Day one of the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Florida, has been essentially called off due to Tropical Storm Isaac. The city’s police department received $50 million from Congress ahead of the convention, purchasing armored vehicles and high-tech surveillance cameras equipped with behavioral recognition software. We begin our two-hour special coverage of the GOP convention with longtime Tampa radio broadcaster and journalist Rob Lorei, director of news and public affairs for the Tampa community radio station WMNF.
Rob Lorei, director of news and public affairs for the Tampa community radio station, WMNF.
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Amy Goodman: This is “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency,” Democracy Now!’s special coverage from the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Day one of the convention has been essentially called off due to Tropical Storm Isaac, forcing Republican officials to redo the schedule over the following three days. Republican officials plan to formally convene the convention today, then immediately recess until Tuesday.
Mitt Romney is still scheduled to give his nomination acceptance speech on Thursday night at Tampa Bay Times Forum. While Romney and the Republicans have often decried government spending, they are holding their convention in a sports stadium built largely with government money. By one estimate, government dollars accounted for 62 percent of the hockey stadium’s budget.
Local police and members of the National Guard have fanned out across downtown Tampa and on nearby waterways. The city’s police department received $50 million from Congress ahead of the convention. Purchases have included armored vehicles and high-tech surveillance cameras equipped with behavioral recognition software.
For days, authorities have been issuing warnings about planned violence by anarchists but so far all protests have been peaceful. A seven-page bulletin issued by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security claimed anarchists could try to use improvised explosive devices—that’s IEDs—but no evidence has been presented. The report states, quote: “Anarchist extremists and other domestic extremist groups probably lack the capability to overcome the heightened security measures at the RNC and DNC venues but could target nearby infrastructure, including local businesses or transportation systems and law enforcement personnel.”
On Thursday, peace activists gathered outside a nearby Raytheon plant to protest drone warfare. Homeless activists have set up a tent city encampment called Romneyville. Meanwhile, protesters are planning to march on the RNC today despite heavy rain.
We begin this hour of “Breaking With Convention” with longtime Tampa radio broadcaster and journalist Rob Lorei, director of news and public affairs for the Tampa community radio station WMNF.
Rob, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
Rob Lorei: Great to see you, Amy. Welcome to Tampa.
Amy Goodman: Well, it’s very interesting to be here. Give us a tour of the preparations of the city. It was raining hard last night, very windy, although it looks like, frighteningly, New Orleans might be the eye of the storm, the eye of the hurricane.
Rob Lorei: Yeah, that’s where it’s headed. I think the most interesting thing for people that know Tampa or people that don’t know Tampa is that the southern half of downtown Tampa has been completely cut off, and in some ways militarized, so that you see National Guard on the streets. They’re armed with rifles. Police are roaming the streets throughout downtown Tampa. There’s been talk about protesters, but really, the Romneyville camp only has about a hundred people, the Occupy camp has a few dozen people. We really haven’t seen the influx of protesters that the authorities warned us about. And what’s interesting is that you can’t get through downtown Tampa within blocks and blocks of the Tampa Convention Center, so if you’re trying to drive through, if you’ve got business down in that part of town, you have no access to it. And it seems, in some ways, that this is overkill, that they are preparing for something that—a need that didn’t arise.
Amy Goodman: Set the scene of the twin cities—you’ve got St. Petersburg and Tampa—and how they’re preparing in both cities.
Rob Lorei: Yeah. Last night in St. Petersburg at the baseball stadium, the Tropicana Dome, there was a big party, for the media and for the Republican National Convention. And that, too, was blocked off for blocks and blocks, so you couldn’t take a car in, you couldn’t walk in. You had to go in by a special bus that carried two security personnel for every bus that went in. And hundreds of buses were going in and out of the Tropicana Dome. There were 1,800 law enforcement, National Guard, security personnel deployed around the Dome to protect the people inside the Dome that were going to the party. Several hundred protesters were outside, but it was raining. The conditions for the protest was really hard. And really, there was no threat. I mean, the amount of security around that Dome was incredible. You can’t believe it. I mean, it was like a no man’s land for blocks and blocks on either side.
Amy Goodman: They have something like, what, $50 million, the authorities?
Rob Lorei: They’re spending $50 million. They’ve deployed—
Amy Goodman: On security.
Rob Lorei: On security, for machine guns, for these police. If you go into the city of Tampa right now and you see these people in tan uniforms who are police officers, sheriffs’ deputies from around the state, they’re armed, they have pistols on their side, they have what appears to be tear gas bags on their side. They’re waiting for the worst. And, of course, you know, Tampa is not known for having major protests. We’re not like New York or Seattle. And so, why they prepared in this manner—I talked to the police department at one point, and they said they were trying to learn the lessons from St. Paul, and they were trying to learn the lessons from New York and Chicago recently. But this goes way beyond. I mean, there’s probably—and I don’t know what the number are, but there’s probably ten security personnel for every protester who’s in town.
