug. 24. The others, according to several party officials, are Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla., Nashville, Tenn., Phoenix and New Orleans. Las Vegas also seems to be in the mix.
The party picked Charlotte more than two years ago.
But with coronavirus still raging, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has refused to commit to allowing a full-scale event of the sort President Donald Trump and his party insist on holding.
Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, told Tyler TV station KETK on Thursday that he would welcome the convention to Texas.
“I talked to the president about it last Friday,” he said. “They obviously want to come to a state that is open and Texas is as open as any state in America, so Texas obviously provides a great opportunity for a convention like that.”
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson speaks during a memorial service for George Floyd on June 5, 2020 at City Hall in Dallas.(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer)
Some Tarrant County boosters want to woo the convention, though only Dallas is on the RNC’s radar, according to party officials.
Charlotte’s host committee has implored the RNC not to give up. National party chair Ronna McDaniel offered in a letter Thursday to meet next week and keep talking, but noted that the governor has the final say and won’t budge.
“In the meantime,” she wrote, “we are compelled to consider the plans that have been proactively submitted by other cities and states to host the large-scale celebration that we had worked together so hard to stage in the City of Charlotte.”
But Dallas has not made any such overture.
The city was a close runner-up to Cleveland for the 2016 GOP convention. VisitDallas, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, coordinated that bid six years ago and has had no contact with the RNC this time around.
The mayor is hardly the only local official unenthused at the prospect.
"A large gathering during a public health pandemic is not what our community needs right now,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat and nurse whose congressional district includes the American Airlines Center – the venue at the heart of the 2016 bid –and the city-run convention center next to City Hall, where President Ronald Reagan was nominated for a second term in 1984.
In April, the Center for Public Integrity issued a report tallying $1.82 million the Trump campaign still owes to 14 cities for security at campaign events, including $569,000 in unpaid bills from a February 2019 rally in El Paso.
“I do not want to see our city be among those not reimbursed in a timely and thorough manner,” the congresswoman said.
The mayor, also a Democrat, emphasized that in assessing any big gathering, “public health is my top priority.… We’d want to make sure that as far as the city of Dallas is concerned, that we consult with our local health authority, which is Dallas County, and make sure that we are not doing anything that’s going to make all of the hard work that we put into flattening the curve on COVID-19 for nothing."
“If our public authority says it's not a good thing then that's what we would listen to,” he said.
County Judge Clay Jenkins hasn’t weighed in publicly on the RNC’s interest in Dallas. He has been much less eager than Abbott to lift restrictions, however.
Announcing 10 new deaths in the county on Friday, Jenkins called on residents to remain diligent about hygiene and social distancing.
“It's more important than ever that you avoid large crowds & keep 6 ft apart when you are outside your home,” he tweeted.
It's more important than ever that you avoid large crowds & keep 6 ft apart when you are outside your home. Please wear cloth face coverings when on public transportation & in businesses...
— Clay Jenkins (@JudgeClayJ) June 5, 2020
Party officials toured Nashville on Thursday, although the mayor says the city has no money to contribute. New Orleans’ mayor likewise said that city doesn’t want the convention.
Members of Congress who represent parts of Tarrant County have begun to lobby Trump and the RNC.
AT&T Stadium, the retractable roof home of the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, seats 80,000 – far too big.
In Fort Worth, Mayor Betsy Price, a Republican, said she can’t see her city as host. The new Dickies Arena that opened last fall seats 14,000, so it’s “really probably not big enough,” she said on Lone Star Politics.
Price noted that Fort Worth doesn’t have enough hotel space, so “they would have to be bused around to hotels, and you hate in the middle of this pandemic to bus a lot.”
Arlington likewise would require delegates to spend extra time on buses to hotels in Dallas and Fort Worth.
At Dallas City Hall, council members sent mixed messages.
"If we’re going to be in the convention business, all comers are welcome,” said Lee Kleinman.
Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents South Dallas and part of East Dallas, said he would “gladly take the money” because of the city’s sales tax revenue shortfall – and would welcome Trump with protests.
"If there’s another chance to protest to the bunch of voices who need to hear it, need to wake up, for that reason alone, I’m not going to stand in the way," he said.
The mayor’s spokesman, Tristan Hallman, reiterated that the convention could not take place without an OK from county public health officials.
“It would be a massive logistical challenge, and we are still in a pandemic,” he said.
Dallas City Hall reporter Hayat Norimine contributed to this report.