Reporter's Notebook: 2016 Republican National Convention

Jul 19, 2016

VPR's John Dillon is in Cleveland with the Vermont delegation to the Republican National Convention. Throughout the week, he'll provide color, background and observations in his reporter's notebook.

Final Update 1:10 p.m. 7/22/2016

Big roles for Vermonters

Among the 16 Vermont delegates to the Republican National Convention, several played key roles both on stage and behind the scenes.

Vermonter Susie Hudson, a longtime Republican activist who chaired Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, was secretary of the convention and presided over the roll call as states nominated Donald Trump.

When dissenting delegates tried to change convention rules, they needed Hudson to quickly accept their petitions. But news reports said she could not be found, and delegates suspected she was hiding from them.

Hudson declined interview requests made through the party and didn’t answer emails or phone calls.

Jay Shepard of Essex Junction is the state GOP’s national committeeman to the RNC. He had a prime time speaking slot Tuesday night when he delivered the opening prayer at the convention.

“It was a tremendous honor to be asked to make an invocation, to be on the big stage during prime time on the night in which the presidential candidate was nominated,” he said. “It was a real important part of the evening, I think. And it was a tremendous honor my father and I have been talking about since 1964.”

Essex Junction resident Jay Shepard, the state GOP's national committeeman to the RNC, had a prime time speaking slot Tuesday night when he delivered the opening prayer at the convention.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Vermont GOP operative Darcie Johnston was a floor whip for the Trump campaign. In that role, she tried to keep delegates on time and on task, as well as to help quell any uprising among those who opposed Trump.

“They [the Trump organization] were very well prepared. It is probably the most sophisticated and experienced whip operations ever,” she said.

Johnston was on the floor as whip when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz refused to endorse Donald Trump. The crowd – led by the New York delegation seated just feet away from the stage – began booing.

Johnston said it was an unscripted moment: “It was nothing we can control as a whip. It’s just something that happens organically when you have that many people in the room.”

And how did the Vermont delegation react to the Cruz speech? “They were polite, but they were not hugely supportive," Johnston said. "And when he did not endorse and the rest of the crowd booed, they were right there too.”

Update 9:30 p.m. 7/21/2016

Vermonters protest outside the convention

Cleveland has been a city on virtual lockdown this week as the Republican National Convention drew both protests and an overwhelming police presence.

Some Vermonters made the trip to Ohio this week to take part in demonstrations.

Among them is Will Bennington from Plainfield. He’s with the Vermont Worker’s Center, and is part of a caravan that’s heading from Cleveland to next week’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia.   

“We’re traveling from the RNC to the DNC to bring a message that communities across the country are standing up to the racism, the hate, the misogyny, the xenophobia that is being  offered at the RNC and we’re also saying no to the militarism that the DNC and Clinton offers,” he said. 

Will Bennington traveled from Plainfield to Cleveland to participate in a protest outside the Republican National Convention.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Police agencies from around the country are present in Cleveland this week, including uniformed Secret Service agents, and highway patrols from Florida, Ohio, Kansas, California, Indiana and other states.

It’s part of what the authorities call “soft power” — a dominant show of force that by its very presence tends to prevent any protests from getting out of hand. I caught up with Bennington at Cleveland’s Public Square, a small park with a fountain at its center where demonstrators have assembled.

The square was ringed with officers, many on horseback and bicycles. The number of police seemed to equal to the number of protesters. GOP delegates also strolled by, some carrying Donald Trump “make America great again” banners.

Officers at Cleveland's Public Square.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Bennington said he wasn’t fazed by the police presence.

“We’re doing what we have to do. We’re in the midst of a growing storm of hatred and racism that is being encouraged by Trump. So we have to be out in the streets demonstrating against it and building power with our communities. So if they’re going to use those tactics to intimidate us, we’ll just have to stand up to it.”

The protesters can’t get near the convention site at the Quicken Loans Arena, which is closed off behind concrete barriers and high steel fences. But Bennington says he and others are aiming their message to the people in Cleveland and beyond. 

Police officers at a protest in Cleveland's Public Square. They're part of what officials call a "soft power," or a strong show of force to prevent conflicts from developing.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Update 3 p.m. 7/20/2016

The life of an alternate

Each delegation to the Republican National Convention has a set of understudies – alternates who substitute for the regular delegates if someone gets sick or can’t make it on the convention floor for party business.

The 16 Vermont alternates get to enjoy the scene with little of the stress or the tedium of pre-prime time speeches. But for some, it’s very serious business.

Bill Lawrence, a retired hotel consultant from Jericho who is running for the Vermont House, is here in Cleveland to network and pick up some political pointers for his campaign. On the first morning, Lawrence listened intently as Arkansas Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin described how his state went from being controlled by Democrats to one now dominated by Republicans.

