Controversy and Craziness in Cleveland: Colorado GOP Head's RNC Field Report

A few hours before festivities for the third night of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland got under way, Steve House, chairman of the Colorado Republican Committee, predicted a change of tone at the gathering, whose first two days had been marked by controversy over plagiarism charges aimed at the speech given by Melania Trump, wife of GOP nominee Donald Trump, and acrimony over the squelching of a roll call vote that put Colorado's delegation in the national spotlight.

"These next two nights, you're going to hear a lot more about Donald Trump and who he is," House said. "We've heard a little bit of that from some of the speakers on Tuesday night, and we also got the attack-the-other-side thing, showing why Hillary [Clinton] isn't qualified. But now we'll have two nights of who is Donald Trump and why he is the guy who should be president."

Of course, things didn't quite work out that way. On Wednesday evening, the national introduction of Indiana governor Mike Pence, Trump's choice for Vice President, was overshadowed by the intense, chaotic reaction to Texas senator and nomination runner-up Ted Cruz declining to explicitly endorse Trump, whom he called a "sniveling coward" mere months ago.

The Cruz contretemps was only the latest off-script occurrence at the RNC, with several of them involving the Colorado delegation.

"We've gotten a little more attention than I'd like," House admitted. "I don't think we came here to be famous or infamous — and at some level, the argument that we had on the floor on Monday got us a little more attention than we wanted. But we weren't the only ones. There were three states that had a huge stake in it, and nine states that were participating."

Still, Colorado, whose delegates overwhelmingly supported Cruz, got the most spotlight time after reportedly walking out of the convention hall in protest at exactly 4:20 p.m. — timing that delighted the likes of Stephen Colbert, who made the requisite weed jokes. But House says much of the reporting about what happened was either inaccurate or misleading.

"In the end, the delegates were trying to establish how parliamentary procedure works in regard to the chair and the roll call," he said. "They had other intentions all along; these were people who didn't like Donald Trump and wanted to disrupt that. But at the same time, there's a process and a procedure, and on Monday afternoon, I don't think it was handled very well on the side of the guys who were running the convention. People got upset, they reacted, they demonstrated, and then we moved on.

"But this walkout thing is a little bit overdone," he continued. "I was there. I didn't walk out. I stood there and watched my delegation — twenty of the 37, or a little more than that — get up, walk to the side. There's a hallway, an exit hallway where we're at, and they walked there and grouped there and talked. And what I heard from them is, they stepped aside to talk about strategy at that point, and then they came back. They were off the floor for about five minutes. That's all."

At some level, House understands why this brief departure got the press excited.

"There was such a huge buildup with [Colorado delegate] Kendall Unruh and the 'Free the Delegates' movement last week," he acknowledged. "There was a lot of pressure and extra attention. But I saw pictures in the media of empty seats in the Colorado delegation that had nothing to do with that moment.

"Those were empty seats from when the arena was empty, because there were some of us there the whole time," House maintained. "You don't see that in the photos. But the media's perspective was, there was no recognition of a desire for a roll call vote, there was chanting for roll call, and when the chair gaveled it down that the 'ayes' had it on the rules, the group turned and walked out of the delegation itself. But what really happened was, they walked over, talked, watched, and then when the next vote came on, they walked back on the floor."

The walkout reports stoked interest in Colorado during Tuesday's state-by-state roll call, during which the delegation cast the lion's share of its votes for Cruz — and was booed lustily by Trump loyalists for doing so.

"There was a lot of media there, because there were rumors that there would be a walkout or some level of demonstration on the part of the Colorado delegates," House noted. "I knew that wasn't going to happen, but that didn't mean we weren't jammed in there like sardines because people were waiting to see what was going to happen. And frankly, when I did report the voting on the roll call, I couldn't hear what was going on in the rest of the arena. I heard some people booed, and I get it."

The Colorado delegation was placed about as far from the main stage as possible, and House admitted, "I've seen these stories written saying 'Donald Trump's punishing the Colorado delegation.' Well, if you've been around politics for any period of time, at a convention, whoever's got the most delegates, they sit up front. It's politics, it's optics, whatever. And Colorado and Texas," whose delegation was also in the boonies right next to Colorado and was filled with Cruz lovers, "had very few delegate votes for Donald Trump.

"When Texas got up and voted, we heard the same kind of noise about them. We were a little more controversial, but I didn't mind. People let us know how they felt and we moved on. And just for reference: In 2012, the Ron Paul people walked out of the stadium. They left. That didn't happen here."

National conventions traditionally concentrate on putting disagreements in the past and uniting behind a single candidate — and even before the Cruz kerfuffle, there were doubts about whether the Cleveland RNC was achieving anything of the sort. But House expressed confidence that it would happen.

