‘We kept trying’: 2020 DNC organizers adjusted again and again, but ultimately could not outflank pandemic

Every step of the way, they were blocked.

Every time they reacted to the coronavirus pandemic, pushing the event back a month, telling delegates to stay away, instituting rigorous health protocols, organizers of the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee hit a dead end.

“We kept trying,” said Joe Solmonese, the convention’s CEO.

Finally, late Tuesday night, in a conference call between the organizers and key officials with Joe Biden’s campaign, the decision was reached that the last vestige of an in-person Milwaukee convention would be wiped out.

The official announcement came Wednesday morning: No speakers, including Biden, would be coming to Milwaukee.

The Democrats were going for a virtual convention, Aug. 17-20.

“It was a very difficult decision,” Solmonese said during an interview Friday. “They really agonized over it because they understand what it meant for the city, what it meant for the people who worked on this. We are living in a time when all of us are making impossibly difficult decisions that we never thought we’d make almost every day.”

He said the decision was made in the interest of public health, but he called it “heartbreaking.”

More than a year of planning and tens of millions of dollars went into preparing for a large-scale convention that would bring 50,000 visitors to Milwaukee.

The final financial figures for the event won’t be known until campaign filings are made public later this year.

“I will say that we will have the money we need to do this,” Solmonese said, referring to the virtual convention. “We won’t have a deficit. We’ve made some significant adjustment to the budget.” 

If organizers don’t run a deficit, there won’t be a need to tap into a $10 million line of credit. Cynthia LaConte, CEO and president of The Dohmen Co., put up $7.5 million with two unions supplying the rest.

Organizers are still putting together the final pieces of a puzzle for the convention, which will air two hours nightly, from 8 to 10 p.m. Central time. Caucus meetings will be held virtually during the day.

Solmonese said the convention will remain anchored in Milwaukee at the Wisconsin Center.

Each night, the convention will gavel in and gavel out from Milwaukee.

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez is expected to travel here for the event. Jason Rae, the party’s secretary, will call the roll of states from Milwaukee.

“All of the control and production and all of the operational things that make the convention successful will continue to be here,” Solmonese said.

There will be speeches from around the country, including Biden accepting the presidential nomination in his home state of Delaware. Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, are also speaking, along with Biden’s vice presidential pick.

The names of other speakers have leaked out. Politico reported appearances by former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican; U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren; defeated 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Bloomberg said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will also address the convention.

In everybody’s best interest

It was all supposed to be so much different.

By coming to Milwaukee, Solmonese said the aim was to have “Wisconsin running through the whole thing,” a measure of how important the state would be in the fall election.

“We’re going to do our best to make sure that still happens,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic obviously upended plans. Over the months, organizers were carefully monitoring the public health landscape in Milwaukee and across the nation.

Even an event pared down to a few hundred people posed risks and burdens, Solmonese said.

“The decision was it was just in everybody’s best public health interest” that the vice president not come to the event.

“Then, when you take a step back and think about what’s happening in the country, the fact that there are states that say when you leave Wisconsin you’ve got to quarantine, it also made it clear that what was probably best was that people stay where they are,” he said.

The news about having no speakers in Milwaukee wasn’t a complete surprise.

But it was sudden, coming just a week and a half before the convention was set to gavel in.

On Wednesday morning, Marty Brooks, president and chief executive of the Wisconsin Center District, was scheduled to do a walk-through of the convention facility with Solmonese, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and health officials.

The walk-through was called off. And a few hours later, the news that Biden and other speakers wouldn’t be coming trickled out.

“In the event business, the venue business, you learn you need to be nimble and need to be able to pivot,” Brooks said. “Maybe we’ve done it a few more times than expected. You shake your head, new plan, you react to it. You still have a big event to fulfill.”

The space reserved for a media room has been cleared out, Brooks said. Tents and generators were hauled away from a nearby parking lot.

It was also revealed that three workers who sought access to the site tested positive for COVID-19. Convention organizers maintained that those positive tests did not trigger the move to a fully virtual event.

“You can’t be upset with a decision that has been made to make sure people don’t get sick and potentially die,” Brooks said. “Nobody wanted this to happen, least of all the DNC. This is not the kind of attention you want to get.”

Brooks said no matter the size of the event, the city should be proud that it landed the convention.

What about 2024? Should the Democrats return to Milwaukee?

The discussion is premature. The people making those sorts of decisions for the Democratic Party will be different. The political landscape may also change.

“We don’t even know what conventions are going to look like in four years,” said Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who helped spearhead the bid for this year’s convention. “I think it would be great if we were able to get a 2024 convention. But my ultimate hope is we were able to build in so much business we didn’t have availability in the calendar. That’s how you catch the sustained economic impact for the long haul.”

Solmonese said he and others will make the case for Milwaukee to host significant events in the coming years.

“When and if the world gets back to normal,” Solmonese said, the city “is absolutely in a position to host events of this size and scope, anytime.”