Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner generated a predictable amount of uproar when he opted to cancel the Republican Party of Texas State Convention on Wednesday afternoon, dashing the plans of more than 6,000 would-be attendees poised to descend on the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston from July 16-18.
In short order, the Republican Party of Texas responded to Turner’s decision with a lawsuit on Thursday, seeking monetary damages and the permission to hold their convention in Houston as planned.
However, in a Thursday evening interview with local FOX 26 anchor Jonathan Martin, Gov. Greg Abbott — who, remember, wasn't going to make an in-person appearance at the state gathering himself — walked the tightrope of expressing regret about the convention’s cancellation while acknowledging the dire conditions in Houston and across Texas due to the dramatic spread of COVID-19.
“It’s unfortunate that it could not take place,” Abbott said before pivoting to the current state of the pandemic.
“It’s clear when you see what’s going on in Houston with regard to the number of cases in Houston, but also the hospitalizations,” Abbott continued, “and now knowing that today, for the first day, we had more than 100 deaths [in Texas] because of COVID — and Jonathan, I gotta tell you, I think the numbers are going to look worse as we go into next week — [that] we need to make sure that there’s gonna be plenty of hospital beds available in the Houston area.”
Despite promises from party officials that the event would be a safe affair — even though they specifically chose not to mandate mask-use by attendees — public health experts had decried the planned in-person convention as far too risky given the troubling spread of COVID-19 throughout Houston over the past few weeks.
In the wake of Turner’s decision to nix the potential “superspreader event,” as it was described by Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department, the reaction among state and regional leaders has varied from enthusiastic support to furious recrimination.
On Thursday, Texas reported a record-breaking 105 COVID-19 fatalities. Earlier that day, Abbott issued a proclamation that extended his previous targeted ban on non-essential surgeries in hospitals within eight Texas counties to apply to 105 of the state’s 254 counties in order to preserve hospital space for coronavirus patients.
Abbott said that as of early Thursday evening he hadn’t seen the state GOP’s lawsuit against Turner. He also hinted that he might be open to the convention being held in a different location, after Martin mentioned that Montgomery County Judge Mark Keogh has publicly invited state Republicans to host their convention just north of Houston.
“What I’ve supported all along is to make sure that this is going to be able to be undertaken in a safe way. The thing I think about the most of course are the lives of everybody who will be attending there and the health of everybody attending there,” Abbott said. “From what I’ve heard from Chairman Dickey of the Republican Party of Texas, he had protocols in place that would ensure safe practices for gatherings, and so I assume that they are prepared to move forward in a way that would be safe for everybody there,” he concluded.
Abbott’s fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reacted to Turner’s cancellation of the convention much more forcefully. Patrick lambasted the move on Fox News Wednesday night, calling the mayor’s decision to stop the GOP gathering “a political hack job by Mayor Turner.”
“Mayor Turner could have cancelled it a week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago. No, he waits until less than a week before it started to cancel it today. Nothing but a political move,” Patrick said on Wednesday.
Patrick’s furor over the cancellation is a bit confusing given that he issued a statement last week saying he agreed with the 20 members of the State Republican Executive Committee who voted not to go forward with the in-person convention due to COVID-19 safety concerns. Despite Patrick’s vow to attend the convention at the end of his statement last week, it was reported that both he and Abbott had decided to only address the Republican gathering virtually were it to go on as scheduled.
In a statement issued Wednesday night, Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey criticized Turner for deciding to bar the convention from proceeding, levying the charge that the mayor was playing politics with the situation.
“Mayor Turner has publicly stated his intention to interrupt the Convention process and disenfranchise Republicans around the state. Mayor Turner changed Health Department guidelines to impose additional requirements on the Republican Party that he did not impose on other organizations,” Dickey said.
“Mayor Turner’s disdain for all Republicans is evident by the divisive rhetoric he uses to describe conservatives and our efforts to participate in the electoral process,” Dickey continued.
The accusations of partisan favoritism made by Patrick and Dickey were exactly what Turner said he worried would follow if he were to cancel the convention. Turner admitted that his fear of looking like he was politicizing the decision was part of why he dithered for so long on whether or not to make the call himself.
“No one wanted to make this to even appear to be political,” Turner said in his Wednesday press conference announcing the convention’s cancellation.
Dan Crenshaw, the staunchly conservative U.S. House Representative from Houston, tweeted Wednesday night that he actually supported Turner’s move to cancel the GOP convention, a far cry from his ally Abbott's fence-straddling and Patrick’s furious rebuke.
“This is a prudent move for public health,” Crenshaw wrote. “I’m glad Mayor Turner finally stepped in to make this call, which also means the TX GOP will not be on the hook for half a million dollars for cancelling the event — as they would have been if asked to cancel it themselves.”
Greater Houston Partnership President and CEO Bob Harvey, the leader of Houston’s premiere business advocacy organization, agreed with Crenshaw that Turner made the right call. The GHP had previously asked the state GOP to cancel the event themselves in the interest of public health.
“We thank Mayor Sylvester Turner for taking the necessary steps to cancel next week’s in-person state GOP convention,” Harvey said in a statement posted on Twitter. “ As a number of organizations including ours have voiced in recent days, Houston simply cannot accept the risk that comes with hosting an indoor event for thousands of participants from across Texas at a time when COVID-19 is surging in the community.”
Of course, state Democrats weren’t going to miss out on getting a few barbs in after a tumultuous few days for their rivals. Abhi Rahman, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, said in an emailed statement that in their view, Turner was actually doing state Republicans a huge favor.
“Republicans should be thanking Mayor Turner, not suing him,” Rahman wrote. “Republicans are lucky that Mayor Turner was willing to do the right thing, cancel this convention, and save them from themselves.”
“Holding an in-person convention in the middle of a pandemic is dead wrong,” he continued. “Republicans need to suck it up, hold their convention in a safe, socially distant manner, and proactively fight the coronavirus pandemic, instead of following Governor Abbott’s lead and waiting on the sidelines.”
Amid all the hubbub following Turner’s bombshell announcement on Wednesday, the voice of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was nowhere to be heard. Arguably the most visible Democratic official in the Houston area next to Turner, Hidalgo had not publicly weighed in on Turner's decision as of Thursday evening, nor did Hidalgo’s press office respond to a request for comment from the Houston Press.
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Perhaps she’s making a conscious choice to stay out of the spotlight. After all, Hidalgo has been a frequent target for incensed Texan conservatives who have chafed at her efforts to proactively manage the COVID-19 crisis with necessary yet drastic measures like attempting to enforce the use of face masks in public and begging county residents to stay at home voluntarily after Gov. Abbott took away her ability to compel them to do so with fines.
That said, Hidalgo did explain on MSNBC Monday night that if it were up to her, Harris County would be under a mandatory stay-home order due to the harrowing spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations within the county in recent weeks.
And if she had that power, Hidalgo said, there certainly wouldn’t be any massive in-person events happening in her backyard.
“I don’t believe that we should be allowing any gathering of that size,” Hidalgo said.