Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tampa's RNC was a once in a lifetime experience

Posted By on Thu, Sep 6, 2012 at 3:58 PM

Less than 12 hours after the Republican National Convention ended at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, a bleary-eyed Mayor Bob Buckhorn hosted a news conference at City Hall where he praised the city police department, city staff, and volunteers for putting on what he called an "absolutely flawless" convention.

The fact that Chief Jane Castor's police department arrested only two people during the entire week was certainly something to celebrate.

But when 970 WFLA news radio reporter Sharon Parker asked Tampa Host Committee Chairman Ken Jones if he wanted to re-assess his frequently quoted statement that the convention was a "once in a lifetime event for Tampa," Jones refused to play along.

"I do think it's once in a lifetime," he replied, referring to the fact that it's been four decades since any political party has returned back to its host city for a second time. (Actually, he was slightly off as Democrats held their conventions in New York City in both 1976 and 1980.)

Jones wasn't asked about 2020, suggesting that Tampa may be like Kansas City, which hosted only one convention in 1976. Since then, conventions have been held in bustling American provinces such as Detroit, San Francisco, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, San Diego, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, St. Paul, and many times in New York City.

Tampa's business establishments had pinned their hopes on showing off the city during the week-long affair. Of course, in late August, that means frequent showers and yes, the occasional hurricane. The humidity was also a major story, as the rest of the country dealt with what locals deal with for half a year. Will that bring CEO's back to do business here? No one can give a definitive answer just one week out.

What Tampa may have done is convince Washington and the public that conventions need to run no longer than three days. Therefore, eliciting a reduction from Congress for the astounding $50 million in security paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that because federal spending is likely to continue to be more scrutinized by the next congress, "that might ultimately be the reason they go to shorter conventions. Not because it's better that way, but because it's cheaper." He added that this is how we ultimately elect our presidents and, "there's no way around the security costs."

But the word heard over and over among those who ventured near Downtown Tampa was "overkill," in reference to the extreme security infrastructure, and the perimeter guarding the Tampa Convention Center and Tampa Bay Times Forum.

On NBC's Morning Joe, the venerable warhorse news legend Tom Brokaw said the RNC had, "the most onerous security I have ever seen."

But Jones — who has been a part of conventions since the mid 1990's — said after what happened to the World Trade Center in 2001, that's just the way it is.

"Post 9/11 security rings are completely different than pre 9/11 ones," he told reporters the day after the RNC closed shop. "The fencing, the cordoning off of certain areas."

Activists like Romneyville organizer Bruce Wright blamed the heavy security for chilling protesters' actions and for lowering protesters' attendance. Add the elements of a killer storm, whatever one wants to call Mitt Romney (Mr. 1%?) — he's not George W. Bush — and the fact that the convention was held in the dead of summer, and somehow the (absurd) prediction of 15,000 protesters became around 2,500 at best.

But Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, Assistant Chief John Bennett, and the men and woman of the TPD and Hillsborough County Sheriff's office deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the handling of potentially serious confrontations. Castor showed the media films of incidents involving police arresting protesters in St. Paul at the 2008 convention as an example of something she did not want her troops to do — and they got the message.

That was made clear on the Sunday before the convention, when anticipation was high that things could be crazy intense. That afternoon hundreds of (mostly senior) people packed the Tampa Theatre to attend the Faith & Freedom Conference led by Ralph Reed.

While demonstrations were happening a few blocks south at Lykes Gaslight Park, seven activists were seated inside the theater, lying low until Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began speaking.

Then they unveiled banners, one of which read, "Walker has a Koch Problem," referring to his relationship with Charles and Dave Koch, the conservative billionaire brothers who donated to a number of conservative causes and have become bête noires for liberals.

As members from the Marion County sheriff's office took the protesters outside and checked their IDs, one officer began a dialogue with Chicago based activist Danielle Villarreal.

"When you end up having politicians being funded by billionaires you don't get representative politics," said Villarreal to the officer, prompting him to mention a Robin Williams movie where Williams' character runs for president.

"He made the joke that politicians should wear suits that list all of their supporters," said the officer, referring to a line in the movie about politicians wearing NASCAR style uniforms.

Villarreal laughed. "I agree," she said. "That would be wonderful, if we could see very clearly who were behind these guys."

It may not seem like much, but in too many situations the officer can be aggressive and intimidating. This officer was trained to establish a non-confrontational relationship with the activist.

It probably didn't hurt that she was cute, too.

The feeling was mutual between the police and activists. One local law enforcement officer called the local radio show I host on WMNF and said that for months, their was a high stress level at his home because of the videos depicting violence between protesters and police.

"We give them credit for behaving themselves appropriately, and that goes a lot further with the average bystander, I think, than smashing windows and throwing Molotov cocktails and fighting police," he said.

Tampa's local activist community has always been small. Former City Council candidate Kelly Benjamin has attended many national and international protests throughout the past decade.

"We're in the Deep South in Florida," he said. "We're the home of Central Command (at MacDill AFB), we're a Red State with a crazy guy running the state in Rick Scott. And it's August. It's Florida. It's hot and humid. You know how many I heard complaining about that all week? This is not a vacation destination in the month of August."

Tampa had never been infiltrated by so many reporters, mostly of the political variety, some of whom participated in various forums put on by The Atlantic magazine and National Journal .

What about the convention itself?

Despite all the complaints about how little news happens, there was real drama the first day of the convention, when the Republican National Committee passed a rule requiring delegates to be approved by candidates. It was later amended to include state parties in the decision making process. The changes were meant to hurt a candidacy like Paul's who won most of his delegates in caucuses held outside of the state's primary.

To be on the convention floor when these rule changes were approved by a voice vote (when in fact the "no" pro-Paul votes were clearly more audible) provoked unencumbered anger that continued to percolate throughout the week. In a party that is desperately trying to appeal to youth (and to Hispanics, and to single women), some of the angriest delegates were some of the youngest,

Last Thursday night, Mitt Romney was poised to give (all together now) The Speech of His Political Career, and as far as Romney speeches go, it wasn’t a bad one.

It also happened to come about 15 minutes after Clint Eastwood's bizarre dialogue with a chair. On Wednesday night, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's speech was also marred because of the many inaccurate remarks it included.

Nevertheless, Tampa was indeed at the center of the political and media spotlight for an entire week in a fashion it may never be again. Hope you enjoyed it half as much as we did.

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