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City cancels state GOP convention as party vows legal fight

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 7/8/2020 By Dylan McGuinness, Staff writer
a man standing in front of a computer: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, shown here June 1, said he has ordered a review of the Texas Republican Party’s convention contract with the city. © Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, shown here June 1, said he has ordered a review of the Texas Republican Party’s convention contract with the city.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on Wednesday that the city has canceled the Texas Republican Party’s in-person state convention in downtown Houston next week.

Houston First, the public nonprofit that serves as the city’s convention arm, sent a letter to the party’s executive committee notifying it that the convention has been canceled.

The letter triggers a part of the contract called a “force majeure” clause, which allows one side to cancel for an occurrence out of its control. The definition included “epidemics in the City of Houston,” according to the Houston First letter.

Earlier Wednesday, Texas Republican Party officials said they were preparing for a legal fight after Turner said the Houston First and the city attorney’s office would review its contract with the party for using the George R. Brown Convention Center for the convention July 16-18.

Turner said he sought the review after Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, called the planned convention “a clear and present danger.”

The mayor had been hesitant to leverage his authority to cancel the convention out of fear of politicizing it, and he repeatedly had asked the party to meet virtually instead. He said Wednesday’s decision was prompted by rising numbers and an alarming letter from Persse, who reports to the mayor, outlining the danger of moving forward.

“It is a letter that as the mayor of Houston, that I simply cannot ignore or overlook,” Turner said. “The plan is to exercise those provisions, to cancel this agreement today, to not go forward with this convention.”

Persse’s letter called the spike in Houston an “unparalleled and frightening escalation” since Memorial Day.

“Now, COVID-19 infections are three times greater than they were at the peak experienced earlier this spring,” Persse wrote to Turner and Brenda Bazan, the president of Houston First. “Houston is now among the the national epicenters of the current COVID-19 outbreaks.”

In response, Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey issued a statement saying the party was weighing its legal options.

“We are prepared to take all necessary steps to proceed in the peaceable exercise of our constitutionally protected rights,” the statement said.

The statement recounted several of the steps the party is taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including thermal scanning of all attendees as the enter, revised floor plans to accommodate social distancing, one-way traffic in convention hall, contactless hand sanitizer stations and masks for attendees.

"After allowing tens of thousands of protesters to peaceably assemble in the same city, in the same area, without any of the safety precautions and measures we have taken, he is seeking to deny a political Party’s critical electoral function that should be equally protected under the constitution,” the statement said.

Dickey also noted that Turner signed a new executive order late last month removing his authority to cancel the convention, citing previous Chronicle reporting.

The order Turner originally issued in March imposing restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19 was updated June 23 to force cancellation of all events of more than 50 people in city-owned buildings — unless the mayor authorized an exception.

Under an amended order issued Monday, however, Turner had removed that language. Only events permitted through the mayor’s office of special events were to be canceled.

Houston announced more than 1,000 new cases Tuesday, and Texas reported more than 10,000, both records for the pandemic. Turner stressed that all conventions would be held to the same restrictions in July and August, and that the Greater Houston Partnership and sponsors Verizon and Comcast all asked that the convention go virtual, as well.

“It is not prudent, it is not wise, and it is not in the public health safety of this city, the delegates, the employees and others, for the state Republican convention to move forward, and we will exercise the provisions of the contract to cancel this convention,” Turner said.

State and local GOP officials did immediately respond to requests for comment. The Texas Republican Party for more than a week has rejected Turner’s calls to make the convention virtual, even though the state’s top elected Republicans — Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick — reportedly planned to speak virtually.

The GOP’s executive committee voted 40-20 last week to continue with plans for an in-person convention, and the party said it would have safety precautions, including following Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandatory mask order, socially distant seating and “deep” cleanings between meetings.

The mayor wrote a letter to the senior Texas GOP officials demanding other measures, as well, such as denying entry to people who have had symptoms in the last 14 days. Turner said city health inspectors would be there to enforce the measures and have the authority to shut it down if they were not followed.

Councilmember Mike Knox jokingly commended Turner Wednesday, saying the mayor was fixing a problem he had created.

"I just want to congratulate you on a tremendously impressive piece of political gamesmanship,” Knox told Turner during Wednesday’s council meeting.

The mayor bowed his head and counted out loud to 10, before moving on without responding to Knox.

dylan.mcguinness@chron.com

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