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Texas GOP To Stick With Virtual Convention, Though Federal Judge Ruled In-Person Event As An Option

 The entrance to the 2016 Republican Party of Texas convention in Dallas. The 2020 in-person party convention in Houston was canceled due to the coronavirus, spurring legal battles.
Bob Daemmrich | The Texas Tribune
The entrance to the 2016 Republican Party of Texas convention in Dallas. The 2020 in-person party convention in Houston was canceled due to the coronavirus, spurring legal battles.

A Houston federal judge ruled Friday that the Republican Party of Texas may proceed with its in-person convention, a striking last-minute development as party officials have struggled to get a virtual gathering underway. But soon after the ruling, party Chair James Dickey said the party will continue with its plans for a virtual convention, saying it would provide the best opportunity for delegates to participate.

Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Houston activist Steve Hotze, who helped file the lawsuit, said Judge Lynn Hughes ruled that the party can hold an in-person convention both this weekend and next weekend — and “that the City of Houston may not interfere with it.”

According to Woodfill, Hughes concluded that the state party, which joined the lawsuit Friday before a scheduled 2 p.m. hearing on it, “made a good-faith effort to have a virtual convention" and that Houston put the party "in an untenable position to do it [virtually] in a very short period of time.”

Earlier this week, the party’s State Republican Executive Committee voted to move the convention online after losing separate legal battles to proceed with an in-person gathering, which was set to take place Thursday through Saturday at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center before Houston officials canceled it. The event had been expected to draw roughly 6,000 people.

The party’s virtual convention was set to begin Thursday, though technical difficulties prompted hourslong delays and, eventually, the postponement of the event until Saturday.

Dickey said in a statement after Friday's ruling that, "if for any reason there is an issue tomorrow, we know that we have a single location where, with the necessary SREC authorization," the party could hold convention business.

Meanwhile, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city and the convention center operator, Houston First, would appeal the ruling once they receive the judge’s order, which was not immediately available Friday evening. In a statement, Turner blasted the party for continuing to fight for an in-person gathering.

“The State Republican Executive Committee is being totally irresponsible in continuing to push for an indoor, in-person convention,” Turner said. “This reflects a total disregard for the health and safety of employees and people in our city.”

The judge's decision comes hours after the State Republican Executive Committee, in a late-night emergency meeting, voted to put the virtual convention on hold Friday so party officials could resolve technical issues that derailed the opening day of the gathering. The convention faced hours-long delays Thursday as officials struggled to complete the online credentialing process.

Before Friday's ruling, Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said the party was still working toward resuming the virtual convention Saturday.

"Today we have been hard at work for hours already on Plan A and Plan B and Plan C," Dickey said during an interview with Texas Values. "We are going to make sure that we can move forward with our convention virtually tomorrow."

The back and forth over the convention began weeks ago as the number of coronavirus cases in Texas began to surge, with Houston serving as one of the country's hotspots for the virus. After Turner directed First Corp., the operator of the convention center, to examine its contract with the party, the group sent a letter to the SREC canceling the event. A number of legal challenges, spearheaded by party officials and Hotze, ensued, though none were successful to get the convention to proceed as planned.

Dickey's chairmanship is on the line at the convention, where he faces a serious challenge from Allen West, the former Florida congressman. The election is tentatively scheduled for Sunday.

West has mostly stayed out of the debate over holding the convention in person, though he has increasingly questioned Dickey over the voting technology for the virtual meeting. And earlier Friday, West's team seemed to reach a boiling point when word got out that the party was making a last-ditch legal push to join Hotze's lawsuit.

“It is beyond belief that Chairman Dickey and the RPT allowed a foreseeable catastrophic failure such as this to unfold," West lawyer Clyde Siebman wrote in a letter to Dickey. "Colonel West grew to doubt that it was by mere negligence but continued to give fellow Republicans the benefit of the doubt — until today.”

The party's 11th-hour participation in the lawsuit "proves an intent to disenfranchise large blocks of grassroot Republicans across Texas," Siebman added.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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Cassandra Pollock is The Texas Tribune’s state politics reporter. She joined the Tribune full-time in June 2017 after a fellowship during the 85th Texas Legislature. Pollock spent her first two years at the Trib as an engagement reporter, which meant her name likely landed in your inbox every weekday morning with “The Brief,” a newsletter on all things Texas politics and public policy. Pollock is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism.
Patrick Svitek is a reporter for the Texas Tribune. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.