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Philly’s GOP delegates brace for the Trump effect in Cleveland

“I had absolutely no security concerns last time,” said a Philadelphia delegate. “This time so many people are telling me to be careful.”

Philadelphia delegate Aaron Cohen has been to Republican National Conventions before, here in Philly in 2000 and New York City in 2004. But those experiences won’t quite prepare him for this week in Cleveland, where Donald Trump is set to become the Republican nominee — and not just because he’s a delegate for the first time.

“You have a very different flavor and feel for a lot of reasons,” Cohen said. “Part of it is him and part of it is the world’s just a different place.”

Will protests swirl out of control? Will some delegates vote for a surprise choice instead of Trump or decline to vote? These are some of the concerns at what is bound to be the most memorable Republican National Convention in recent years. Around 40 or so Philadelphia Republicans will be there to watch and participate, along with numerous other delegates and officials from Pennsylvania.    

Many in the Pennsylvania Delegation bused together to Cleveland yesterday. This week their featured speakers at breakfasts include Ohio Governor John Kasich and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Most are staying at a hotel in the Cleveland suburbs, unless they arranged their own travel plans.

Little mystery remains in terms of their support. All of Philadelphia’s delegates are poised to vote for Trump, who easily won the city in the April primary. The 1st Congressional district, which encompasses most of the southern and eastern parts of the city, features two Republicans who long ago vowed to vote for whomever the district selected (Trump) and Seth Kaufer, a Philadelphia ward leader. Kaufer was undecided going into the primary but says he has been hoping Trump would be the nominee for a long time.

Kaufer went to the RNC four years ago as an alternate delegate. He anticipates a different atmosphere this time, but not because of any possible divisiveness caused by Trump. 

“I had absolutely no security concerns last time,” Kaufer said. “This time so many people are telling me to be careful. I can’t believe cops are being killed in different parts of the country. To me that’s not Trump. That’s the other side that’s bringing violence and hate. To me they lump us all into one group. I am going to be more cautious and careful about protesters where I go this time.”

In the 2nd District (the rest of Philadelphia), Cohen and Calvin Watkins have been less bullish on Trump but still plan to cast their vote for him.

Several other Pennsylvania Republicans are not following the party line. Former governor Tom Ridge has said he won’t even attend the RNC. Same with Senator Pat Toomey and Congressman Charlie Dent.

Kaufer and Joe DeFelice, executive director of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee, have seen Trump as a net positive for the Philadelphia GOP. More volunteers turned out this spring, and thousands switched from independent or Democrat to Republican.

“The most negative feedback we got,” DeFelice said, “is ‘if you guys don’t support Trump at the convention we’re done.’”

Trump’s messages of national security, protecting police and lower taxes match issues consistent with the Philadelphia Republicans, but they have generally tried to localize their messages and stay away from much of the national rhetoric as they try to increase their foothold in the city.

That, of course, has long been a challenge. Republicans haven’t held meaningful power here since the 1950s. At the Convention, DeFelice plans to visit with Republican parties from other urban areas and swap strategies for building a stronger base.

And after this spring and the rise of Trump, Kaufer believes the Philadelphia Republicans are stronger.

“I noticed the momentum is on our side,” he said. “The energy is on our side.”

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