Can Trump Beat the Florida Convention Curse?

Can Trump Beat the Florida Convention Curse?June 28, 2020

This August, when President Donald J. Trump is scheduled to take to a stage in Jacksonville and accept his party’s nomination for re-election, the event will mark the fifth time that a political convention has been held in Florida at the height of the state’s molten summer. If it’s anything like the other four, something—or quite possibly several somethings—will go wrong.

The first three, all held in Miami Beach, were marred by riots, major political miscalculations and the kind of odd behavior that has become the hallmark of everything connected with Florida. The last one, held eight years ago in Tampa, was even wilder, featuring mermaids, penguins, police spies, a tropical storm, a bizarre movie star interlude and some very disappointed strippers.

Even before it begins, the Jacksonville convention is already under a cloud—and not just from being scheduled smack in the middle of a hurricane season that’s expected to be more active than usual.

For one thing, the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation after George Floyd’s killing have raised questions about the convention’s timing. The day Trump will accept the nomination coincides with the 60th anniversary of Jacksonville’s infamous Ax Handle Saturday, a day in which hundreds of angry whites attacked African-American civil rights protesters but the police arrested only Black people.

Meanwhile Florida’s coronavirus infection rate has been setting new records just about every day for the past two weeks. The spike has spurred local governments across the state to order their residents to wear masks if they leave their homes. Bars and restaurants that fail to enforce social-distancing rules could have their liquor licenses yanked. The main reason Jacksonville got the convention is because Trump demanded North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, guarantee that the GOP gathering could occur without strict social distancing or any limitations on the number of attendees, and Cooper said no. Suddenly, Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who said yes, is scrambling to keep his “open for business” welcome mat out.

Florida has built its economy and its identity on accommodating the wildest dreams of its millions of visitors. But if its past convention history is any guide, the dream of a full-scale, old-fashioned spectacle to celebrate Trump’s nomination seems liable to turn into a nightmare scenario.
To understand why the past is often prologue when it comes to Florida conventions, it helps to know a little about what made Florida attractive in the first place and why for well over a century no one in their right mind thought of Florida as a possible venue for the quadrennial extravaganza.

National political conventions began with the Anti-Mason Party meeting in Baltimore in 1831 to pick its nominee for president (he lost). Both the major and minor parties ignored Florida for the simple reason that it contained more mosquitoes than voters.

That began to change after World War II, when the GIs who trained in the Sunshine State decided to return, buy a house and settle down. Meanwhile, with help from Walt Disney, tourism surpassed agriculture as the biggest industry, boosting the number of hotels and also the mindset required to cater to millions of out-of-towners. Powerful insecticides, meanwhile, knocked down the mosquito population.

In 1960, Miami, then a predominantly white Democratic bastion, tried to land the Democratic convention, but lost out to Los Angeles. Eight years later it succeeded, but with the Republican Party. That unlikely win came thanks to a part-time Florida resident named Richard Nixon.

1968: Miami heat

Throughout the 1960s, Nixon enjoyed spending time in Florida with his good friend Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, founder of the Key Biscayne Bank, known as a money pipeline for the Mafia. After he was elected president, Nixon bought a three-bedroom home on Key Biscayne, next door to Rebozo, calling it his Winter White House.

Nixon wanted to hold the convention in a place where he’d be comfortable, even if nobody else was. Although Jackie Gleason bragged on his television show that Miami Beach was “the sun and fun capital of the world,” Miami Beach hotels routinely shut down during the hot summer months. Of course, that meant there were lots of rooms available for the perspiring delegates.

Norman Mailer, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, reported that the temperature “hung around 87 day after day, and at night it went down to 82.” That plus the smothering humidity, he wrote, made Miami Beach “on any and every day of the Republican Convention of 1968, the hottest city in the world.”

The location offered one major advantage. The only access to the island was over a bridge, which could be easily blocked by police. This was the year of assassinations—Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in April, Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles in June—so security was a major concern. Party leaders wanted demonstrators nowhere near the convention.

