Republican National Convention in Jacksonville

by Tim Gilmore, 7/23/2020

1. Short-Selling a City

Who or what or where is Jacksonville, Florida anyway? Every now and then people find themselves asking. Sometimes a news service will send someone to report from Miami about something happening in Jacksonville, 345 miles north. At least Tampa gets as much ridicule nationally as Jax gets statewide. After all, Jenna Maroney on the Tina Fey sitcom 30 Rock did graduate from “The Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks.”

still from 30 Rock

Jacksonville? That’s the town whose mayor, Lenny Curry, tried to trade it to Trump in exchange for favoritism and a boost toward higher office. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was as eager to short-sell the town as its mayor. As for Trump, he seemed happy to add Jax to his list of real estate failures. For a minute. Then he got distracted, let Jacksonville skid off into the ocean, called the current pandemic a hoax and went to play golf.

Here’s what really happened, quick version. And then some background on a city that doesn’t know it’s real that almost hosted an almost convention.

2. Rundown of The Recent Unpleasantness

It was just last month that North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper enraged Donald Trump by refusing to say that Charlotte, North Carolina would reject health measures for this year’s Republican National Convention. Trump wanted a full crowd at the RNC, 25,000 cheering, adoring followers, with no social distancing, despite the fact that the nation’s scientists insisted such health measures were necessary to stem the tide of Covid-19.

So Trump said the RNC would find another home, at least for the big pageant centered on him. Most mayors didn’t want it. Nor governors. The U.S. was becoming the epicenter of the pandemic worldwide. Hosting the RNC was the worst gamble imaginable.

And then there were Mayor Lenny Curry and Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, whose campaign ads showed him dressing his infant in a Trump onesie, pleaded for the convention. Curry, former head of the Florida Republican Party, said, in the words of President George Bush speaking to “the terrorists” in 2006, “Bring it on!” That’s a paraphrase. But Curry did say Jacksonville would make $100 million.

Lenny Curry

It’s hard to believe that was only last month. Time stretches out in strange ways in the Trump years, so many bizarre plot twists and non sequiturs to track on a daily basis. Most national political conventions take years to plan. This one was supposed to take two and half months.

Despite the fact that Curry and DeSantis were willing to sacrifice Jacksonville to Trump, Jacksonville did not want the Republican National Convention. A University of North Florida poll found that 58 percent of Jacksonville residents opposed the RNC, with 71 percent worried about the spread of the coronavirus and 65 percent concerned about social unrest. Hundreds of Florida doctors signed an open letter to the mayor, opposing the convention. A group of 80 clergy and community leaders wrote the mayor asking him to stop it. A group of the city’s top lawyers and business leaders filed a lawsuit to block the “public nuisance.”

Meanwhile, though Trump called the pandemic a hoax when he wasn’t calling it “Kung Flu,” using racist language mocking Covid-19’s origins in China, and though DeSantis yelled at reporters and insisted the pandemic wouldn’t come to Florida, Florida became a new epicenter, soon adding around 10,000 new cases a day. City Council Member Garrett Dennis, a staunch Curry critic, told MSNBC, “We are the next epicenter.”

Dennis Garrett, photo by A.G. Gancarski

RNC proponents grasped at straws. Maybe there could be social distancing at the convention after all. Maybe Covid-19 was real. More and more Republican lawmakers said they wouldn’t be attending. One Congressman told The New York Times, “Everybody just assumes no one is going.” Maybe the event could move from an inside arena to outside in the football stadium. Surely, Donald Trump, recently seen sweating profusely in his argument with Fox News’s Chris Wallace about how hard that cognition test was, the one he bragged about for a week, which asked him to label a cartoon silhouette of an alligator and an elephant, surely Donald Trump, 74 years old and weighing toward 300 pounds, surely he could be the belle of the ball outside in the Florida sun, with a heat index of 107 degrees, with or without the daily thunderstorm or oncoming hurricane.

Jacksonville’s Memorial Park after Hurricane Irma, 2017

Then came the sheriff’s comments. “We can’t pull it off,” Sheriff Mike Williams said. “It’s not my event to plan,” he said, but “what has been proposed […] is not achievable right now.” He’d appealed to law enforcement around Florida for help, he said, but had come up short.

Then Mayor Curry, who’d said in June the RNC would bring $100 million to Jacksonville, said at the end of July: no, it won’t.

Charlie Griffin, Ax Handle Saturday, Life Magazine

And why should this following fact have been a footnote to news stories? Mayor Curry did not care and Governor DeSantis did not care and certainly the president did not care that Trump’s nomination party was scheduled for the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, perhaps the most notorious day in Jacksonville’s history, the day in 1960 when a mob of white men with bats and ax handles attacked scores of innocent black people in response to black sit-in demonstrations protesting segregated restaurants and businesses.

Then the day came, July 23rd, Trump casually announced the Republican National Convention had canceled all Jacksonville plans. That was it. Finis. Nothing more to see. Move along.

3. Cusp Rust

Jacksonville didn’t have the convention space for the event. It didn’t have the hotel rooms. And as Charles Pierce wrote glibly but truthfully for Esquire just after the Jacksonville RNC plans were first announced, “Jacksonville is a terrible place to have anything. I was there for the Super Bowl a few years back, and the hotel situation was so desperate that they put some of the high rollers on luxury yachts along the waterfront. The weather was hot, sticky, and the breezes felt like Velcro on your skin. And that was at the beginning of February. August must be absolutely delightful.”

