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Where California’s GOP delegation ranks: a hotel at a water park 60 miles from the convention

California delegates check in to their hotel, an African-themed resort in Sandusky, Ohio, about 60 miles away from the site of the GOP convention. They have the longest commute of any of the states' delegates.
(Annie Yu / Los Angeles Times)

The California Republicans at the GOP convention are staying so far from Cleveland that they might as well be in, well, California.

They’re such an afterthought that where they’re sleeping, Cleveland radio stations turn to static. They need a law enforcement motorcade to escort them to events on time. Even their hotel, an African-themed resort attached to the nation’s largest indoor water park, has the feel of National Lampoon’s “Vacation” rather than a major political event.

California may serve as the source of hundreds of millions of campaign dollars and have the biggest delegation in the GOP, but as Republicans convene to nominate Donald Trump in the most unusual convention in decades, the state’s delegates are consigned to second-class status. They were assigned lodging nearly 60 miles from downtown Cleveland, farther than any other state’s delegation, thanks to a combination of the irrelevance of deep-blue California in the presidential election and the difficulty of securing space for the 550 delegates, alternates and their guests when hotel rooms are at a premium.

“The worse our registration gets in California, the further away they move us,” said Charles Moran, a delegate from Los Angeles, as he sipped a glass of wine after arriving this weekend in Sandusky at the delegation hotel, dotted with sculptures of wild animals.

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Most are trying to make the best of it, noting that they are far from the protests expected in downtown Cleveland, and are instead staying along the shores of Lake Erie in a town that draws families to its famed amusement parks.

The California delegation was relegated nearly 60 miles from downtown Cleveland. Their hotel, located in Sandusky, Ohio, is an African-themed resort.
The California delegation was relegated nearly 60 miles from downtown Cleveland. Their hotel, located in Sandusky, Ohio, is an African-themed resort.
(Annie Yu / Los Angeles Times )

“We’re basically in the resort part of northeastern Ohio,” said Brandon Gesicki, a delegate from Carmel who attended college in Ohio.

Though the destination is a far cry from 17-Mile Drive, state party Chairman Jim Brulte urged delegates to take advantage of the hotel’s amenities.

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“I intend to take on all comers in the cannon-ball contest,” he told them.

The handful of hotels in or near Cleveland that could house and feed such a large group were given to states such as solidly red Texas, the home of nomination runner-up Sen. Ted Cruz; New York, home to presumptive nominee Donald Trump; perennial battleground Ohio; and Wisconsin, where RNC Chairman Reince Priebus hails from.

Though delegates say they understand, the distance and the accompanying ignominies can sting. In 2012, the group was housed on a barrier island in Florida that was nearly cut off from the continental U.S. when Hurricane Isaac barreled ashore.

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The convention that year was in Tampa, about 40 minutes from the delegation hotel in St. Pete Beach. But the transportation system the RNC set up to move delegates around the area left Californians stuck on buses for more than three hours.

Furious delegates flooded the lobby bar once they finally made it back to the hotel, recalled Kathy Tavoularis, who planned convention logistics for the state party that year.

“I just remember saying, ‘Drink? Can I buy you a drink? Let’s drown your sorrows. I have a tab, I have a tab,’” said Tavoularis, who is an alternate delegate this year.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, the California delegation stayed in luxurious and conveniently located hotels, such as the Anatole in Dallas. In 2000, the delegation was originally going to be housed far outside of the Philadelphia convention site until a close California friend of then-nominee George W. Bush intervened and had it moved closer.

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No such luck has prevailed in recent years.

Beyond the drive time, this year’s hotel at the Kalahari Resort creates additional hurdles for attending the cocktail parties, movie screenings and policy panels put on by various groups outside of the convention, themselves a key attraction for the party faithful who gather just once every four years. Lining up notable speakers over breakfast at the delegation hotel, a staple of national political conventions, is a challenge because prospective guests eschew the long travel times.

The state party, which was initially assured the delegation would be housed within 30 miles of Cleveland, worked hard to gain some concessions once it learned that delegates would be in Sandusky, including the motorcade through three counties, said state GOP executive director Cynthia Bryant.

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Most notably, the delegation was awarded prime front-row seating inside the convention hall. This was also a strategic move by Trump’s campaign to ensure that the images broadcast from the convention floor show unity, a crucial goal that has eluded Republicans amid Trump’s divisive candidacy. Because California’s primary was held after he clinched the nomination, all of California’s delegates are full-throated Trump supporters.

At the Kalahari, the state party set up a separate registration and lounge area so that delegates can avoid the main entrance, which teemed with vacationing Midwesterners clad in bathing suits and vendors hawking T-shirts, stuffed giraffes and candy apples.

“The lobby, it really is like a carnival or a fair,” Bryant said. The separate delegate entrance, decorated with bunting and a large floral California flag, “makes it more special for them.”

As in years past, VIPs such as major donor Peter Thiel and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy are staying closer to the action. Other delegates said privately that they had rented homes closer to the city, or had arranged to crash in friends’ spare hotel beds for a night or two to avoid the commute.

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Anna Bryson, an alternate delegate from Orange County, and her husband, Bill Evers, said they planned on checking out the water park, which features numerous tall slides, a lazy river and an enormous wave pool where delegates can take surfing lessons.

There was a limit, though.

“You don’t really go from Dana Point to Sandusky to learn to surf,” Evers said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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For the latest on national and California politics, follow @LATSeema on Twitter.

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