A city known in recent years for what it has lost is now buzzy for what it is gaining. LeBron James, the city’s prodigal son, may return to the lowly Cavaliers. The Browns, whose stadium was once dubbed by fans the “Factory of Sadness,” are welcoming Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel to town.
And, perhaps in the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category: Here come the Republicans.
On Tuesday, the Republican National Committee chose Cleveland to host the party’s 2016 nominating convention, a political pageant that could bring revenue, national focus — and a bit of protest to the shores of Lake Erie.
Glitzy Dallas — the popular kid in class with the $1 billion football stadium, the silver-helmeted Cowboys, the 2011 NBA champion Mavericks and the many, many Republicans — finished second.
“We couldn’t be more excited,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said on Fox News. “I think that it’s a city that’s on the rise. If you haven’t been to Cleveland lately, it’s a real surprise how beautiful it is down by that lake.”
Why Cleveland, the once notorious “Mistake by the Lake” where tourism officials are now eager to show off billions of dollars in new downtown development?
Well, some politics. Ohio decides national elections, and it helped decide the last two in favor of Barack Obama.
Traditionally working-class Cleveland may be just the venue for a party whose establishment wing is often accused, outside and inside the Republican fold, of being fabulously out of touch with the economic realities of most Americans.
“I hope that a lot of effort is going to be made to showcase the city’s diversity,” said former Cleveland mayor and liberal Democratic icon Dennis J. Kucinich. “It is home to over 100 different ethnic groups. It’s just an amazing community whose praises are long overdue to be sung nationally.”
Blue-collar voters have become an essential GOP prize heading into the next national election.
Priebus has made urban policy a party interest — as have party leaders such as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) — and his push for Cleveland underscores the importance he has placed on issues such as poverty, economic opportunity and education in big cities.
And Cleveland, arguably the capital of the Rust Belt, will help the party highlight a roster of rising Republican governors in nearby Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana — and Ohio’s own governor, John Kasich, who may harbor presidential ambitions of his own.
Sen. Rob Portman, another Ohio Republican, also flexed his muscle to locate the convention in his home state. Already his name is being whispered as a possible top-of-ticket candidate in 2016.
But there are also some quirks that make Cleveland a complicated choice. Take the NBA’s James, who has served as a civic reminder of the city’s national humiliation since announcing four years ago Tuesday — in a nationally televised moment dubbed “The Decision” — that he was leaving the Cavaliers for the winning precincts of South Beach.
Now, after winning two titles in Miami, rumors are mounting that James may be moving back to his home state. And in so doing he could complicate Republicans’ plans for their 2016 party.
The problem for Cleveland that James poses? A city famous for losing could become a winner.
The addition of James to the Cavaliers — a team that went 33-49 last season — would make them an instant contender to win the NBA’s Eastern Conference and possibly advance to the finals.
After all, with a less talented surrounding cast than Cleveland currently has, James almost single-handedly pushed the Cavaliers into title contention for five straight years, including one trip to the 2007 finals and one to the 2009 conference finals.
The hiccup comes in the competing schedules of Priebus and the National Basketball Association. Because of complicated campaign finance laws, Priebus has decided that the Republican presidential contender should be formally nominated far earlier than in recent elections, when the conventions were held around Labor Day weekend.
Instead, Priebus wants a June convention, which would allow the nominee to begin tapping an account of campaign cash that can be spent only on the general election.
This timing issue became a big conflict with Dallas, a city that is quite familiar with success in the NBA playoffs. (The Mavericks have appeared twice in the NBA finals in the past nine years, winning it all over James in his first season with the Miami Heat in 2011.)
The NBA, topped only by the National Hockey League when it comes to long seasons, goes all the way into mid-to-late June.
This year’s clinching title game — in which the San Antonio Spurs toppled James and the Heat in five games — was played June 15. In 2013, when the Heat beat the Spurs in a full seven-game final series, “King James” hoisted the trophy on June 20.
That is terrible timing for a city that is supposed to host a national nominating convention.
For all the logistical reasons imaginable, on everything from stage setting to installing security provisions, national party committees and the Secret Service need several weeks of lead time to make a big arena fit for hosting a convention. At least six weeks of “exclusive access,” by one estimate.
It was Cleveland’s ability to put on a good show and raise enough money to cover security and venue costs that won the city the convention, Republican sources said, more so than the fact that Ohio is a critical swing state — no Republican president since Calvin Coolidge has won the White House without carrying Ohio.
Back in February, as the final RNC bids were being submitted, the Mavericks’ colorful owner, Marc Cuban, was asked if he would move his team’s playoff games to another arena or even another city to make way for the 2016 Republican convention.
“No, and we won’t move,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News.
Such a consideration never seemed like an issue for Cleveland.
After James crushed the downtrodden Midwestern city — once the country’s sixth largest, now 45th — by leaving for Miami, the Cavs imploded. They won 61 games in 2010 with James, losing deep in the playoffs, but then won just 19 the following season without him.
Again a free agent, James is considering a return to the region that he grew up in, northern Ohio, to try to repair the one lasting stain on his Hall of Fame career that “The Decision” represents.
Yet such a move would almost assuredly force the RNC to move back its convention into July, or else the Cavs would have to agree to plan a 2016 playoff schedule in a college venue, such as Ohio State University’s, 140 miles away from Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.
Cleveland — city of opportunities, political and otherwise.
“Criticism from within and from without continue to cloud a city that is constantly self-examining and trying to figure out, ‘How are we doing?’ ” said J. Mark Souther, a historian at Cleveland State University. “It takes a long time to overcome those sorts of things. Eventually, all of the things being equal, one day this narrative will ease.”
Maybe now that day has come.
Abby Phillip contributed to this report.