The Democrats picked Chicago, where their convention was rocked by protesters clashing with Mayor Daley’s police. By contrast, the Republican convention, which attracted such right-leaning celebrities as John Wayne and Wilt Chamberlain, ran as smoothly as a finely tuned Ferrari. At least, that’s what TV viewers saw inside the hall.

Outside was another matter.

Across the bridge in Miami, Liberty City had been simmering all summer, ready to explode. The African-American residents were fed up with the way they had been treated by city leaders and police, said History Miami resident historian Paul George.

When word spread that Chamberlain and others from the convention would travel to Liberty City to hear everyone’s concerns, a crowd of hundreds gathered. But the famous names failed to appear. The police, on the other hand, showed up in force and tensions grew higher.

Then a white man in a yellow Mercury with a bumper sticker touting the campaign of noted segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama drove by. People chased the driver from his car, tipped it over and set it ablaze. That started a wave of looting and arson throughout the neighborhood, aimed at white-owned businesses but leaving minority-owned ones alone.

Flamboyant Gov. Claude Kirk, a Jacksonville insurance executive, had been schmoozing at the convention, but he rushed over to settle things down. Kirk, the first Republican to be elected Florida governor since Reconstruction, was a figure for whom the term “colorful” seems inadequate. He once rode a horse to a press conference, vowed to use the state plane to defend Florida’s territorial rights and appeared at his inaugural ball with a woman he refused to identify except to call her “Madame X.” Wags nicknamed him “Claudius Maximus” and “Governor-a-Go-Go.” Kirk had encouraged speculation that Nixon might even choose him for his running mate (he did not).

Although Kirk had once referred to Miami as “cesspool of crime,” he now joined with city officials to meet briefly with neighborhood spokesmen, then agreed to return the next morning for further discussions. Peace reigned.

But the next day, Kirk was a no-show. Underlings had been sent to negotiate. Word of the insult spread quickly.

“The consensus was, ‘They don’t care enough about us to come out,’” George said.

Soon about 1,000 people began wreaking havoc again. State troopers showed up with a truck that they had converted from spraying insecticide to spraying tear gas and drove everyone back.

Then police began firing at an apparently non-existent sniper. Before long, three unarmed people were dead and dozens more injured.

Somehow this was not viewed as a disaster for a convention touting “law and order,” though, because four years later, they came back—and they had company.

1972: ‘Prime time…on Guam’

The Republicans had planned to hold their next convention in San Diego but a scandal erupted. Syndicated muckraker Jack Anderson got hold of a memo from a lobbyist for telecommunications giant ITT that said it would spend $400,000 sponsoring the convention in exchange for Nixon making an antitrust investigation go away. At the top of the memo were the words “Please destroy this.”

Thus the GOP headed back to Miami Beach. This time the Democrats showed up, too. This marked the only time in U.S. history that both parties held their convention in the same city.

The Democrats went first, in July. The party was broke, so the TV networks helped foot the bill for the spectacle, said Jim Clark, now a University of Central Florida historian, then a political reporter for the Boston Globe. The conventioneers were less than thrilled with their potential nominee, Sen. George McGovern, but efforts to find a replacement failed.

“Everyone seemed to sense this was a doomed campaign,” recalled Clark, the author of Presidents in Florida: How the Presidents Have Shaped Florida and How Florida Has Influenced the Presidents.

The convention failed to give McGovern the kind of national TV exposure nominees usually get. Under a rule McGovern himself had supported, the delegates could and did nominate 75 challengers to McGovern’s selection for vice president, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. The running mate wrangling pushed McGovern’s acceptance speech to 3 a.m.—an omen for a campaign destined to lose 49 states.

“The only place where he was seen in prime time was on Guam,” Clark said.

Meanwhile the protesters the Miami Beach conventioneers had avoided four years ago showed up in force. Their ranks included, as the Miami Herald reported, “hippies, Marxists, gay rights activists, Vietnam veterans and members of the Black Panther Party, just to name a few.”

