Liberty University denies reaching agreement with Virginia GOP on drive-in convention

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The university said Wednesday no agreement has been finalized, a day after the GOP's governing board approved a proposal to use its parking lots for the May convention.

FILE PHOTO – In this March 24 , 2020, file photo, a sign marks the entrance to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Liberty University denied reaching a final agreement with the Virginia GOP for a “drive-in convention” in May where participants would nominate the party’s statewide candidates from their cars while parked in the university’s lots.

In a statement Wednesday, the university said it was asked by GOP officials about leasing portions of off-campus parking lots to accommodate the convention plans under pandemic restrictions imposed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) but that nothing had been finalized. Just the day before, the Republican State Central Committee approved a proposal for a drive-up convention at the university.

“When asked by the Virginia GOP officials about the possibility of leasing portions of retail center lots off campus for a day to facilitate a COVID-19 plan for its convention, Liberty said it would consider it, provided that full rental cost for the use was paid,” Liberty’s statement read. “So far, Liberty has not agreed to any particular plan or contract.”

Republicans will nominate candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general before November’s general election, deciding to hold a statewide convention to pick those nominees after a final vote Tuesday night. Members of the GOP State Central Committee opted against a state-run primary as Democrats have chosen and a party canvass, or firehouse primary, three former GOP Virginia governors urged.

The committee worked Tuesday to find a method to limit human contact while staying committed to previous votes to hold a statewide convention. While those who backed a convention said no agreement had been reached with Liberty, they called it a final solution and said approval was granted.

Willie Deutsch, a Central District representative on the committee, told other members Tuesday that Liberty University could provide the space and that a drive-in convention at the university was the “last option.”

Trevor Webb, a Liberty student, told the committee during Tuesday’s meeting that plans to use tens of thousands of parking spaces at the university seemed “unfeasible” and asked if Liberty had even approved such a proposal.

“We do have approval from Liberty,” Mike Ginsberg, a committee member from Northern Virginia, responded. “We certainly would not have proposed it if we did not have their authorization to do so. We most certainly have the authorization to do that.”

Ginsberg added that a site survey would still need to be conducted at the university and the specific communication methods for the convention, including whether delegates will use their radios to listen to speeches from candidates, are still being discussed.

When reached for comment Wednesday before the released statement, a university spokesperson wrote in an email: “Don’t run with the ‘facts’ out there. They’re incorrect.” Liberty listed what the university called “the true facts” in its statement, saying the school:

  • Has not agreed to any particular plan or contract.
  • Has been clear that using any main campus parking lots would not be an option.
  • Never discussed use of any parking garages, which would also not be an option.
  • Did not agree to a one-location plan where one parking lot would handle all the traffic associated with a convention. The discussions were always about multiple lots that were spread out.
  • Never mentioned a number of parking spaces or square footage to be used.  No details or agreements have been worked out. As of today, there has been no site visit.
  • Has not been notified that the date of the convention has been switched to May 8.
  • The retail center parking facilities that Liberty would offer through its real estate holding companies were only offered at market rent like that charged other users who rent these kinds of parking lots and on comparable terms for such temporary use.

While the Virginia GOP will hold a statewide convention, the current location is still up in the air. Liberty said in its statement that a spokesperson for the committee reached out Wednesday “to arrange a visit to the sites and to discuss plans with the understanding that many details need to be worked out for an agreement.”

Concerns over holding a statewide convention amid coronavirus restrictions led to other suggestions, including an unassembled convention or party canvass. One Republican gubernatorial contender, Amanda Chase, even cited the restrictions in a lawsuit against the Virginia GOP to force a statewide primary.

The lawsuit sought an injunction, arguing that possibly having 5,000 to 10,000 delegates “under one roof” violates gathering restrictions in response to the global pandemic. A Richmond judge denied Chase’s effort, essentially ending any chance that a primary would be used to nominate statewide candidates.

Virginia’s last three Republican governors had urged the GOP State Central Committee to choose a party canvass, also referred to as a firehouse primary, writing in a letter to members before the meeting that the panel’s inability to pick a final process “has been disheartening” to watch from afar.

Former Virginia Govs. George F. Allen, James S. Gilmore and Robert F. McDonnell argued that a canvass, essentially a party-run primary, would have accommodated a larger group of voters while giving the GOP authority to prevent Democrats from taking part by requiring people to sign a pledge. The former GOP governors contended the party would not be able to move forward with a statewide convention under the coronavirus restrictions imposed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

“Given the current gubernatorial executive order in place, which could be further extended by this Governor, a large statewide convention will likely not be permissible in June in government-restricted Virginia,” they wrote. “We strongly urge you to put aside differences tonight and select a canvass, which has been successfully used many times previously by our party.”

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