Griffin called for total streamlining of government agencies to bring them into the era of information technology. “Everything they [federal agencies] do, they want to do the old way,” Griffin said. “Because they want to do it from Washington, dictated down like a Cold War-era factory. That’s not the way the world is organized.”

Alternate Bill Lawrence, a retired hotel consultant from Jericho who is running for the Vermont House, is here in Cleveland to network and pick up some political pointers and talking points for his campaign.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Lawrence, the Vermont candidate, says he heard some good advice from Griffin.

“There’s some things that we can come back to Vermont with and institute, and look at Vermont and how we do business in state government,” he said. “Are we doing business in a smart way? And that’s just what [Griffin] said.”

Lawrence says there are lessons to be learned from speakers like Griffin, despite the differences in political culture between Vermont and Arkansas, a southern state once controlled by conservative Democrats.

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“I don’t think there are [huge differences]," he says. "If you heard what he said, it was Democratic and it moved Republican. And I can tell you, I’m out there today and Democrats are telling me it’s time for a change in Vermont. I think they’re tired of one-party rule.”

If Lawrence is here to help launch his political career, Rutland Republican Mark Candon is in Cleveland more to reap the benefits of a lengthy association with the Republican Party. Candon was elected to the Vermont House in his 20s; he ran against Bernie Sanders for Congress in 1998, but now works politically behind the scenes. He’s the mover and shaker, for example, behind a golf tournament fundraiser each summer for the party.

He was a delegate on the floor four years ago at the GOP convention in Tampa, but now he’s enjoying the down time.

Rutland Republican Mark Candon was a delegate on the floor four years ago at the GOP convention in Tampa, but now he's enjoying the down time. He even found time Tuesday to take a dip in Lake Erie.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

“I kind of like the fact that this year I’m an alternate and I can walk around if I want. So yesterday [Monday] there was a lot of long and boring procedural matters to deal with, and I went up to 'Radio Row,' and walked around and saw a lot of celebrity-type media people, stopped and said hello to Howie Carr, the Boston talk radio guy.”

Candon even found time Tuesday to put on his bathing suit and head to a sandy beach on Lake Erie for a dip.

“It’s a lot easier [to be an alternate] and it’s more fun, and I’m enjoying it,” he said. 

Updated 9:54 p.m. 07/19/2016

Security

The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland is a fortress, ringed by Jersey barriers and high chain-link fence, and guarded by Kevlar-vest wearing, heavily-armed federal, state and local police.

It’s understandable, of course. Terrorist attacks overseas, the police shootings and anti-police shootings have the nation on edge.

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But for all the tension, cops are remarkably friendly, providing you have the right access badge on your lanyard. But stray out of line and guys in black, assault rifles slung sideways across their chests, will surround you.

The security operation is being overseen by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has designated the convention as a “national special security event” and placed the U.S. Secret Service in charge.

A sign outside the Quicken Loans Arena warns the area is a "no drone zone."
Credit John Dillon / VPR

The California Highway patrol sent 300 members. One tall officer from Humboldt County told me they packed an entire 747 for the charter to Cleveland.

Not all the cost is being borne by Cleveland or Ohio taxpayers. We’ll all pay for it. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that roughly $50 million in federal funds will be available.

Update 1:30 p.m. 7/19/2016

Voting Decided

The 16-person Vermont delegation to the Republican National Convention met privately this morning to resolve which candidates to vote for when the party as a whole nominates Donald Trump Thursday.

Jay Shepard, co-chairman of the delegation, asked a reporter to stay away during the discussion so delegates could “speak freely” about their differences.

After the March primary, the delegation was divided evenly between those committed to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and those pledged to Trump. But since Kasich has effectively dropped out, candidates were free to vote for others.

The vote will break down like this: thirteen will vote for Trump, one for Kasich, and two for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The Kasich supporter is Janssen Wilhoit, a state representative from St. Johnsbury. Jace Laquerre of Colchester and Essex Rep. Paul Dame will vote for Rand Paul.

Jace Laquerre, left, and Janssen Wilhoit are two of the members of the Vermont delegation who are planning on not voting for Donald Trump.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Disappointed in Kasich

Meanwhile, Kasich supporters in the Vermont group are disappointed that their favored candidate has decided to duck the convention, which is being held in his home state. Kasich is appearing at events around the city but has publicly avoided endorsing Trump, or appearing at the convention.

Suzanne Butterfield, a Republican from Stockbridge and avid Kasich backer, says she wishes the governor would swallow his pride for the sake of party unity.

“He’s probably got hurt feelings. But it’s almost not fair to all of us, because he can’t put that aside,” she said.

Butterfield is planning to see Kasich Tuesday at a separate event at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If she gets a chance, she wants to tell him how she feels.

“He had no qualms that he didn’t like Trump, but he was also the nominee who held up his hand and said he would support whoever won the outcome,” she said. “I respect his decision to say and do what’s on his mind, but for myself I’m going to have to tell him how disappointed I am.”