Amy Goodman: Talk about those who will be inside and give us a political landscape here—for example, your governor, Governor Rick Scott, the positions he has taken, how he himself rose to be governor. Now people are hearing about him around the country because of the voter purging that’s going on in Florida and defying the Obama administration around him.
Rob Lorei: Well, our governor was a private healthcare executive, and his company was being investigated by the federal government. He invoked the Fifth Amendment several times as he was being deposed about whether or not this company was ripping off the federal government, especially when it came to Medicare. He stepped down from the head of the company, and his board of directors gave him a parting gift of $300 million.
He used that fortune that he made in the healthcare industry to buy—well, to spend on his campaign for governor. And he spent $75 million, all of his own money, on the campaign. He won by 1 percent in—this was in 2010. In a year that the tea party and conservative Republicans were winning big, he beat the Democrat by just 1 percent. The Democrat, Alex Sink, came very close to beating him.
He’s had a variety of interesting policies. He has required drug tests for all state employees. He wants drug tests for people who are on welfare. The people that have looked at these programs have found very few people are failing these drug tests, and the cost to the state is enormous, and we’re not getting that much return, we’re not really finding that state employees are heavy drug users. So he’s a very controversial guy. His approval ratings are in the mid-30s to low 40s. And there is even some talk that the Republicans within his own party are so upset at him that there may be a courageous Republican that steps forward and wants to run against him in two years.
Amy Goodman: I want to ask you about Florida former Governor Charlie Crist, who endorsed President Obama on Sunday. Writing in the Tampa Bay Times, Crist said, quote, “As Republicans gather in Tampa to nominate Mitt Romney, Americans can expect to hear tales of how President Obama has failed to work with their party or turn the economy around.
“But an element of their party has pitched so far to the extreme right on issues important to women, immigrants, seniors and students that they’ve proven incapable of governing for the people. …
“The truth is that the party has failed to demonstrate the kind of leadership or seriousness voters deserve.”
This is the former Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Crist.
Rob Lorei: And the Associated Press is out with a story this morning saying that he will address the Democratic convention in Charlotte. Crist is a moderate. He was—he started off, I think, on the conservative side, but when it came to teachers’ issues, when it came to whether or not felons who have served their time should have their voting rights restored, he came much over to the moderate position. And at one point, he—very controversially for the Republicans—embraced President Obama, when President Obama came to Florida and announced that he was going to spend—or provide some stimulus funding to Florida’s needs. When Charlie Crist embraced him, that turned the Republican Party against him. There was a struggle over whether or not Charlie Crist would be the standard-bearer for the Senate nomination or Marco Rubio was. Rubio was a rising star. And the Republicans within the party switched sides and said, “We’re going to support Marco Rubio.” Crist was really then a man without a party, so he ran as an independent for U.S. Senate two years ago, and he lost.
Amy Goodman: So, that’s Rubio. That’s Crist. Crist addressing the Democratic convention—it will be Crist and Castro then, right?
Rob Lorei: Yeah, from Texas.
Amy Goodman: The mayor of San Antonio, Castro, will be the—Julián Castro will be the keynote, and Charlie Crist, the Republican—former Republican governor of Florida.
Rob Lorei: There had been rumors about this for the last two months, that Charlie Crist was going to do this, he was going to have a coming-out party. And I think—I think some people firmly believe that Crist will run for governor in Florida in two years. The question is, right now, though, he is not registered as a Democrat, he’s still an independent, and we don’t know whether he’ll change his party affiliation before the Charlotte convention or whether or not he’ll decide to run as an independent. But all indications seem to be that he’ll run against our current governor in two years.
Amy Goodman: Give us a lay of the land. There’s an interesting little tour you give in the local paper, and I’d like you to give it to our listeners and viewers around the country, Rob Lorei. For example, right across from the convention, there’s some—there’s an empty lot.
Rob Lorei: Yeah. What I tried to do, Amy, in just a brief series of paragraphs, was give kind of an alternative history of Tampa. So, right across from the convention center is a lot that stands empty to this day. But about seven or eight years ago, Donald Trump came to Tampa and made a big splash and said he’s going to build the tallest condo project on the west coast of Florida. A lot of dignitaries and delegates were at that press conference. Well, after years passed, Trump never came through with this promise, and yet Trump is touted as a businessman who always gets the job done. Well, that’s a failed project that I suggest the delegates might want to go over and look at while they’re in Tampa, this empty lot where Donald Trump failed to do it. But also, you mentioned—you mentioned government spending on the hockey arena, the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where this convention is taking place. There’s a lot of government spending in this town that these people are relying on, the Republicans are relying on. MacDill Air Force Base, government spending, started by the WPA, the world’s longest—
Amy Goodman: That’s under FDR.