The Miami Beach police allowed them to camp in a large city park a few blocks from the convention. One city official joked that you could tell which group was camped where based on the different scents from their marijuana smoke.

The campsite idea came from Miami Beach Police Chief Rocky Pomerance, who looked like a donut-obsessed cop caricature but was known to quote Shakespeare while puffing on a pipe. When Yippie leader Jerry Rubin pledged to lead a march of 10,000 naked people down the town’s main drag, Pomerance promised to march too, clad in nothing but police headgear. For some reason, Rubin didn’t take him up on the challenge.

Ahead of the conventions, Pomerance assigned his officers to a six-week human relations course—if nothing else, it helped him identify which ones to station far from the action. His greatest innovation, though, was assigning the protesters “free speech zones” where they could spout off about anything—and none of the conventioneers were likely to hear them.

They didn’t stay there, of course.

Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War that he had promised to end had ignited a tremendous anger. On the August day Nixon was to accept the nomination, 3,000 anti-war protesters broke free of their free-speech zones to zero in on GOP conventioneers returning from dinner. Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale led the crowd in chanting: “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your f—ing war!”

Some wore Nixon masks smeared with red paint. They pounded on cars, broke windows, and chanted, “Murderers!” Demonstrators chased Sen. James Buckley (R-N.Y.), shouting that he had blood on his hands. A wagon pulled by a rented elephant rolled down the street, hauling a coffin.

Yet the crowds couldn’t get into the Miami Beach Convention Center and disrupt the proceedings. Pomerance had hauled in 35 buses and parked them six deep in front of the entrance, keeping the protesters out.

Two days later, one of the Black Panthers’ financial supporters, Sammy Davis Jr., performed at a Republican Youth Rally at Miami Marine Stadium. He called Nixon up on stage and gave him a famously awkward hug. He later reported getting death threats as a result.

When the frustrated protesters struck camp and left town, George said, “to me that was the last hurrah of the ‘60s counterculture.”
But the biggest thing that happened involving the 1972 conventions occurred offstage.

Prior to the Democratic convention, the Committee to Reelect the President, or “CREEP,” commissioned G. Gordon Liddy to dream up ways to disrupt the opposition. Liddy proposed anchoring a yacht near shore and stocking it with prostitutes and hidden microphones. They could lure Democratic officials over for shipboard sex and blackmail them for information.

Attorney General John Mitchell dismissed that idea but asked what else Liddy had. Well, he said, what about burgling the Democrats’ headquarters at the Watergate?

“It’s pretty well documented,” George said, “that most of the details of the Watergate burglary were worked out at Nixon’s Winter White House.”

2012: Storm and strippers

By the time of the 2000 recount debacle, the political parties had discovered Florida’s growth had made it not just a lively place to visit but a must-win state for any bid for the White House. Its major cross-state highway, the 132-mile Interstate 4, became known as the crucial “I-4 Corridor,” a high-density purple-hued belt of voters that divided Florida’s predominantly conservative red north from its liberal blue south.
Why not hold a convention at the corridor’s western terminus, Tampa?

The driving force behind Tampa’s convention bid was a wealthy developer named Al Austin, who had attended the 1972 convention (and retained vivid memories of the roaches in his room). While converting orange groves and cattle pastures into office buildings and apartments, Austin had worked his way up to become finance chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. He could round up plenty of well-heeled donors to pay for the festivities.

Tampa officials’ main concern, of course, was security. They were haunted by images of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests that shut down Seattle. The Occupy Wall Street movement that in 2011 launched protests against corporate greed and income inequality had spread to Tampa. In May 2012, when NATO convened a summit in Chicago, thousands of anti-Iraq War protesters clashed with police.

To avoid a repeat of scenes such as those, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, said he and his staff traveled to other cities that held conventions to find out what mistakes to avoid.