Super Bowl in Jacksonville, 2005, courtesy ESPN

(He’s correct, if a bit understated, though I have to say to Pierce, who lives in Boston, I nearly got frostbite once in Boston through several layers of clothing on a sunny afternoon in April, which is well into summer in Florida.)

All my life people have made fun of Jacksonville. All my life, Jacksonville has despised itself. Still, Jax is younger and more progressive and features a stronger arts community these days than ever before in its history.

Bebe Deluxe at gay pride rally in Jacksonville’s Riverside, 2019

Jacksonville’s 1980s good-ole-boy mayor Jake Goldbold—People called Jacksonville “Jakesonville”—used to say Jax should love itself as much as he did. It never has.

On the sitcom The Good Place, the character Jason Mendoza hails from Jacksonville. He says Jax is “one of the top 10 swamp cities in Northeast Florida,” that monster trucks are used as taxis, that the airport is called Randy “Macho Man” Savage International, and that he graduated from Lynyrd Skynyrd High School.

Lynyrd Skynyrd

The school, he says, “was really just a bunch of tugboats tied together.” When another character asks if students got seasick, he says, “No, they were tied together in a junkyard. It wasn’t a very good school. For most of my classes, we just sold dirty magazines door-to-door.”

still from The Good Place

Jacksonville has marketed itself at various times as the “Bold New City of the South,” “River City by the Sea,” the “First Coast,” even the “Hartford of the South,” a moniker meant to lure insurance companies to headquarter here in the ’60s.

In 1968, Jacksonville and Duval County consolidated their governments, in part to compensate for a declining urban tax base due to “white flight,” partly to keep Jacksonville from becoming a black political powerhouse like Atlanta. The year before, Sallye Mathis and Mary Singleton had become the first black City Council members since Reconstruction’s dying ripples in 1907.

from The Bridgeport [Connecticut] Post, September 30, 1968

The Florida Times-Union’s frontpage headline the day after Consolidation screamed, “Biggest City in the World!” But making city and county limits contiguous hardly made Jacksonville bigger than Mexico City and Tokyo.

Defining Jacksonville, a town shaped by water, by its many bridges might seem hopeful. Until you name them. The Hart Bridge takes its name from city founder Isaiah Hart, who made his wealth by stealing cattle and slaves and reselling them across state lines. The namesake of the Fuller Warren Bridge was a Florida governor, Jacksonville City Councilman and member of the Ku Klux Klan. The Mathews Bridge is named for John Mathews, the Florida Supreme Court chief justice and state senator who tried unsuccessfully in 1947 to pass a “White Primary Law,” restricting black voting rights.

Fuller Warren, courtesy State Archives of Florida,

In 1984, the city painted the previously silver Mathews Bridge “garnet,” team color of the United States Football League’s Jacksonville Bulls. Word was, the Bulls would “put Jacksonville on the map.” Word was, in 1995, the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars would “put the city on the map.”

Jacksonville’s always been described as “on the cusp of,” “about to be,” “on the verge.” In 2014, at-large City Council member and former Mayor Tommy Hazouri said, “The cusp is getting rusty.”

4. You’re a Real Town!

When I was a child, sitting on a hard church pew in the fundamentalist congregation that brainwashed me in my formative years, I once heard a sermon based on Proverbs 29:18, the first half of which says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The sermon hinged on a story about a church that stenciled that verse on its sign out front. Problem was, the “w” fell off the start of the sentence.

The decisions of Jacksonville’s leadership have reminded me of that sermon more times than I can count. Like when it demolishes the city’s most intriguing structures and most storied neighborhoods, like when it forgets its artists and historic visionaries, like when it ignores its own past and all it can say about itself is “football.”

The problem with Jacksonville is not so much Jacksonville as Jacksonville’s ignorance of itself. Its urban core contains a richer, more diverse and lovelier collection of architecture than most Florida cities. The artists, writers and musicians who live and create here are among the most poignant and insightful in the South. Because Jacksonville’s older than Florida cities further south, its well of stories runs deeper. Because Jacksonville has always had a larger black population and often a more diverse population than other Florida cities, its stories are richer.

demolition of Jacksonville’s Drew Building, early 1970s

True, its stories are often strange. True, they’re tacky and gauche and baroque. True, they’re dark and bloody. It’s easy to cast Jacksonville as the crossroads of “Florida Man” and “Southern Gothic,” but it’s also the town where James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the “black national anthem,” more than a century ago.

anonymous drawing of James Weldon Johnson, courtesy State Archives of Florida,

So Jacksonville’s mayor and Florida’s governor tried to lowball this city to the president of Reality TV. So it didn’t work. If anything, this RNC real estate deal gone bad seems the perfect culmination to this surreal summer—the worst public health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic, the worst economy since the Great Depression, the worst civil unrest since 1968. The Jacksonville RNC fiasco encapsulates the turmoil of the summer, the unending emergency of this presidency, and ends another chapter in this incredibly bizarre, terrible and wonderful little city called Jacksonville.

In the 1940 Disney movie Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy tells the yearning puppet, “Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish and someday, you will be a real boy! Awake, Pinocchio! Awake!”

In this 2020 concluding paragraph, I tell Jacksonville, “You’re a real city already! Wake up! See yourself! Act with vision! Respect yourself! Walk your own streets and see them for the first time! And don’t you ever, don’t you dare, don’t you ever, again, sell yourself short!”