The 2020 DNC is Liz Gilbert’s third act staging political theater, and it’s happening in a familiar setting.

It’s enough to keep any organizer up at night: priming the Democratic Party’s largest national pitch in years from the heart of a long-overlooked city. Fortunately, Liz Gilbert’s midnight glances over Milwaukee from her Downtown apartment remind her that she’s been here before.

The president of the Milwaukee Host Committee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention helped organize the DNCs in Philadelphia in 2016 and Charlotte in 2012. Plus, the 30-year-old Florida native spent four years at UW-Madison studying elementary education, graduating in 2011. “I had a lot of friends from New York in college, so we would make it a point to go to Knicks-Bucks games at the Bradley Center,” she says, recalling Fiserv Forum’s predecessor. “I was also in a sorority, so we had a few formals on the river.”

Several years and several billion in investments later, the region is about to be showcased on the national stage. Gilbert finds herself back in Wisconsin at the center of it all, in charge of making the city ready for prime time.

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2020 DNC

July 13-16

50,000

Total visitors, including 6,000 delegates and 15,000 media members

15,000

Hotel rooms in the greater Milwaukee area to be used by attendees

$200 million 

Local economic impact, including $114 million in direct spending by visitors and $86 million in indirect impact, such as extra wages for local workers

Gilbert has made the most of a freedom to chase career opportunities. Her most recent home was New Jersey, where she worked as executive director of the state Democratic Party, and where she renewed an apartment lease for the first time in her life. Before that, she lived in New Zealand, where her father, a former professional baseball player turned all-star investment banker, served as the U.S. ambassador from 2015 to 2017. “The beer and coffee scene here reminds me a lot of Wellington, which is an incredible capital and a ton of fun and easy to maneuver and pretty and on the water,” she says.

Even though her counterpart Joe Solmonese at the Democratic National Convention Committee is tasked with all the political programming, Gilbert’s to-do list is equally formidable. She needs to amass an army of 15,000 volunteers and a war chest of $70 million needed to play host next summer.


Party National Convention Host Cities, 2000-2020


A seasoned fundraiser, she’s confident enough in her cash nabbing prowess that she pushed for more limitations on who can donate. “We will not take money from companies whose values are at odds with the Democratic Party,” she says. “We think that health care and paid sick and family leave are really important. We think the way that people treat people or companies treat their employees, the environment, their communities is really important.”

Questions about Milwaukee’s capacity to accommodate 50,000 expected visitors have been prominent in DNC coverage since even before the host city was selected. “The national party did not choose Milwaukee because it is the most logistically expedient place to have a convention,” Gilbert says. A dearth of hotel rooms has led to some convention-related hotel bookings in Illinois, and further spillover is expected to reach into Madison. Gilbert mentions local vacation home rentals and ride-sharing as areas that need to scale up to meet the anticipated volume.

Infrastructure improvements necessitated by the convention could remain long after the dust settles from the election. Gilbert’s huddle with tech executives mentioned upgrading the city’s cellular network to 5G capability, which enables faster or broader mobile internet coverage for compatible phones, although she won’t make any promises.

Photo by Kat Schleicher

While a stretch is needed to meet some practical concerns, there are also areas where Milwaukee shines without effort. The abundant waterfront is a welcome departure from the past two landlocked host cities, and Gilbert plans to make great use of boating opportunities. And unlike Miami and Houston – two finalist cities that Milwaukee edged out – it will be a joy to be outdoors here in July. Fiserv Forum and the surrounding Deer District are the nerve center of the main event, another bonus compared with the unlinked venues in years past.

The convention will spread through the entire city as a season-long spectacle, with hundreds of meetings scheduled between now and when the confetti drops. Cafés on the East Side and Bay View brewpubs could become venues for sponsors and supporters. “Maybe someone is looking to do a breakfast for the Hispanic Caucus of New Jersey. They might only need 20 to 30 people,” Gilbert says. “I don’t want to use the C-word, but a ‘contested’ convention could need two or three times as many venues.”

Gilbert is also sensitive to the intrusion a convention brings. She describes the host committee’s planning process as nonpartisan, bringing in contributors of any political stripe. But the Democratic Party has a different mission, and the last thing it wants is the nomination hoopla souring locals months before they head to the polls. Residents will be fêted at public parties, and, as in years past, host committee staff is participating in local service projects as a way to give back to the host city.

Gilbert’s heaviest lift might be a problem that many Milwaukeeans know well: challenging outsiders’ perceptions of the city. “I don’t think people realize how much of a treat they’re in for when they get here,” she says. 


Editor’s note: This story was changed from the version in the November print edition to correct Liz Gilbert’s quote about DNC donors aligning with Democratic Party values.

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“Conventional Wisdom” appears in the November 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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