Though the Republican National Convention officially begins Monday in Cleveland, delegates from Manatee and Sarasota counties have been preparing in advance for what has shaped up to be a convention unlike any other.
Chris Ziegler, state committeeman for Sarasota County, arrived in Cleveland Saturday morning for his third convention, having been involved with past RNCs in 2008 and 2012. His experience with the party has not diminished his excitement, however, as he is personally honored to be in Cleveland as a delegate representing a crucial political state.
Ziegler’s feelings are shared by Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, who was in Cleveland last week to serve on the Platform Committee. He represented Florida alongside Duval County Republican Party chairwoman Cindy Graves. Gruters also served as co-chair of the Economy, Jobs and Debt Subcommittee, making him responsible for shaping the GOP’s official stance on matters such as economic and middle-class job growth.
“To play a lead role like that … was an amazing experience,” Gruters said. He compared the party platform to a sales document, presenting the party’s official stance for the nation to see. Being able to influence the platform directly was a highlight for Gruters, who said that the role made him feel like a small-town guy in a big position. Specifically, Gruters was responsible for the inclusion of language supporting Kate’s Law, providing hard language in support of penalties against undocumented individuals who are deported and re-enter the country.
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The work of Gruters and other committee delegates in preparation for the convention paralleled that of the various police outlets readying the security zone around the event site. Even last week, Gruters noticed a strong police presence in preparation for the arrival of delegates, protestors and various other visitors to the city. While some have expressed safety concerns given recent incidents of violence across the country, Gruters is hopeful that peace will ultimately prevail.
“Peaceful protests are a part of what makes America great,” he said, adding that he has full faith in the security measures taken and those assigned to protect attendees.
Ziegler echoed Gruters’ confidence in everyone assigned to the convention, from local law enforcement all the way up to the Secret Service. He added that though security threats are a legitimate concern, past conventions have never had issues within the security perimeter.
Despite the safety concerns surrounding the event, both delegates are still excited to be attending.
In addition to preparing with the Platform Committee last week, Gruters also found time to admire the city itself.
“I never thought of Cleveland as a beautiful, fun place,” he said. In addition to noting the city’s cleanliness, Gruters was impressed by the public spaces throughout the city and around the Cuyahoga River, which runs adjacent to downtown Cleveland.
This unexpected reaction to the convention venue reflects a primary season full of surprises for the GOP, particularly Donald Trump’s unlikely rise and efforts by various party leaders to deny him the nomination.
This offensive effort seemed to fall flat Thursday when the Rules Committee voted against efforts to unbind delegates from voting for Trump.
Although ill feelings toward Trump may persist heading into the week, Gruters is confident Trump’s nomination and the convention as a whole will heal some of the rifts that have formed within the party.
“We can’t have the same typical politicians,” Gruters said. “We need to think outside the box as a country.” He added that he sees Trump and his recently announced running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, as transformational leaders, believing that under their leadership, the GOP will come out of this week “stronger, ready and winners in November.”
Ziegler also sees Trump’s nomination as a healthy step for both the party and the country, suggesting that much of this election season’s departure from the norm is the result of anger from voters and a growing thirst for change. “We’ve had a primary like no other, and we’re going to have an election like no other,” he said. “It’s what you get when you have an outsider running for office.”
Both delegates agree that the uncertainty heading into the week is ultimately a positive element, noting that the concerns of many have not diminished their excitement. Ziegler described the opportunity as a “bucket list item,” something that has made this convention a great honor following his years of involvement with the GOP. Gruters agrees despite his added responsibilities as a subcommittee co-chair, saying that “to be a delegate … is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Matthew Zyle is a third-year student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he studies English with specific interests in film and journalism. Follow him on Twitter @mzyle1 to view his coverage of the RNC.