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The Conventioneer

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Now Harris is facing the mother of all logistical challenges. He has to make some 50,000 Republican delegates, dignitaries, and visitors comfortable, and mobile, in the midst of what protesters aim to turn into a cauldron of anti-Republican fervor.

Then there’s security. According to one convention official, planners are grappling with a thorny problem: what to do about Penn Station. The commuter hub needs to keep operating during convention week, but also sits under the Garden, thus leaving the arena’s underbelly vulnerable.

Convention and police officials are also privately debating the extent of street closings around the Garden. Due to threats of terrorism, the closures are likely to be far more extensive than they were during the 1992 Democratic convention, something that risks major disruptions.

There’s plenty more for Harris to worry about. He has to build a staff capable of handling this extremely complex operation. He has to figure out how to keep some 15,000 members of the international media happy during convention week. And then there’s the national audience. He needs to come up with ways to keep millions of prime-time TV viewers gripped by what has essentially become a non-news event, little more than a coronation.

“Harris, like the GOP, is trying to make himself comfortable in political territory as hostile to Republicans as the south once was: New York City.”

Mindful of that problem, Harris is scouring the city in hopes of coming up with big ideas for off-site events. While any program decisions need final approval from President Bush, Rove, and Harris’s boss, RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, Harris wields enormous influence over what the final convention will look like to millions of TV-viewing Americans.

So what does he have in mind? For one thing, Harris wants to stage events at high-profile New York City landmarks. A leading contender for the site of the big international-media party that traditionally precedes the convention is the Brooklyn waterfront, just under the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris is also contemplating events in Staten Island’s minor-league Yankee stadium and in Coney Island’s ballpark, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones—as well as in both big-league stadiums. And an event in Central Park, where a GOP gathering might be tied to the city’s annual SummerStage festival.

Harris wants the GOP to venture into the outer boroughs. He’s eyeing Flushing Meadows Park in Queens as a possible venue, and is exploring events in the city’s diverse ethnic neighborhoods. The idea is that the sight of Republicans mingling with New Yorkers of all hues will project an image of a new, inclusive GOP to a national audience.

“I fully expect to have events all around New York,” Harris says. “It’s an opportunity to show the country, and the world, what the Republican Party is all about.”

Harris’s story—his journey from Alabama to New York—mirrors that of the modern Republican Party. In the late seventies and early eighties, when Democrats still ruled the South, Harris was chairman of the state GOP in Alabama. He stubbornly clung to the notion that the GOP could eventually crack the South, and ended up playing an important role in delivering Alabama in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, whose victory marked a key moment in the protracted Republican takeover of that region.

As Harris climbed through party ranks, he grew close to GOP luminaries like Republican operative Haley Barbour, orchestrating Barbour’s successful campaign to become RNC chairman in 1993.

Now Harris, like the GOP, is trying to make himself comfortable in political territory as hostile to Republicans as the South once was: New York City.

He’s doing all he can to familiarize himself with the new terrain. He has visited black churches on weekends. He took in a Cyclones game. He marched in a parade with Mayor Bloomberg.

Harris appears to be enjoying himself—for now. On a recent afternoon, he attended a Yankees game with Giuliani. At one point, sitting in the stands, he turned to the former mayor and remarked, “Now these are Yankees I could learn to like.”


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