‘This is such uncharted territory’: Milwaukee is supposed to host the DNC in July, but coronavirus has changed everything

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It’s supposed to be the centerpiece of Milwaukee’s summer, a multistage political gathering when the world comes to the city that hugs Lake Michigan.

But just as the coronavirus pandemic has thrown much of American daily life into uncertainty, the public health emergency has cast a cloud over the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

It’s still set for July 13-16, and convention organizers are working remotely to make it happen. But the questions surrounding the massive event are virtually endless. 

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Asked on CNN if Democrats should call off the in-person Democratic convention, Democratic front-runner Joe Biden said, “No, I don’t think so. I think we ought to be able to conduct our democratic processes as well as deal with this issue, but look, that decision will be made (based on) the state of the nation at that moment.”

But what kind of convention can really be staged, with the hotel and travel industry hanging by a thread, with the state under a stay-at-home order for the next 30 days and with a virus lurking over everything?

There is no one simple answer. Instead, an ever-shifting set of factors will determine how the convention moves forward. If it does take place, it will do so as other local, national and international events are canceled or postponed.

The Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been pushed back to 2021. Summerfest has moved from its traditional dates in late June and early July to three weekends in September.

Professional sports leagues are shut down, with no opening in sight.

Republicans say they intend to hold their Charlotte, North Carolina, convention as planned, but it is more than a month later, from Aug. 24 to 27.   

In the short term, Democrats are playing for time, issuing statements that planning proceeds for the convention even as leaders are “exploring a range of contingency options to ensure we can deliver a successful convention without unnecessary risk to public health.

Gilberto Hinojosa, state Democratic chair of Texas, said he would not be surprised if the Milwaukee convention did not come to pass as planned “unless this massive effort at social isolation works between now and then.”

Hinojosa noted that the Texas Democratic Convention, slated for early June (a little more than a month before the Milwaukee convention), is now going to be a “virtual” gathering. Texas has the biggest Democratic convention in the country after the national convention, he said.

Hinojosa said he was confident that even without a traditional convention in Milwaukee, “We will have a way to get our message out, to pump up our base, to get our nominee ready for the big fight in November.”

Nevertheless, Democratic primaries and selection of delegates have been postponed in many states.

The Democrats don’t yet have a nominee, even though it appears Biden is on the cusp of defeating his final rival, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Ultimately, how a convention is staged is usually determined by the presumptive nominee. The Biden team will have the ultimate say if Biden stays on track to be the nominee. 

“I’m having a hard time seeing it be anything other than a virtual convention. And I don’t want to give the real thing up,” said Byron Shafer, an emeritus professor of political science with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has attended conventions for several decades and written extensively about them.

“If you can’t have more than 10 people at a gathering, you can’t have a delegation breakfast. You can’t run a bus system. If by early July we haven’t resolved that in a major way, all you are thinking about then is, ‘How the hell do you do a virtual convention?’ ”  

“You lose a lot if you do that. But if it’s a question of having a virtual convention or risking one other person being sick, right now I’d vote for a virtual convention,” said Wendy Davis, a Democratic National Committee member from Rome, Georgia, where she sits on the city commission and has had to make what she calls very painful decisions about shutting down local businesses during the crisis. 

“Nothing is normal,” said Davis. “It is very smart for the leadership of the convention team to be exploring every alternative that’s available to us.” 

Fundraising will have to pick up

There are a host of other concerns, not least of which is the main site, Fiserv Forum. Even before the coronavirus, convention organizers were going to have to fit a lot of construction into a tight window. Had the Milwaukee Bucks advanced to the NBA finals, there was only a matter of a few weeks between the last basketball game and the first political speech.

If the NBA season resumes — still a big if — and the playoffs are pushed into the summer, it’s unclear how so many events can be handled in one building.

Fundraising is also a consideration. The host committee announced it had raised $25 million by the end of 2019, as it sought to meet a target of up to $70 million to stage the convention.

The local committee was believed to be on a good trajectory of raising cash before the coronavirus outbreak. There is some wiggle room for a slowdown, but eventually fundraising will have to pick up.

Having said that, the convention may not cost as much to stage, especially if it’s stripped down. Still, the local host committee is continuing to talk to donors and sponsors and working to wrap up commitments that have already been promised.

And then there is a question of how quickly work can get started and be completed in areas like hospitality, hotels and construction.

For now, the Wisconsin Center District, which operates the convention center,  UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre, is still planning for the convention.

It will surely need the revenue. The district announced across-the-board 20% pay cuts for staff through June and other cost-savings measures as it deals with a flood of cancellations.

The DNC could actually move in earlier to the facilities, given the revised schedule, said Marty Brooks, chief executive officer of the district.

“To me right now the biggest unknown is when the coronavirus will dissipate and we’ll be able to gather in groups again,” Brooks said. “Until we have that and until people can operate in the personal space and social space we need to do business, that’s going to be the first and biggest variable to get everything moving forward to support the convention.”

Brooks added: “We’re going to need hotels, restaurants, the convention center, Fiserv Forum, all of these entities are going to need enough time to re-engage the staff that has been furloughed so that they can support the event.”

Brooks said it won’t take a lot of time to “get up to speed.”

