Here’s What It’s Like to Check Out the DNC in MKE

It’s not what we expected, but it’s here.

It should have been a defining moment for Milwaukee

Throngs of delegates, political leaders, media and curiosity seekers, as many as 50,000 or more, had been expected to crowd the streets of Downtown on Monday to kick off the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

Instead, the streets remained eerily quiet, nearly devoid of cars and people as the convention – what’s left of it – got underway in Milwaukee. Businesses and hotels had eagerly anticipated the arrival of the convention only to see the coronavirus pandemic crush the dreams of an economic boost for the city and the worldwide media attention that should have come with it.

An extensive security perimeter that had been planned for a full-fledged convention has been reduced to just a few blocks, running between Fourth and Sixth streets to the east and west and primarily Kilbourn Avenue to Michigan Street to the north and south. An eight-foot high metal fence surrounds an area around the Wisconsin Center, where a few in-person events are being held. On Monday afternoon, police officers on bicycles rode laps around the inside of the security perimeter while others sat stationed at various checkpoints.

Photo by Rich Rovito
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A few people milled around the lobbies of hotels near the Downtown convention center. The adjacent Hyatt Regency Hotel is serving as a media headquarters for the few reporters who still made the trip to Milwaukee. A DNC gift shop has been set up in the Hyatt’s lobby, where souvenirs are being sold that now only serve as a heartbreaking reminder of what should have been the highlight of a one-of-a-kind summer for the city. 

Milwaukee and the region have been left reeling by the Democratic National Convention’s decision to make the event, which runs through Thursday, almost exclusively virtual due ongoing concerns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Joe Biden isn’t traveling to Milwaukee to give his acceptance speech, nor will his running mate, Kamala Harris. 

Milwaukee remains the site of the convention’s formalities even though the main speeches will be virtual and emanate out of a variety of locations across the United States, including Milwaukee. A few local and state elected officials will deliver speeches from the city.  

Yasen Darakov, a reporter with bTV, a national network in Bulgaria, stood in the middle of a blocked off section of Wells Street near the Wisconsin Center getting set to deliver a report on the convention. 

Photo by Rich Rovito

Darakov made the short drive from Chicago, where he is based. 

“I wanted to see what’s actually left of the convention, which is obviously nothing,” Darakov said. “The streets are empty. Basically just a few reporters and nobody else. We are just here for the day and then we will move to Delaware where the candidates are expected to give their acceptance speeches. That’s where a bit more action will be. I’m sure this is a big disappointment for the people here. We spoke to a few restaurants owners and other businesses and they are very unhappy.”

Darakov said he had remained hopeful that some people would still travel to Milwaukee for a scaled-down convention, but that changed after Biden opted not to travel to Milwaukee.

“I expected it to feel more like a convention. This will be completely different,” he said. “I think everybody that speaks at a convention feeds off the reaction from the people. We won’t have that this year.”

Linn Hillestad, a reporter with Verdens Gang, a Norwegian tabloid newspaper, traveled to Milwaukee from her home base in San Francisco. 

“We figured it’s a story just because the convention itself was more or less cancelled,” Hillestad said. “Also, Wisconsin is a really important state in this election. We wanted to come to interview voters.”

Photo by Rich Rovito

Hillestad said she had spoken to supporters of Bernie Sanders, once thought to be a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and had attended a Trump rally since arriving in Wisconsin.

A small group of anti-abortion activists that gathered at Zeidler Union Square on Monday had hoped for a larger audience with which to share its message. A propeller plane flying overhead displayed a graphic abortion-related image on a large banner that trailed the aircraft.

David Bovee, chairman of the Wisconsin State Committee for the American Solidarity Party, stood at the corner of the Downtown park holding a sign touting the party’s candidates, Brian Carroll and running mate Amar Patel. 

“There might have been more people out here had there been more of a convention here,” Bovee said. “We are here in solidarity with pro-life Democrats.” Bovee had been scheduled to deliver a speech in the park later in the afternoon.

Photo by Rich Rovito

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett lamented that Milwaukee lost out after a hard-fought victory to host a major political party convention for the first time ever in Wisconsin.

“It’s a far cry from what we originally thought it was going to be,” Barrett said in a virtual conference with reporters. “Clearly, we all understand that this is a far different footprint than what we had anticipated in March of 2019, when we were awarded the convention.”

In addition to an estimated 50,000 visitors, the Milwaukee area had expected a full-fledged convention to generate an economic impact of $200 million. Now, many hotels, restaurants and other businesses remain nearly empty.

“One thing that hasn’t changed is the pride that we should take as a city, as a region and as a state in winning the competition to get this convention in the first place,” Barrett said. “This was a big deal to get this convention. There was a lot of competition.”

Critics viewed Milwaukee as too small to handle a major political convention, Barrett said.

“What we showed people is that ‘You bet we can handle this,’” he said. “We all know that fate dealt us a different hand in the form of a pandemic. But we still have the Democratic National Convention. History will always show that this very special convention, which is not a conventional convention by any measure, occurred in the city of Milwaukee and that the nominee for the Democratic Party, Joseph Biden, was nominated in the city of Milwaukee.”

Photo by Rich Rovito

Being left with a shell of a convention shouldn’t hurt Milwaukee’s chances to host a future convention, Barrett said.

“Four years from now is lights years away in terms of politics and who is going to be in the leadership of the Democratic Party and how Wisconsin is viewed,” Barrett said. “I certainly hope that there will still be a will for us to move forward and try to seek again not only this convention but other conventions. I take so much pride in what our city did here.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.