Republicans kick off RNC with help from Georgia’s Vernon Jones

President Donald Trump was nominated for a second term Monday at the start of a Republican National Convention that featured live gatherings and vocal in-person crowds, in a sharp contrast with the virtual event Democrats produced last week.

The kickoff featured the Trump campaign’s response to the string of Republicans who endorsed Joe Biden at the Democratic convention: state Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democrat from Lithonia who was swiftly condemned by his party earlier this year after he announced his support for Trump.

In his speech, the former DeKalb County chief executive slammed a Democratic Party he said confines Black voters to a “mental plantation they’ve had us on for decades.”

“But I have news for them: We are free people with free minds. I am part of a large and growing segment of the Black community who are independent thinkers,” he said. “And we believe that Donald Trump is the president that America needs to lead us forward.”

The president won about 8% of the Black vote in 2016, and national polls show a broad majority of African American voters support Biden, whose supporters hope to flip Georgia in a presidential race for the first time since 1992.

Jones was the only Georgian on a list of dozens of speakers at the four-day RNC, though organizers cautioned that more names could be added. Still, it was surprising to see the Georgia Democrat get a turn in the spotlight while U.S. Sen. David Perdue and other Trump loyalists were seemingly bypassed.

Long a controversial figure, Jones was ostracized by fellow Democrats well before he endorsed Trump in April. And after he backed Trump, state party leaders called him a “traitor,” considered whether to sanction him and backed his primary rival. He later decided not to run for another term.

He’s simultaneously become a hero to some Republicans, earning him droves of new social media followers, frequent bookings on cable TV shows and invitations to GOP events.

Local GOP officials who once villainized him for his leadership of DeKalb in the 2000s now see him as an important Black surrogate in the state’s strongest Democratic bastion. Trump captured just 16% of the vote in DeKalb in 2016, and Democrats aim to run up their margins more in November.

Ahead of Jones’ speech, current DeKalb Chief Executive Michael Thurmond disputed the notion that more Black voters are turning away from the Democratic Party.

“It’s so preposterous, and it flies in the face of all polling data and all anecdotal data that I’ve been privy to. It’s a statement without facts,” Thurmond said, adding that voters have a compelling reason to back Biden: “We have to rescue America from this administration.”

Jones dismissed the pushback in his address, noting that “all hell broke loose” when he endorsed Trump.

“I was threatened, called an embarrassment and asked to resign by my party. Unfortunately, that’s consistent with the Democratic Party and how they view independent thinking Black men and women,” he said.

“But I’m here to tell you that Black voices are becoming more woke and louder than ever.”

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence give a thumbs up after speaking during the first day of the Republican National Convention. (Travis Dove/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

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A GOP surprise

The Monday evening kickoff featured a range of other speakers who tried to alternately energize Trump’s conservative base and woo wavering moderates and independents who reluctantly backed him in 2016.

The lineup included U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a potential candidate for president in 2024. Both presented themselves as emissaries of a big-tent GOP approach.

Among the more controversial speakers were Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who became conservative sensations after they were filmed brandishing firearms at Black Lives Matters protesters marching peacefully down their St. Louis street.

Another late addition was former Georgia football star Herschel Walker, a Texas resident who boasted of a three-decade friendship with the president. Walker said Democrats have mislabeled Trump as a racist and ignored the care he has shown toward social justice issues.

“Just because someone loves and respects the flag, our national anthem, and our country doesn’t mean they don’t care about social justice. I care about all of those things, and so does Donald Trump,” Walker said. “He shows how much he cares about social justice and the Black community through his actions.”

Rather than a rowdy celebration at a packed arena, each delegation responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by sending six members to Charlotte, North Carolina, to carry out the convention’s formal business.

Georgia was represented by state GOP Chairman David Shafer, who submitted the state’s 76 delegates for the president — pledging his support spans from “the Golden Isles to the top of Lookout Mountain” — with a shoutout to Perdue and Gov. Brian Kemp.

Trump aims to inject an element of surprise into the proceedings to one-up Democrats, who tried to present Biden as a candidate who would put an end to the chaos of the Trump administration.

The president put that strategy on display Monday with an unannounced visit to a Charlotte convention center moments after he won his party’s nomination, delivering a speech that cast doubt on the integrity of the election and blamed Democrats for economic fallout from the pandemic.

As the crowd frequently broke into chants and applause — diverging sharply from last week’s largely online Democratic convention — Trump repeated unfounded accusations that vote-by-mail programs adopted by bipartisan leaders in Georgia and other states were part of a pro-Biden plot.

“The only way they can take this election away from us is if it’s a rigged election,” said Trump, who claimed Democrats were “using Covid to steal the election.”