“We couldn’t accommodate 50,000 people tomorrow but I think in a very short period of time we’ll be able to get staff back in and supplies. I’m still very optimistic that what’s in our control we’ll be able to react and support the convention as well as all the other business. It’s what’s out of our control we have to wait and see where it takes us.”

Ready to go, but a lot of questions

Greg Hanis, a hotel industry consultant, said a decision on the convention has to be made sometime in the April 30 to May 15 window.

“To get the infrastructure, to get it up and running again, from the hospitality and travel standpoint you have to get the airlines back in operation, the hotels back in operation,” said Hanis, who operates Hospitality Marketers International Inc. based in New Berlin. “I’d say for them to get the hotels fully operational, they need to be up and running no later than the end of May. And that might even be pushing it.”

Michael Sampson of Milwaukee-based Swarmm Events said local staff can pull off what needs to be done to make the convention work.

“We have one of the best service industry staffs in the nation,” he said. “Bartenders, barbacks, general managers, bouncers, cooks, servers are all out of work and need money. They may not be experienced event planners, but they are hustlers and ready to get back to work.”

Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers union that represents the people who staff the Fiserv Forum, said the scheduled mid-July convention is “terra incognita” right now for service workers.  

He said workers have no idea what this summer is going to look like for them.

“With so many people being thrown out of work (right now), it creates so much chaos and uncertainty and friction within the service industry labor market,” said Rickman.

‘This is such uncharted territory’

As the Democratic Party “explores a range of contingency options,” it has to consider the wide-ranging purposes a convention serves and which ones would be hampered if there are sweeping changes in how and when the event is conducted.

First and foremost, there is the nomination of a presidential candidate.

The Republican Party has in its rules on roll call nominations, this language: “If the Republican National Committee determines that the national convention cannot convene or is unable to conduct its business either within the convention site or within the convention city, then and only then, the roll call for nomination for President of the United States and Vice President of the United States shall be allowed to be conducted according to procedures authorized by the Republican National Committee.”

The Democratic Party doesn’t directly address this contingency in its own rules, said political scientist Josh Putnam, an expert on the nominating process.

“This is such uncharted territory. It’s not something we’ve seen in modern times,” he said.

The postponement of many state primaries is already delaying the allocation of convention delegates, which creates more uncertainty about when Biden, the front runner, might capture a majority of delegates or something close to it. It also underscores the questions surrounding Sanders and whether he will continue to contest the nomination.

Already two states, Louisiana and Kentucky, have postponed their primaries past the June date by which party rules say primaries must be held, said Putnam.

“The Democrats are really in a time crunch in all of this,” Putnam said.   

Davis, the DNC member from Georgia, said while the delay in selecting delegates is a concern, it would have been a far greater concern if the race for the nomination were still wide open. 

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Losing the pep rally effect

Conventions, of course, are massive, four-day television advertisements for their parties and nominees that normally come with a polling “bump” for the party’s nominee as casual voters get their first sustained look at that candidate.

“For a sizable minority of Americans, it’s where you meet this person,” said Shafer.

 Whether a virtual convention, without the arena crowd and without the media physically gathered for the event, could generate the same coverage and draw the same attention from viewers and voters is a critical question.

Whether it would have the same mobilizing effects for a party is another.   

“I played football in high school. We had a pep rally on the Friday before the game. That pep rally was to pump up the team to get them fired up to play the game and win the game,” said Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic chairman. “Well, national conventions to a certain extent are that. We all come together as party activists and we rally the team (behind) the Democratic nominee for president and vice president.”  

Part of the narrative that comes out of a convention also involves the host city and state. A potential casualty if there is a virtual convention would be the visibility Milwaukee and Wisconsin stand to gain from the convention and the political message Democrats want to send by choosing Wisconsin — that the party is laser-focused on a part of the country it neglected in the last presidential race.    

There is also all the “side” business of a convention to consider, from political organizing to fundraising to the opportunity it poses for new faces and political leaders to emerge by performing well on the arena stage.

As part of the platform process, there is the very real need to bring different factions of the party together.

Rickman, the union leader, was also a leader of the Sanders delegation from Wisconsin during the 2016 convention in Philadelphia. He said the knowledge that delegates would be under the spotlight in Philadelphia provided a real incentive for the Sanders and Hillary Clinton camps to reach some accommodations, so there wouldn’t be massive signs of discord at the convention.

And gathering together in Philadelphia also encouraged that process, he said.

Without that, “How do you hammer out these disagreements?” he said.

“There are two very distinct camps in the Democratic Party,” said Rickman, referring to the progressive-populist wing led by Sanders and the more moderate and establishment wing that has coalesced behind Biden.

“For better and worse, those wings have to reconcile and a convention provides an organizing moment to do so,” he said. 

John Verdejo, a member of the Democratic National Committee from North Carolina, said the bottom line in all these decisions is obviously public safety.   

“I look at it this way: You’ve got to take care of home first,” he said. “We’re in a world where they’re canceling baseball. I’m a big wrestling fan. I’m watching wrestling and there’s no one in the crowd. That should give you pause. … As bad as we want to do this, as necessary as (it is) to do this for democracy, we definitely need to start thinking of plan B, C and D.”

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