CLEVELAND — Settling for the last candidate standing was not the way that Jessica Fernandez, the 31-year-old president of Miami’s Young Republicans, originally envisioned her first national political convention.
Fernandez had hoped for a joyous multicultural and multigenerational experience cheering Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a fellow Cuban American from her old neighborhood.
But by the time the Republican National Convention got underway this week, Fernandez was dealing with a less-enticing reality. Surrounding her on the convention floor was an aging, mostly white crowd, jamming to a cover of “My Sharona,” enthused by a candidate who has tied his ascendancy to their anxiety.
“Just look around,” she said, pointing to her fellow Floridians. “I’m a little unicorn.”
For many delegates here this week, just attending was a tough decision. The convention is the culmination of a drawn-out political process that left them with the candidate they liked the least. Now they had to figure out how to deal with it.
For Fernandez, that means learning to accept a vision for the country that she didn’t share, while attempting to assert her ideas into a party that seemed to be moving away from them.
She appreciated that Rubio, the son of immigrants, conveyed the optimism of the American dream. Donald Trump was negative and the son of a millionaire.
Rubio tried to avoid personal attacks. Trump called him “sweaty” and “little.”
And now, with the country focused on police shooting black men and black men shooting officers, Fernandez worried that there wasn’t enough discussion in her party about having police engage with minority communities. On Monday, she watched the crowd’s approval when speakers criticized Black Lives Matter and uttered, “All lives matter.” This was not the compassionate party she was seeking.
Yet here Fernandez stood, at Trump’s convention — letting go of her doubts and, as she called it, “toeing the line for Trump.”
“It’s hard, to be honest,” Fernandez said. “There were my feelings, and then there were my friends who were telling me not to go and people I respect decided they couldn’t support [Trump].”
Fernandez resolved that the Republican Party could not run away without her.
“If I want younger and more Hispanic people in the party, I have to be involved here because I’m young and Hispanic,” Fernandez said. “We have to show our presence.”
The Florida delegation spoke of unity, unity, unity. But, for Fernandez and others from multiethnic Miami-Dade County, this was a challenge. With his talk of a border wall and mass deportations, Trump had alienated many Hispanics.
Eric Shure, 32, from Fort Lauderdale, said he won his delegation seat by promising he would not cause a stir at the convention — that he would go with the flow.
“There was some turmoil,” Shure said, “but we can’t waver against a man who won in 66 of the 67 counties in your state.”
Fernandez, of course, was from county No. 67, but she, too, felt a sense of partisan piety. She said her allegiance to Republicans solidified after college, when she realized how much was taken in taxes out of her paycheck.
In February, she told The Post that she and others in Miami were in a “love triangle,” torn between the charm of Rubio and the experience of another hometown favorite, former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Both sat out the convention; Bush even said he would not vote for Trump.
Fernandez said she had been shocked when a reality-TV star began to move ahead in the polls. As Bush sank, she fully backed Rubio. As Trump solidified his lead, Fernandez wrestled with self-doubt.
She said she began to think: “Well, I’m an American. I believe in the will of the people. Maybe they are seeing something I don’t fully grasp yet.”
So she tried to look beyond Trump’s bombast. She sat on the convention floor on the first day and was moved to tears by the testimony of Marcus Luttrell, the retired Navy SEAL who spoke of being the lone survivor of a military ambush in Afghanistan. She laughed that the convention called Scott Baio to speak (“Okay, a bit of a B-list”) and texted with her friends about how good- looking Antonio Sabato Jr. was (“Hello Hottie McHotterson,” her friend texted.) She liked all their messages. Reporters continually asked her for interviews, seeking her unique perspective.
“I just wish Trump would chill with some of the rhetoric,” she said.
But the rhetoric had no chill. Three parents took the stage, each telling a tragic story of how a loved one was killed by immigrants in the country illegally.
“I call them illegal aliens,” Sabrine Durden told the crowd to great applause.
When Durden concluded, the almost exclusively white delegation from Tennessee — seated directly behind Fernandez, many wearing Davy Crockett-style raccoon hats — erupted in even more applause.
“It’s about time someone recognized what was happening in this country,” said Mike Welch, 71, a swimming pool contractor from San Diego. He sat behind the delegation, although he was not officially a part of it. “I liked Trump from the beginning because he doesn’t do the political dance.”
Fernandez was doing a dance of her own — to empathize with her comrade’s thinking.
“ ‘Aliens’ is not the term I would use,” she said first. “Language does matter.”
“Language matters, but maybe we shouldn’t be so offended so easily,” Fernandez said. “Maybe we’ve lost sight about things important.”
She then noted that Trump’s rhetoric was less dangerous than Hillary Clinton’s involvement with the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. “He didn’t kill people.”
Now, her voice was rising.
“You know, my grandfather’s card when he came to this country said ‘Resident Alien.’ That’s what it said,” she said. “But they learned English and became Americans, and now we have people who are seeing people come into their towns illegally and put up the Mexican flag.”
And then, another pause.
“Listen, I’m not naive,” she said. “I know there are racists in the party. I know there are racists everywhere, and I know there are people who might not understand the nuance of some of these issues as well as I do. At the end of the day, I agree with what they want to do. That’s why I’m here.”
As she spoke, the chairman of the state Republican Party walked past her and noticed her passionate defense. He put his arms on her shoulders and began to massage them.
“Whoo-sa,” said Blaise Ingoglia, who serves in the Florida House of Representatives, half-jokingly. “Calm down. It’s okay. “
“I’m just defending Trump,” she said.