Rob Lorei: Under FDR.
Amy Goodman: Now, MacDill is the home of CENTCOM, Central Command.
Rob Lorei: That’s right.
Amy Goodman: Explain what Central Command is.
Rob Lorei: Central Command is the division within military that controls military operations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, all of that—all those—all that fighting is directed out of Tampa.
But the interesting thing is, if you look at the legacy of the WPA, it’s everywhere in the city of Tampa. We have a beautiful place called Bayshore Boulevard. It’s the longest continuous sidewalk in the U.S., and perhaps in the world. It was built under the WPA. Next to that sidewalk, on the other side of the street, are mansions worth millions of dollars. Those mansions wouldn’t be there if it hadn’t been for the WPA investment.
But the other things that I looked at, too, is that Tampa has a very interesting history. Latinos, people from Italy, people from Cuba, people from Spain, and other ethnic groups came here in the early part of the 1900s as cigar workers, and they had a very militant working history. They were part of the CIO. And there were strikes. They had a—they were also alienated, were not accepted by the white government that was in the central part of Tampa, so they set up their own community, a Latin quarter called Ybor City, which has a history of socialism and anarchy. There were a lot of anarchists that lived in that community. They built their own entities. They built social clubs. Ironically, at one of the social clubs, the Cuban Club, the Republicans will be having a big party this week. Well, the club wouldn’t be there hadn’t it been for the activism of these workers in the early part of the 1900s.
Amy Goodman: In fact, didn’t Fidel Castro raise money there for the revolution?
Rob Lorei: Well, and this area always has had a progressive tradition because of that. In the 1930s, the Republican cause came—and I’m talking about the Spanish Republican cause that was fighting against Franco, that was trying to overthrow Spain. The Republican supporters came here to try to raise money. And the cigar workers in Ybor City funded ambulances and other relief aid for the Republican cause to try to stop fascism in Europe before Franco took over, before Hitler ultimately took over. These people were ahead of their time. Some were called “premature anti-fascists.” Well, Fidel Castro knew this, and so he came here in the mid-1950s to raise money for his cause, to overthrow the Batista dictatorship, and was met with a very warm welcome here in Tampa in the 1950s.
Amy Goodman: And there’s an interesting history with the current govern—with the current senator here that goes back to the issue of his family coming from Cuba and exactly what happened, Marco Rubio.
Rob Lorei: Yeah, Marco Rubio, in his official biography, used to say that his family fled Castro’s dictatorship. Well, Castro came to power in Cuba, as you know, in 1959. It turns out, in the family history, that Marco Rubio’s family came here in about 1955 or ’56. Now, most of the people that were leaving Cuba in that era were trying to flee the Batista dictatorship, coming here because they didn’t like what was going on in Cuba. So, Rubio had covered up that part of his family’s history for a long time, until reporters discovered it a few months ago.
Amy Goodman: Further, this tour of the city.
Rob Lorei: Well, you know, I suggested that the Republicans might want to go to Ybor City, look at the social clubs. Also, there were lynchings here during the civil—in the struggle for civil rights, there were lynchings in 1920s and ’30s. Among the people lynched in the early part of the 1900s were anarchists from Italy. Now, as I said, we have really strong labor tradition here; in the early part of the 20th century, a really strong activist tradition. There was a robbery at a cigar factory, and the authorities couldn’t figure out who had robbed the cigar factory in the early 1900s. The enemy at that time of business and local community leaders were the anarchists. And there were two Spanish anarchists that were just rounded up within hours of the robbery, and they were—they were hung at the corner of what’s now Kennedy Boulevard and Howard Avenue, which is about a mile from the convention center. I said to the delegates, they may want to know this part of Tampa’s history. There was no trial. There was no suggestion that the authorities knew that these men were actually guilty. They just, because they were politically unpopular—
Amy Goodman: It sound like Sacco and Vanzetti.
Rob Lorei: Yeah, and that whole history—you know, I’m sure it’s happened in other communities, and I’m sure that in other towns that we could find other Sacco and Vanzettis. But this is just part of the hidden history of the U.S.
Amy Goodman: Well, Rob Lorei, thanks so much for that tour. Rob, you are usually sitting where I am, here at the public television station, at the PBS station, WEDU. And it’s wonderful to broadcast just before you on WMNF and community radio in Tampa. And I’m really looking forward to doing a fundraiser for WMNF on Friday night at the Palladium Theater Hough Concert Hall. People can check out our website as we travel through the country, beginning now at the Republican convention right through the elections on our “Silenced Majority” tour. So you can go to our website at democracynow.org to check that out. Rob Lorei, longtime leader at community radio station WMNF here in Tampa, and it was wonderful to come by and visit this weekend.
Rob Lorei: Great to see you, Amy. Welcome to Tampa.
Amy Goodman: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the protests that are planned for this week in Tampa.