"We had one U.S. senator, Jeff Sessions, and three U.S. congressmen from outside the State of Colorado [including Texas's Lamar Smith] come in and speak to our breakfast delegation this morning," he said, "and the whole thing was about why Donald Trump, not why not Hillary.

"Now, I'm sure that some of the speakers tonight and tomorrow will continue to point out Hillary's failings. But this morning, we began with talking points about the differences between an ideological campaign and one that's more focused on nationalism and pride and patriotism and principles of what America is. That transition has started already."

As for the question of whether Republicans in Colorado should embrace Trump or keep him at a distance, House emphasized that "people should run their campaign to get a feel for what's going on. If you're running a local campaign and you're talking about local Colorado issues and then your party head is talking about peace through prosperity and protecting the homeland, those don't really resonate necessarily at a House or Senate district level.

"However, it does develop a sense of pride in people about what America is, and I think they need to get on board with part of the messaging, if not fully on board with Mr. Trump, at least after they get a little more comfortable coming out of the convention."

Not taking the cautious approach is Tea Party-backed Darryl Glenn, Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, who's running against Democrat Michael Bennet.

Glenn spoke at the RNC on Monday, endorsing Trump from the stage and thrilling the crowd with red-meat rhetoric of the sort that's led some critics — and even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — to suggest that his far-right views will doom him to defeat in November.

"I reject that idea," House responded when asked about the subject. "First of all, I think Colorado is a conservative state — and Darryl Glenn is nothing close to being an extremist. He's a hardworking kid who went to the military and got things done. And I think he's more than a great public speaker, even though he is a very, very good public speaker. After he spoke, I got six or seven text messages almost immediately saying to me, 'I saw Darryl speak, and I want to do a fundraiser for him.' And these were from people who are very high-dollar donors.

"So people react to him, and then when people meet him, they all come away with the same impression: 'I like this guy.' They don't know exactly why they like this guy, but they like him. He's funny and creative, and his level of engagement with people and his ability to develop likability with people, that's going to be one of the big reasons why he ends up defeating Michael Bennet."

In the beginning, Glenn didn't get much publicity for his speech. But the night afterward, The Daily Show skewered him for lines such as "If we really want to heal our communities, more men need to start stepping up and taking care of their children" and "Safe neighborhoods happen when fathers and mothers are in the home," which host Trevor Noah portrayed as coded anti-black stereotypes designed to appeal to the GOP's Caucasian base.

House's take? "Sound bites don't always give enough depth to give you an idea of what he means. He wasn't trying to play to a white crowd, if you will. I think Darryl was referring to men fathering their children and being in their lives. We've heard that from Bill Cosby in the past and other people like that as well, and Darryl believes that from his own experiences.

"For the Republican Party to succeed, ultimately, we've got to be able to use free markets and what we believe about fiscal policy to help fight poverty. It's not the only thing on the agenda, but it's certainly an important part of the agenda. If you say, 'Prove to me that free markets work,' well, the best way to do that is to go into impoverished areas and help those areas rejuvenate and get those areas to put people on a better track to do what they need to do. Darryl's talking about that, but he also knows that if you look at the stats on income and equality, two or three things cause it. One is a lack of economic growth, but another one is that impoverished households suffer from greater income inequality than almost anywhere else. And if that's the case and you want to prescribe a solution, you talk about two-parent households and fathers being in their children's lives, because that helps kids get educated and be on the right path. I think once Darryl rolls that out and explains that and we get away from just sound bites, people will understand it."

Another Coloradan to reach the RNC stage was Libby Szabo, described by House as "a Hispanic county commissioner"; she's from Jefferson County. "That was another really, really important piece for us. And we've had good strategy discussions with the Trump campaign. So the delegation is ready to move forward. There will be delegates who won't push the Trump agenda, but even some of the ones who supported Ted Cruz have been wearing Trump paraphernalia, and almost all of them have talked to me about how they get on board with winning."

Conservative commentator "Dinesh D'Souza said something really important to us four or five weeks ago when he was in Colorado," House pointed out. "He said, 'Politics is a team game, and once you win the game, then you get to apply your principles.' So if you're worried about your principles before you've won the game, or try to filter a candidate because you don't like their specific stance on principles, it doesn't really matter. Unless you win, you don't get to apply your principles. That's the focus we have, and I think that's why people will come out unified and vote for Donald Trump in enough numbers to defeat Hillary Clinton."

Trump is expected to deliver that message tonight, the final evening of the RNC. But given the craziness to date, plenty of other things could happen — and no one would be surprised if the Colorado delegation was in the middle of the action.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts