By Larry Sandler
From the pandemic-ravaged ruins of Milwaukee’s hopes for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, calls are emerging to bring the quadrennial gathering back in 2024.
It’s not an organized movement, and even those who back the idea are far from unified about how to pursue it. But they are united in their desire to salvage some of the effort and the spirit that went into attracting Milwaukee’s first major-party national political convention, only to see the city’s moment in the spotlight snatched away by the relentless realities of the coronavirus. Once expected to attract 50,000 people and generate about $200 million in economic impact, Milwaukee now won’t even see former Vice President Joe Biden accept the nomination.
“We worked so hard to get it here,” says Khary Penebaker, a Democratic National Committee member from Waukesha County. Losing practically all of the event to the virus is “not our fault” and “something we shouldn’t be punished for,” he adds.
As the pandemic forced increasing restrictions on travel, gathering and dining, Democrats first rescheduled the convention from July to August, then shifted most events online and told delegates to stay home, to the chagrin of local businesses that had been counting on the convention’s economic benefits. The final blow came Wednesday, when the party announced that neither Biden nor any other convention speakers would travel to Milwaukee.
Pabst Theater Group CEO Gary Witt was the first and most outspoken advocate for a do-over, tweeting on April 18, “The DNC in MKE should be 100% canceled. DNC should commit that the convention will happen in MKE in 2024. Anything else will be a crushing blow to MKE. Cancel and rebook.” He followed up with an April 20 guest opinion column in the Milwaukee Business Journal, arguing, “For the next six months, we should be focusing all of our attention on our recovery from the virus and not on putting on a scaled down convention.”
That idea didn’t gain much traction then. But now, with only faint remnants of the convention left in town, Penebaker and others are warming to the cause. In a recent WisPolitics.com-Milwaukee Press Club event, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin endorsed the idea, saying, “I am all for that.”
Witt says Milwaukee should join forces with Charlotte, the Republican National Convention’s equally disappointed host city, to demand that both parties immediately commit to staging their 2024 conventions in the same locations. He points to the Summer Olympics and the Ryder Cup, which rescheduled their 2020 competitions to 2021 but kept their previously planned sites of Tokyo and Sheboygan County’s Whistling Straits golf complex.
Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, says it’s not that simple.
“Whether it’s the DNC or the RNC, I think the choice of where they hold their convention is a cold political decision about what will benefit their candidates,” Sheehy says. “It has nothing to do with sympathy about who did or didn’t get the convention in the past.”
Penebaker and Witt say Wisconsin will remain a crucial battleground state in 2024, as it was in 2016 and is again in 2020. But while Penebaker sides with Witt in seeking a firm commitment to bring back the DNC, he doesn’t agree with trying to obtain that commitment right now. Democrats need to focus all their energy on electing Biden and the party’s congressional and state candidates this fall, Penebaker says.
Milwaukee Bucks exec Alex Lasry and Visit Milwaukee President Peggy Williams-Smith say they would support bringing the convention back, but they expect that the city would have to win it through the usual competitive process in about two years. Witt and Penebaker say the pandemic justifies an exception to the normal rules.
The Bucks’ Fiserv Forum was set to be the main convention venue, and Lasry says he expects it will be the focus of any future bid. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Bucks threatened to sue the DNC and yank $3 million in donations in a dispute over the $7 million rent for the arena, and that the party settled the issue by paying $5.5 million for a venue that it’s not using. Lasry claims both sides were “extremely happy” with the deal and it won’t interfere with a repeat bid.
Williams-Smith also says it’s too soon to approach hotel, restaurant and bar owners about gearing up again for 2024 “because they’re shell-shocked” from dealing with the pandemic and such a discussion “may not go well.” Witt concedes he and others in the hospitality and entertainment industries are focused on rebuilding their businesses right now.
Once the city is again able to host conventions, Williams-Smith says Democratic National Convention Committee officials have told her they would support her staff in attracting any allied organizations that are looking for meeting sites. She declined to give examples of such groups. The committee’s staff did not respond to a request for comment.
Another concern is again raising the millions of dollars needed to host the convention, Sheehy says. Convention backers had to commit to raising $70 million and obtaining a $10 million line of credit. The Journal Sentinel reported that about $30 million had been raised by late June, but that at least one financial backer was questioning whether the line of credit still would be needed.
“I think the companies (that donated) are not happy,” Sheehy says. “They’re all being good sports about it, (but) those contributions have had little or no return” in terms of the expected economic and publicity boost for the region. “I wouldn’t even breach the question now” of donating more for 2024.
“I appreciate the cheerleading (for a repeat convention), but the folks doing the cheering aren’t the ones putting up the money,” Sheehy says.
Sheehy says he has asked the MKE 2020 Host Committee to return any unspent cash to use for projects in the community. It is not clear how much has been spent so far on staff salaries, venue deposits and other expenses. The host committee and convention committee did not respond to requests for comment.
Lasry and Williams-Smith say they believe the community would step up again. But Lasry agreed with Sheehy that the pandemic-induced recession could cut into some corporate donors’ ability to give.
Other prominent Dems voicing support for a do-over are Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
Crowley retweeted Madison writer John Nichols‘ call to bring back the convention and added, “Of course, I wish we could showcase MKE to the world with an in-person convention, and it is my hope to do so in the future. But today I know the DNC and the @JoeBiden campaign have made a responsible decision to put the health and safety of the American people first. #DNCMKE2024”
Barnes spoke in favor of the idea in a Radio Milwaukee (WYMS-FM) interview.
Mayor Tom Barrett, the host committee’s co-chairman and the leading advocate for this year’s convention, told reporters in a virtual news conference that it was too early to talk about 2024 while the city remains focused on restoring public health and healing racial divisions. “We live to fight another day, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Barrett said.
Even as community leaders discuss bringing back the convention, some note that it’s not certain that a 2024 convention would resemble the massive gatherings of the past. This year’s experience has ramped up debate over the traditional convention format, as Sheehy, Lasry and Williams-Smith note.
“I don’t think we know what conventions will look like in 2024,” Lasry says.