Utah’s national political convention delegates want their parties to party, but safely

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah delegates wave signs and enjoy the show at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 18, 2016. There is talk of having some of the national party conventions conducted entirely or in part online as a COVID-19 precaution. Party leaders and some delegates interviewed hope it doesn't come to that.

Washington • The plan, as it is every four years, would bring together tens of thousands of politically charged activists in a big convention hall to rally around their nominee for president of the United States.

There’d be rah-rah speeches, a sea of flags, rivers of red, white and blue bunting and, of course, a downpour of balloons at the end.

That was then. This is now.

The Republican and Democratic national political conventions are set to begin in three months in Charlotte, N.C., and Milwaukee, Wis., respectively, but could look much different than the confabs of the past — or, possibly, go online only because of the coronavirus.

Utah’s elected delegates to the conventions from both parties say they’re raring to go, some expecting health precautions and some yearning for an energizing, packed and as-normal-as-possible show.

“Rather than big-government-state-of-Utah-style mandates that just delay the inevitable while trashing the economy, the party of free people should ask attendees to be smart enough to not attend if they come down with a fever or otherwise feel sick,” says Jeff Hartley, a political consultant and delegate to the GOP convention. “Most adults with at least an average IQ and an ounce of common sense can handle this. The convention may be one big exercise in pachyderm herd immunity.”

The Republican Party, symbolized by an elephant, is moving forward with an in-person convention beginning Aug. 24, though it could include some changes to space out participants and follow health officials’ guidance.

“Obviously we will not be holding a virtual convention,” says Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, a niece of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “So we’re going to put all the safeguards in place to make sure that the state parties that are doing that, that we can help provide them resources so that their processes work out.”

President Donald Trump suggested the GOP convention may move from Charlotte, N.C., because that state’s governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, has continued a ban on large gatherings.

Trump tweeted the Republican Party "must be immediately given an answer by the governor as to whether or not the space will be allowed to be fully occupied,” and added later that he doesn’t want to move the convention but that the party would “reluctantly” move to another city if the lockdown continues.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said Tuesday on Twitter that his state would be happy to host the GOP.

On the other side, Democrats are eyeing three options for their convention, which is supposed to start Aug. 17 after being pushed back from July: A full convention, with precautions in place; a hybrid convention with some delegates traveling to Milwaukee and others tuning in through their laptops; and an all-virtual convention.

Utah Democrats headed to that convention — via a plane or the internet — are mostly gearing up to go, as long as the pandemic’s impact has lessened by then.

“I, for one, plan to attend in person if there is any in-person convention, and believe there ought to be such an event, so long as the second wave is no less manageable than the initial infection,” says Sheldon Kirkham, and at-large delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders. “It is early yet, and I think the national party's recent standing that the convention will likely be a hybrid in-person/remote event is an appropriate stance.”

Kirkham points to Wisconsin as a test case in how severe a second wave of COVID-19 infections will be since the state, with the exception of places like Milwaukee, has reopened most businesses after its top court overturned the governor’s stay-at-home extension.

So, Kirkham adds, “that state’s residents [will] serve in the coming weeks as sort of a high-risk petri dish.”

Dustin Gettel, another Sanders delegate (the Vermont senator won Utah’s Democratic primary before suspending his campaign) and a Midvale city councilman, says his party should consider a hybrid convention for those who want to attend in person but still allow others to participate online.

“I would love to attend the convention in person since this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of us delegates," Gettel says, “and I think it can be pulled off with extra planning and focus from DNC organizers.”

And then there are those who don’t think the big show should go on — ever again.

“I believe the National Convention should be held virtually — always,” says Mitchell Vice, a Sanders delegate. “Traveling can be prohibitive in general and discourage participation from the working class who may not have the resources to incur such an expense.”

Plus, he noted, when Utah Democrats held their virtual convention earlier this year, the participation went through the roof.

The scripted show

Former Vice President Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, having bested a large field of contenders, including Sanders.

And Trump is seeking reelection, having faced little competition for the GOP nod.

So the conventions, with the exception of adopting party platforms, are really just a scripted TV show, meant to draw news media coverage and excite the base in the run-up to the general election.

The parties, though, understand the importance of the quadrennial events as their moment in the spotlight. And, for now, few want to give that up.

“A lot remains to be seen in terms of what happens the next couple of months,” says Derek Brown, chairman of the Utah Republican Party. “But the conversations I’ve been a part of involve RNC officials who are very sensitive to the circumstances in the country. And I think they’ll continue to look for, you know, if any precautions need to be taken. They will take them. What that looks like at this point, we don’t know.”

Gone, perhaps, could be the throngs of delegates packed before a giant stage. Or crowded hallways. Maybe even the balloons.

“Every party generally gets a [polling] bump, as you know, kind of during convention week,” Brown says. “And so it would be disappointing if it didn’t happen in the traditional way. But I think, you know, all the different circumstances will be taken into consideration."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant says his party will take whatever precautions are needed.

“My sense is, of course, that if it’s possible to have a live, in-person event, I’m fully supportive of something like that,” Merchant says, “but I’m really only supportive of that if we know that it’s going to be in the best interest of the public health.”

Then there are the political optics.

If the Republicans go forward with their convention and the Democrats go online, Americans could see a flashy, GOP gathering contrasted with Biden huddled in his basement.

Merchant says there's a possibility of uneven conventions taking place.

“But I also feel like, you know, the other side of that, where we’re talking about being socially responsible is important,” Merchant says. “And obviously the potential optics of a half-full convention hall wouldn’t be a positive thing. But, you know, I guess on the other side of that is that, yes, a lot of people come to a convention and they all go home sick with COVID that also isn’t good, right? So I think that both of the parties are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place on this one.”

Angel Vice, a Utah delegate for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who suspended her presidential campaign, says she would “love” to go to her party’s convention but only if health professionals say it should happen.

“If they deem it safe, I’ll be there,” Vice says. “I don’t think this is a question of opinions, rather it’s a question of science.

Aimee Winder Newton, a Salt Lake County councilwoman and former GOP gubernatorial candidate, says if the number of COVID-19 cases continues to decline, there should be an in-person convention.

“Of course, there should be precautions in place and those exhibiting symptoms should not be allowed into the convention hall,” she says. “Having a convention is a great way to energize a party’s base, and that would be no exception for the GOP.”

— Tribune reporter Lee Davidson contributed to this story.

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