Eduardu Muñoz Alvarez / AFP / Getty Images
Brad Parscale’s two-day Twitter fusillade against San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg has highlighted a prickly conundrum facing City officials and local business and civic leaders: Would the potential economic gains of hosting the 2020 Republican National Convention be worth the costs in dollars, likely protests, and political capital?
As City staff work on a cost-benefit analysis, City, business, and civic leaders say the overall calculus requires a nuanced examination of social, cultural, and political considerations beyond dollars.
But the relentless Twitter campaign on Wednesday and Thursday by Parscale, President Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign manager, also has exposed a tense behind-the-scenes blame game, with charges and countercharges flying about precisely what happened at a private meeting March 23 called here to discuss a possible convention bid. And it has raised questions about Nirenberg’s statement in a Monday memo to City Council “that the GOP opted not to pursue a bid from San Antonio” after that meeting.
Nirenberg made that statement in an April 23 memo to Council in which he reported having instructed City Manager Sheryl Sculley “at the earliest possible date” to provide a briefing so Council could vote on whether to submit a bid to host the Republicans’ nominating convention.
“I want to make you aware of an opportunity for San Antonio to host a national political convention,” Nirenberg wrote in the memo. He explained that he had initially learned about the opportunity a month earlier.
“I was prepared to inform City Council about this opportunity during its executive session on March 28. However, prior to that date, I was informed that the GOP opted not to pursue a bid from San Antonio. As such, no further discussions occurred.”
Several participants in or with knowledge of the March meeting told the Rivard Report that they were perplexed by that claim. “The RNC does not lose interest. That just doesn’t happen,” one source said. “They will tell you … if you do not qualify – not enough hotel rooms, or not a large enough airport.
“But clearly San Antonio was beyond that phase. I don’t understand [Nirenberg’s] statement that there was lost interest. When you submit a bid, it needs to be a united community effort. So, if the mayor or City Council are not a part of the bid, don’t waste your time bidding.”
In a lengthy telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Nirenberg stood by his statement in the memo. Although he declined to name names, he said some local Republicans – not Republican National Committee members – informed him and Sheryl Sculley through former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger a few days after the March 23 meeting they were not interested in pursuing a bid for the convention.
But the source who was in the meeting said the mayor is parsing words. “This is black and white. There’s nothing grey in here. It’s not that we lost interest. The RNC made it very clear that if you don’t have the support of the local governmental entity – in this case the City of San Antonio – your bid will not be successful.”
Participants at the March meeting included Nirenberg; Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff; his son, Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff; Hardberger; several local chambers of commerce executives; and representatives of the Republican National Committee, including Massachusetts National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, a longtime party operative.
Several people who attended the meeting said Kaufman discussed how the bidding process typically proceeds, then talked about the potential costs: San Antonio’s host committee – not the City itself – would be required to raise between $60 million and $65 million to help produce the convention.
Kaufman also told participants that Congress would provide $50 million in federal funds to help cover security costs. (It does that for both national party conventions.) And he cited studies showing the city could reap $200 million in economic benefits from the tens of thousands of people, including an expected 15,000 members of the media, who attend the nearly week-long event.
Kaufman reportedly then asked participants for their thoughts on the pros and cons of hosting the convention.
Sources said that when he turned to Hardberger, the former mayor said he was initially open to the idea of San Antonio hosting the Republican convention. “However, upon deeper thought and reflection, I am now opposed to it,” a source quoted Hardberger as saying.
“You could tell that it was not the Hardberger that we normally see. He was visibly agitated,” the source said.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Hardberger confirmed that those characterizations were accurate, adding that he opposes being the host city for one reason: Trump.
“When you start talking about two-thirds of the citizens of our town being murderers and rapists and lazy, it’s offensive,” Hardberger said, referring to statements Trump made on the campaign trail in 2016 about illegal immigrants from Mexico. “Certainly, the drumbeat of hate that President Trump has shown to Hispanics, not just on one occasion, but everything, the building of the wall, taking down of NAFTA … does not make him a welcome guest in my book. I didn’t think it was a very good fit for him to come here.”
Hardberger, a Democrat, said that he wouldn’t hesitate to host a Republican convention “under ordinary circumstances … if you had the Bushes coming, it’d be a lovefest. But that’s not the situation we have here.”
Following Hardberger’s comments during the March 23 meeting, sources said that Kaufman then turned to Nirenberg to ask whether he and the City would support a bid. Two sources described Nirenberg as declining to respond to the question.
Nirenberg called the description “absolutely not true.”
“I asked questions about the costs, what would be required of the City, in terms of subsidy, and what was to be raised by the community,” he said. “And then I talked about the fact that this would have to be a conversation among the Council, that it’s a lot of resources required by the City, and it’s more than just a business decision in terms of understanding the impacts, that would we would be objective, and the next step for me would be, we take it to Council.”
Nirenberg acknowledged that the economics of hosting a convention “are very compelling. However, I am concerned about how the community would react and the extremely large subsidy and the divisiveness on both sides of the political aisles.”
In an interview with the Rivard Report Thursday morning, Parscale said San Antonio would make an excellent convention host city, emphasizing that his interest is personal since he worked in the city for decades and graduated from Trinity University.
“Spending 20 years in the downtown business community, it is obvious that San Antonio has built itself into Convention City, USA, with a world-class convention center, a large stadium in downtown walking distance, one of the nation’s largest footprints of hotel rooms, and a downtown perfectly designed for a convention takeover,” Parscale said.
He added: “And I wish that weak-kneed Ron could make a decisive decision that helps the income and prosperity of all San Antonians.”
Nirenberg declined to respond to any of Parscale’s tweets.
Like Hardberger, he said the decision requires evaluating the social, political, and cultural characteristics of a city that is nearly two-thirds Latino – a city that has felt under siege by Trump’s brusque and oft-repeated criticisms of Latinos and immigrants, Mexico, NAFTA, and the proposed wall on the border between Mexico and the U.S.
Hardberger worries that widespread demonstrations – likely at a time of increasing political divisiveness – could not only cost the city money but mar its image, depending on the response.
“All you have to do is remember what happened in 1968 in Chicago, where the lasting images were of police beating demonstrators,” Hardberger said. “That did not help the image of Chicago. I don’t think it brought them a lot of fame.
“You want to welcome guests who you feel will enhance your city, and project the image you want San Antonio to have. … But when you have someone coming who has preached hate, it is likely you will have demonstrations, and it is likely that could be very extensive.”
Meanwhile, as a shepherd of sorts for cities that bid on GOP conventions, Kaufman said that San Antonio has time to submit a bid, and that it should carefully consider the economic benefits that hosting one of the two national political parties brings.
“We don’t have a deadline, we have timelines. We’re earlier than normal with our timelines. … If San Antonio really wants the bid, of course [they can submit.]”
Regarding Parscale’s intense interest, Kaufman said the former San Antonio-based digital data and media specialist is not acting on behalf of either the White House or Trump’s re-election campaign.
“He just loves San Antonio. I think he honestly thinks the city should bid. I think that’s where he’s coming from,” he said.
Nirenberg said Thursday that he told Kaufman that the City “will be objective in considering a bid.”
Although careful to remain neutral on whether San Antonio ultimately bids on the RNC convention, Kaufman did say this: “I hope people think it through carefully. If you think Final Four is a big thing, it pales” aside a national political party nominating convention.
This story was originally published on April 26.