Georgia GOP meetings ‘press forward’ as virus pandemic grows

A handful of activists attend the Cobb GOP meeting amid a coronavirus pandemic.

A handful of activists attend the Cobb GOP meeting amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The surgical masks at the door were left over from the Ebola scare six years ago. The gloves volunteers handed out were care of a local automotive store.

And many of the dozen or so people who showed up to the Cobb GOP meeting Saturday were ready to leave as soon as they arrived.

Georgia's presidential primaries have been postponed, like just about every other political event and rally in the state. In-person campaigning is out of the question.

So it was surreal to see a small group of activists file into the party's Marietta headquarters for a weekend meeting mandated by the Georgia GOP.

Party officials need not be reminded of the coronavirus pandemic that's sickened hundreds across Georgia and is linked to at least 14 deaths. But they say the only way to select delegates who could eventually be chosen for the Republican National Convention is to hold the meetings as scheduled.

“We don’t want to risk our delegation to the national convention. And I don’t have the authority to cancel. So we have to press forward,” said Jason Shepherd, the county GOP chair.

“We have 400 dues-paying members and 1,200 active members and I can’t tell them they’re cut out from the process.”

The scene was replayed in dozens of other county conventions across the state this weekend as sparse crowds showed up for brief meetings held in party offices, parking lots or park space.

In Columbus, the Muscogee County GOP held its meeting outside a shuttered building, promptly wrapping up within 30 minutes. And Republican officials in DeKalb sent repeated reminders urging members to steer clear.

They were echoing a memo that Georgia GOP chair David Shafer sent earlier this week punctuated by an unusual request: "We would prefer you NOT attend."

"We have asked County Chairmen to conduct the pro forma conventions with one or two other healthy persons from their Executive Committee or officer team," he wrote. "They will call themselves to order, approve a delegate slate and then adjourn. No speeches. No other business."

About 18 people huddled in a parking lot for the Muscogee County GOP meeting. Joseph Brannan

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That put local activists in an awkward spot, particularly those who held meetings in harder-hit parts of the state.

Shepherd questioned why they couldn’t delay the meetings, partly because there’s no guarantee the state party’s May convention will go on as scheduled.

“It’s not the fact that we have to have the meeting today, but it’s the fact that we can’t postpone it,” he said. “We have until late summer. I don’t see why we couldn’t have moved this to April.”

‘Best’ ever

A few activists joined him in the party's headquarters, a squat building near downtown Marietta that less than two weeks ago held a raucous campaign event attracting roughly 400 people who watched U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley endorse U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

(At that crammed rally, Haley was loath to predict that such large-scale gatherings were soon to be restricted. "I think what we need to say is be smart about how you live your life, but don't change the way you live your life.")

The Saturday gathering opened on a somber note, with a prayer for state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a local state senator who announced late Friday she had contracted the highly contagious disease and was recovering in self-isolation.

And Shepherd, speaking from a podium flanked by cardboard cutouts of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, thanked activists watching online for steering clear – even if some thought concerns about the outbreak were overblown.

Roughly 600 people watched the meeting that streamed online, while the handful of people in the room mostly practiced social distancing.

Among them was Joel Allen, a gregarious county precinct chair who described his decision to attend as a civic duty so that others could stay home.

“I’m happy to be here,” said Allen. “I’m glad that there’s a lot of people not showing up and not risking their health. But I felt like I needed to show up.”

After a bit of wrangling over a handful of delegates and alternates, the meeting was finished in roughly half an hour. Within minutes, the room had cleared and activists were on their way.

Michael Williams, an insurance executive, sprang from his seat as soon as Shepherd gaveled the session over.

“It was the best convention ever.”