The Case for DNC in MKE 2024

Milwaukee deserves a second chance. Here’s who’s fighting for it.

The disappointment has been palpable throughout the week

Through no fault of its own, Milwaukee lost out on a rare chance to be the center of the political universe and all the pomp and circumstance – not to mention the economic benefit and overall attention – that comes with it.

Aside from a few short speeches delivered each night at the Wisconsin Center by the state’s political leaders, an almost entirely virtual Democratic National Convention took place over four days this week. This attracted few people and delivered little economic gain for the city. A full-fledged DNC had been projected to attract 50,000 people to Milwaukee and generate an economic impact of about $200 million. 

Milwaukee also had to endure being the butt of a late-night television show host’s jokes. Even Wilmington, Delaware, reaped some economic benefit from the DNC without doing any of the hard work Milwaukee put in to land and prepare for convention, as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, opted to make their speeches from the Biden’s home state, drawing throngs of media in the process.

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But that’s all in the past as the convention wrapped up Thursday night. 

So, what comes next, once the hangover from the DNC that could have been subsides? Was this a one-shot deal for Milwaukee or will the city once again begin the arduous process of trying to attract the 2024 DNC, or possibly the Republican National Convention?

“What a wild and convoluted trip it’s been,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in a video conference with reporters on Friday. “As much as we all would have loved to see 50,000 people and $200 million in spending in the city of Milwaukee over the last week, I’m still proud and will always be proud that we were chosen to host this convention.”

The watered-down convention in Milwaukee brought in $3 million to the area economy, Barrett noted.

Being selected to host the convention generated a lot of goodwill for the city, even if it didn’t create the financial windfall that had been promised.

“I don’t think we’re going to have to wait four years for the next major convention, because the word is out about Milwaukee being an incredible place to come for a convention.”

Barrett hasn’t ruled out having the city make a run at the 2024 DNC. 

“I certainly want to get together with the civic leaders who were involved with this and helped make this a reality to see what their appetite is,” Barrett said. “I’m certainly eager to do it again because I really think that we showed that we can shine and I want this city to be noticed by people and I want people in our city to have jobs and benefit from this economically.”

Barrett is confident that this year’s nearly virtual convention helps, not hurts, Milwaukee’s chances for 2024 and said there’s a sentiment out there that the city should get a “do-over” after essentially losing out to the coronavirus. 

“We’ll have to see,” Barrett said. “Those individuals and corporations that stepped up this time, I know some of them have to have misgivings. I understand that. I think we have to have a long serious conversation with them as to whether they would like to go through this again. What we faced this time was totally unpredictable. I’m not mad at anybody. I’m very disappointed but we have to understand that the COVID crisis forces us to put this in perspective.”

The virtual nature of this year’s DNC may signal a change in the way major political conventions are carried out in the future, he added.

“But I still think there’s going to be a place for delegates to come,” Barrett said.

Alex Lasry, senior vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks and a main driver in getting the DNC to come to the city, said Milwaukee should focus on more than landing another major political convention.

“Look, I think it would be great for Milwaukee to make a bid for the 2024 DNC, or RNC, but I think most importantly what we need to do is use the momentum that we have,” Lasry said. “We won this convention over cities like Miami and Houston. We have shown the world that we can host conventions and that we are a major league convention city and need to be thought of as that. I would like to use the fact that we won this convention to go out and get other conventions so that we have yearly business, rather than having to hope for us to hit this home run every four years.”

One of the main reasons for submitting the bid to host to the 2020 DNC was to “introduce the world to Milwaukee” so that it could be a destination for a wide array of conventions, he said.

“Come 2024, I hope our convention center is just too busy. It’d be great if we just had too much going on,” Lasry said. 

Landing another major political party convention would be a significant accomplishment for the city, but Lasry warned that the coronavirus may have changed these types of conventions for good. 

“The amount of exposure, the amount of media that come to these things is huge,” he said. “If we are able to get it, great. But I would also say let’s not assume that the 2024 convention is still going to be 50,000 people. It’s quite possible that this was the first convention of what future conventions are going to look like.”

Lasry said taking the pandemic more seriously early on might have given Milwaukee a chance to carry out some in-person DNC events.

“For Milwaukee, it was disappointing. It sucked for the city,” he said. “I think we did everything we possibly could. We should be really proud of what we accomplished. The coronavirus can’t take that that away. We just now have to build on that and continue to be ambitious as a city.”

Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker said Milwaukee should make a push for the 2024 DNC and, if that doesn’t work out, make an effort to lure the RNC.  

“I think at a minimum the DNC would at least have some empathy for the circumstances,” Walker said. 

Milwaukee proved in winning the DNC bid that it has the capacity to handle a major convention and the ability to bring the community together to support the effort.

“I think it would be a natural if it was the DNC, which would be the most obvious, just because they had already committed to it, but even the RNC,” he said. “I don’t think there is any doubt that people looked and said that Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin were ready to hold a convention.”

Wisconsin will remain appealing as a convention site because it remains a key political battleground, Walker added.

“I don’t see that changing any time soon,” he said. “Beyond just the politics, the biggest concern in the past about big events like this was do we have the capacity, the room space, can we handle the rigors of a large-scale event. Milwaukee and Wisconsin showed that they can do that. I always felt the biggest benefit for Milwaukee and Wisconsin wasn’t just the financial gain that could come from it, but the exposure. For people to see what a cool place Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin is.”

Fox News Channel’s chief political anchor Bret Baier, who had expected to co-anchor the network’s political coverage from Milwaukee along with Martha MacCallum before working from Washington, D.C., this week instead, told Milwaukee Magazine that he believes the city could be in the running for a full-fledged convention again soon.

“I think Wisconsin is in a position to be a swing state for quite some time, so I wouldn’t be surprised,” Baier said. “It is well positioned in a purplish way to be really important for both parties, so it’s not over yet.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, co-chair of the Biden campaign committee, said in an interview with WISN 12 News that he’ll personally campaign for Milwaukee to host the DNC in 2024. 

Valeriy Sibilkov, associate professor of finance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, thinks it will be a long-shot for Milwaukee to land either the DNC or RNC in four years.

Even though Milwaukee had to settle for a mostly virtual event, Sibilkov said it’s unlikely that the DNC would select the same city to host consecutive conventions.

He also believes the RNC would bypass Milwaukee in order to diversify convention locations. 

“If I were on the committee, my argument would be, from a purely countrywide perspective, that Milwaukee already benefitted from a Democratic National Convention. Why don’t we give another city that benefit, as well?” Sibilkov said.

Even though the area didn’t realize the projected $200 million economic impact that a full-fledged convention would have brought, Milwaukee still benefits in other ways, Sibilkov said.

“A lot of people are saying that the convention wasn’t in physical form, so we lost a lot as a city,” he said. “I wouldn’t say so because the reputational effect is still there. Word about the city got out. People heard about Milwaukee and that’s important in and of itself.”

The region needs to bank on that to attract tourists (post-pandemic) and businesses, he added.

“Saying that we lost out on $200 million misses the point. The bigger point is that we can gain much more if we do things better, with or without the conventions,” Sibilkov said. “I think Milwaukee has a lot of potential compared to New York and Chicago, even, because the costs here are quite lower.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.