A small group of protesters gathered in front of the TownHall Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, Wednesday. Inside, the restaurant staff was making preparations for a rally for Republican presidential hopeful and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
But the protesters were not against Rubio. They were taking advantage of the hoopla surrounding Thursday’s Republican debate to demonstrate against the owner of the restaurant, who has been vocal in the movement to legalize marijuana in Ohio.
Ohio’s second-largest city is in the midst of a typical American political free-for-all, in the run-up to the first political event of the 2016 presidential election season, a happening that is being marked with booked hotel rooms, crowded streets, protests and parties.
City officials are busy fielding requests for protest permits, according to local media reports. A group of immigrants plans to march outside the Quicken Loans Arena, where the debate is taking place, to object to the “hate rhetoric” of Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
Another group, Americans United for Change, plans a march to show “how out of touch” all the Republican candidates are. ProgressOhio Education will be protesting Governor John Kasich’s cuts to education. Kasich also is a presidential candidate and will be participating in the debate.
And the parties: Young Conservatives for Energy Reform will be gathering to cheer the debate at the Hard Rock Café, and the American Conservative Union will be at the House of Blues. The Ohio Democratic Party will have a party at the Market Garden Brewery. At this party, more booing than cheering can be expected.
Cleveland: ‘Grit Meets Sophistication’
The unexpected popularity of outspoken billionaire candidate Trump has put the debate in the national spotlight, and it promises to be a great windfall for Cleveland.
“Cleveland has been misunderstood,” says bookseller John Zubal, “and I think, so to speak, an underrated city for a large part of my lifetime. And the Republicans coming here are exposing a side of Cleveland that’s been hidden for a long time.”
On the banks of Lake Erie, the Midwestern city has had a reputation as a rust belt city, whose economic base was manufacturing until both the industry and the city fell on hard times. But recently, Cleveland has diversified its economic base and bounced back.
“World-class experiences without the world-class ego” touts Destination Cleveland, the city’s convention and tourism bureau, which also says Cleveland is where “grit meets sophistication.”
Senior director Emily Lauer says Cleveland has been on a roll since the city’s basketball team, the Cavaliers, hosted the NBA Championship earlier this year. Although the Cavs lost, the event energized the city.
“That level of excitement we saw with the Cavaliers, I think we are seeing that again,” said Lauer.
The basketball championship was also held at the Quicken Loans Arena, known as the Q. With the debate in mind, it may be worth noting that in addition to the Cavs, the Q also is home to the hockey Monsters and Arena football Gladiators.
‘Super Bowl of meetings’
Cleveland was picked for the first debate and it also will host the last and biggest event of the campaign season: the Republican National Convention a year from now.
At the convention, the current field of 17 Republican candidates will have been winnowed down to one, and that person will be officially designated as the Republican nominee.
Lauer calls the convention the “Super Bowl of meetings” and predicts it will bring $200 million into the city.
It is not by accident that Cleveland has been picked to both open and close the Republican presidential nomination process.
The state of Ohio is a swing state that vacillates back and forth between Republican and Democratic candidates. But Ohio also has an eerie track record of picking presidential winners. Since 1964, the state has always voted for the person who won the presidential election.
The Republicans are making their presence known early.