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Confetti and balloons fall during 2016 celebrations on the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. That won't happen in Jacksonville this year. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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How Jacksonville scored the Republican National Convention

How the longshot got in the game … and won.

The knock against the city of Jacksonville has been that it lacks the infrastructure to host major events.

For better or worse, the Republican National Convention will settle that debate.

The August confab is easily the most high-profile gathering in the city since the Super Bowl game that took place well over a decade ago. Two of the key figures involved in recruiting the event weren’t even in Jacksonville when that happened.

Brian Hughes and Jordan Elsbury, who serve as Jacksonville’s Chief Administrative Officer and Chief of Staff to the Mayor respectively, came out of the campaign orbit of Mayor Lenny Curry. Elsbury became a city employee when Curry was elected, while Hughes stayed outside the City Hall until the end of 2018.

Curry, a former chair of the Republican Party of Florida, politicized the Mayor’s Office to a degree predecessors John Peyton and Alvin Brown could not have imagined. But that political orientation, with some outside help of course, put Jacksonville in position to draw an event it couldn’t have anticipated three months ago.

After Curry made it known that Jacksonville would be interested in what seemed like an unlikely bid for the convention, dialogue commenced between the Mayor, his lieutenants, and the Republican National Committee and chair Ronna McDaniel, and ultimately the President.

The communications worked.

“The message got to the RNC,” Elsbury said Monday afternoon during an interview in Murray Hill.

Key to the pitch were two members of Congress, Elsbury said: U.S. Reps. Mike Waltz and John Rutherford, two strong supporters of the President who eagerly pushed for Jacksonville.

Curry’s own profile was raised by the city’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, Elsbury noted.

That performance, both in terms of statistics and in pushing back against the “Florida morons” narrative pushed by the national media after Jacksonville reopened its beaches, helped to raise Curry’s profile at the right time.

Also key was the Mayor’s own reputation as a winner, both in terms of his two elections and referendums he had helped pass.

The RNC decision makers were confident he could create local buy-in, Elsbury said,

Michael Corrigan of Visit Jacksonville played a key role, networking to demonstrate that Jacksonville could meet a threshold for hotel rooms, something that will happen, it seems, with regional help.

But ultimately, Elsbury noted, it came down to committing to “executing the event safely.”

Like the Mayor, Elsbury is more aspirational than ironclad when asked about a 2016-style no-mask and full-house convention. The Mayor’s Office is confident in its metrics, which include a continued decline in deaths and hospital and ICU capacity, as well as COVID-19 emergency transports thus far.

A lot is riding on getting the convention right.

“The President, Governors, Senators, Congress members will all be in Jacksonville,” Elsbury noted.

A lot of details still need to be worked out.

For example, the security perimeter around the event, and a designated protest area, and numerous logistics along those lines will be left to the discretion of the Secret Service.

Elsbury contends the city charter gives the Mayor’s Office the right to pursue the event, but ultimately a private entity (the host committee, in this case) manages fundraising and allocates funds.

The city’s main obligation is to shore up public safety, and to that end, federal and state partners will be in the mix, to “do whatever is necessary for the safety of the event.”

The city did not negotiate with the RNC itself, Elsbury noted, meaning there is little evidence of a paper trail one might expect.

Despite the seemingly ad hoc nature of much of the event, another unprecedented happening in these unprecedented times, Elsbury is confident that things will go well.

“We’re planners. We’re executors. We know we’ll get it done,” Elsbury said.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at AG@FloridaPolitics.com

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