“It was a year and a half of my life that I’ll never get back,” he said. But it was worth it for “an opportunity to showcase Tampa to a portion of the world that didn’t know anything about us.”

Tampa officials turned the area around the hockey arena known as the Tampa Bay Times Forum into what one reporter called “the demilitarized zone.” Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor brought in reinforcements from throughout the state, bulking up her force to nearly 1,900 officers, and put them through a three-day “Field Force Training” so they’d be ready for anything.

While good for security, such a strong clampdown was bad for nearby bars and restaurants, as well as the city’s more infamous tourist draw.
Tampa is widely known for its strip clubs—one has a VIP room inside what looks like a flying saucer on its roof. With thousands of well-heeled strangers in town, the dancers expected a major payday. Instead, nervous delegates stuck close to their hotels and convention center.

“It was like they were in a stockade,” recalled Tampa strip club mogul Joe Redner. “They were scared to death to go out. It hurt us because they didn’t come in, and all the locals stayed away because they thought it would be crowded.”

Other businesses made a tidy profit though—including off-site hotels far from Tampa, where a lot of delegates wound up staying. Their long commute to downtown Tampa underlined that the sprawling Tampa Bay area has serious transportation problems.

One of the groups dispatched to a hotel far, far away was the host delegation. Because Florida didn’t follow the party’s rules on when to hold its primary, half of Florida’s delegation lost their voting privileges, reducing its votes from 99 to 50, and the delegates were lodged at the Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, about 30 miles from the Forum. One news story referred to it as “the convention’s version of Siberia.”

Except for the grousing about assignments and bad commutes, though, there was little dissent during the convention. That was in part because the police department deployed spies to infiltrate the protest organizations. Some undercover officers did more than collect intelligence—they actually took over.

“They became, like, the leaders of the group,” a Tampa police major admitted to the Tampa Bay Times in 2015.

The other thing that kept protesters from running amok was Tropical Storm Isaac. The threat of high winds and flooding persuaded 16 busloads of protesters to reverse course and head home. They were the smart ones, Most of the delegates and journalists who showed up for the convention were unprepared for the kind of weather-related emergency that Floridians deal with nearly every summer.

“The whole international press corps was here along with 50,000 people who were not familiar with what the term ‘hunker down’ means,” Buckhorn said.

The storm pushed the opening of the convention back by a day, and threatened to do worse. But then Isaac—ultimately a Category 1 hurricane—headed for Louisiana. That cleared the way for the convention to kick off its festivities.

There were parties galore featuring such performers as the Tampa Bay Buccaneer cheerleaders. The Florida Aquarium, the scene of several high-profile parties, brought out penguins to delight the guests. The aquarium’s female divers even put on waterproof make-up and wriggled into prosthetic tails so they could imitate mermaids swimming around the fish tanks.

By contrast, the convention itself was a fairly tepid affair, awarding the nomination and plenty of TV exposure to Mitt Romney. It remains best remembered today for a bizarre interlude in which movie tough guy Clint Eastwood – inspired by the lyrics to Neil Diamond’s “I Am, I Said” – brought an empty chair onstage and pretended it contained then-President Barack Obama. Four years later, when an interviewer for Esquire asked him what troubled him most in his life, Eastwood said, “I guess when I did that silly thing at the Republican convention, talking to the chair.”

The empty-chair harangue wasn’t nearly sufficient to derail the Obama re-election train, but the convention exposure did help Romey come close to grabbing Florida’s 29 electoral votes. The state split down the middle, with 50 percent for Obama to 49.1 percent for Romney.

One participant in that 2012 convention was Lenny Curry, then the chairman of the Florida GOP and now mayor of Jacksonville. Buckhorn said a convention in Curry’s city is “a bad idea, with the twin terrors of Covid-19 and civil unrest, and right in the middle of hurricane season.“

“You’ve got to remember that red MAGA hat doesn’t prevent the transmission of disease,” Buckhorn said.

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