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These Virginia Republicans Saw Their Convention Plans Change

Ginni Thomas and Jo-Ann Chase hold campaign signs
Conservative activist Ginni Thomas, left, campaigns to become a Republican National Committee delegate alongside her running mate, Jo-Ann Chase, center. Thomas, who is married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is going to Charlotte for the convention, while Chase will be watching the events from home. (Photo: Jo-Ann Chase)

Roughly 350 Republicans are converging in Charlotte on Monday to begin a slimmed-down national convention, including six Virginians. 

Conservative talk show host John Fredricks was elected to chair the group by his fellow delegates. The Trump campaign advisor said the one-day event in Charlotte doesn’t even count as a convention.

“There is no convention,” Fredricks said in an interview last week. “It doesn't exist. You have a one day business meeting to nominate the president and the vice president.”

Still, it wasn’t something 79 year-old Barbara Bowie-Whitman wanted to miss. The former State Department official has been a Republican since the day she saw Dwight Eisenhower speak on a whistlestop tour in 1952, when she was 11 year-old. She wrote him a four-line diddy that ends "Eisenhower has the power and my vote."

This will be Bowie-Whitman’s 11th convention. Her first came in 1972, when anti-war protests rocked Miami.

“They attacked a car I was in and ice-picked the tires and broke the windshield and spray painted the car,” Bowie-Whitman said.

She also remembers the lavish parties in the days before campaign finance reform.

“Lovely parties. Nobody has parties like that anymore,” she remembered. 

But not this year.
“It's going to be totally different from anything I've ever attended,” the former diplomat said.

Bowie-Whitman won't leave her hotel except to go to the convention. Masks, temperature checks, and COVID tests are mandatory. It’s enough to reassure Bowie-Whitman, who swims 20 laps a day, works out and beat back cancer.

“I am not worried,” she said. “I take sensible precautions.”

That’s also the stance of Fredricks, who was elected chair of Virginia’s delegation by all of Virginia’s delegates.  The 62 year-old says the convention is doing everything possible to keep them safe from COVID-19.

“If I got it, I’d probably be asymptomatic,” Fredricks said. “I’m not worried about it.”

Health experts are a little more wary. But they say it’s nowhere near as risky as the big convention in Jacksonville that President Trump pushed for as recently as last month.

Fredricks, who advises the Trump campaign, is also glad that didn’t happen, but for different reasons.

“We knew that the fake news would be all over Jacksonville trying to find somebody who got sick, or got infected, or covering the protesters saying everybody was going to die,” Fredricks said. “And you know what? Who needs it.”

Some Republican delegates, like Jo-Ann Chase, were worried about gathering so many people during a pandemic that has killed 170,000 people in the U.S. 

During her six month campaign to become a delegate, Chase prayed that the convention would be scaled down--“that the lord Jesus Christ would enlighten the mind of President Trump and his advisors so that he would make the right decision,” she said. “And the lord answered my prayers.”

Over the last month, Republicans have scrambled to create a virtual convention. Chase, who serves as a Trump surrogate to Spanish media outlets, will be one of around 2,000 delegates trying to recreate convention magic from her living room.

She’s already planning an outfit -- “maybe wear my ‘Make America Great’ or ‘Trump 2020’ hat, and jump and be excited for President Trump.”

Thomas Turner, a Suffolk native who chairs the Young Republicans of Virginia, said he wants to hear a message of unity -- a request that Trump has rarely obliged in his time in the White House. 

“I would love to see a more conciliatory message because I think that's what we need right now,” Turner said, pointing to the pandemic and its economic fallout. 

This would have been Turner’s first convention. As a 30 year-old Black Republican, he wanted to update the public’s perception of the G.O.P -- “to show that the Republican Party is not just a party of older people --  that the next generation is here and we're ready to lead,” Turner said. “It's just disappointing the country and the world didn’t get to see that.”

Stay-at-home delegates like Turner don’t have a formal role in the virtual events. So Turner plans on making one for himself: he’ll use his free nights to phonebank for the president.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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