Milwaukee host committee raised $42.7 million for 2020 DNC, projecting a small deficit

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett calls the convention to order during the Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center.

Milwaukee missed the delegates, balloons and big political speeches, but local organizers still had to come up with big bucks to stage what became a mostly virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention.

The Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee raised more than $42.7 million for the scaled-down event held Aug. 17-20, according to federal filings that posted Thursday. That figure includes $988,000 of in-kind contributions.

If a $1.5 million loan is forgiven, as expected, the total will rise to $44.3 million. 

Records show the biggest donors to the event included national unions and local businesses and corporations. Topping the list was the National Education Association at $3.5 million.

The committee received $2 million each from Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Bank of America, the Democratic Governors Association, and Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC. 

The largest individual donor was billionaire investor and Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry, who donated more than $1 million. The two other Bucks owners, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan, contributed $750,000 and $550,000, respectively. 

Overall, more than two-thirds of the donations came from out-of-state sources. Wisconsin corporations and individuals made up 32% of the contributions, organizers said. 

The Federal Election Commission filing shows the host committee still has more than $1.5 million cash on hand. But officials said they expect that amount will not be able to cover all of the operating expenses that are still outstanding. 

In short, the host committee is expecting to finish in the red. 

“You create a budget, and you try to stick to it,” said John W. Miller, chairman of the host committee’s Board of Directors. “I think that we did, and we’re going to be real close.” 

Miller said he is confident that officials will be able to come up with the money to balance the books. 

“I can’t be clear enough about this,” Miller said. “This is not a Milwaukee expense. Nobody in Milwaukee will pay it. I will find it somewhere else. We’ll finish clear.” 

The total cost for the event will exceed $57.7 million, with the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee spending $13.4 million. 

The convention committee, which was funded by the Democratic National Committee, was responsible for organizing and running the convention. The host committee — formally known as The Good Land Committee — is a nonprofit that was charged with raising the money to pay for the event. 

In addition, the City of Milwaukee incurred $15 million in security costs, with the figure expected to rise as final invoices are processed. These costs are due to be picked up by the federal government through a grant.

Convention transformed by pandemic

Upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the convention was pushed back more than a month from its original July date and transformed into a mainly virtual production, with the only big live events held in Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware.

“This year’s convention looked and felt different than we all expected in order to protect the health of the Milwaukee community, and every participant,” Miller said in a statement. “We were honored and proud that Milwaukee won the right to host this historic event, while also disappointed that, due to the danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we weren’t able to spotlight our vibrant city the way we had hoped.”

Miller added, “In the end, after consulting with public health officials, we made the right adjustments necessary to deliver an event that posed no risk to public health.”

RELATED:Milwaukee got only a few seconds of screen time during what should’ve been its big moment. Here’s what happened behind the scenes.

And making those adjustments cost plenty, about $1.3 million.

Local organizers paid $822,275 to Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories for COVID testing and around $305,000 to renowned epidemiologists Ian Lipkin and Larry Brilliant to set up health protocols. They also paid $164,512 to Nurses PRN to conduct the testing.

These are the top expenditures from the 2020 DNC host committee.

Originally, the host committee had estimated it would raise up to $70 million, and it appeared to be well on its way to reaching that goal until the pandemic upended plans. By late March, fundraising had slowed dramatically, and the host committee was forced to slash its staff from 31 to 14 workers. 

The host committee reported $38.4 million in total spending so far, with some bills still outstanding. 

The host committee’s biggest expenditure was $9.3 million to Kirshner Events Inc. The firm is run by Ricky Kirshner, who produced the convention.

The next largest payment was $5.5 million to the Deer District LLC, controlled by the Milwaukee Bucks owners. The firm runs Fiserv Forum, where the convention was originally scheduled to be held. 

In a behind-the-scenes tussle, the host committee fell behind on making payments to the Deer District in late May as it was becoming apparent it would likely have to move the convention elsewhere.

A top Bucks official then threatened to declare the Democrats in default and take them to court over the delinquent payment. In the end, the host committee paid the full $5.5 million for the rights to a building they did not use.

Other major payments included $1.9 million to Hargrove LLC for convention week operations; $1.8 million to Live X for livestreaming; and $1.6 million to the Wisconsin Center District for use of the convention center.

Among the highest-paid Milwaukee-based contractors was JCP Construction, which was paid $337,763. Other local payments included $201,194 to Foley & Lardner for legal services; and $159,938 to GT Private Detective Agency for site security.

A number of firms and individuals from Wisconsin and Milwaukee made big-dollar donations to the host committee, led by Northwestern Mutual, which gave more than $1.3 million in cash and in-kind donations.

Other significant contributors include Advocate Aurora Health Care ($1.2 million); WEC Energy Group ($1.05 million); Milwaukee Brewers ($500,000); former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl ($500,000); American Family Insurance ($350,000); Johnson Controls ($350,000); and Kohl’s Corp. ($200,000). 

Several Milwaukee firms also made large in-kind donations, including Milwaukee Center Management ($538,097) and Coakley Brothers ($33,850).

As part of its bid to win the convention, Milwaukee’s organizers had to establish a $10 million line of credit to cover unpaid expenses. 

These are the top donors to the 2020 DNC host committee.

Cynthia LaConte, CEO of The Dohmen Co., put up $7.5 million of that sum. The National Education Association and Service Employees International Union provided the remaining $2.5 million.

Officials said Wednesday that they did not tap any of LaConte’s funds. The Dohmen Company Foundation did give $250,000 to the host committee. 

The host committee did use about $1 million from SEIU, and has borrowed $1.5 million from the NEA. The loan comes on top of the $3.5 million contribution the union made to the host committee. 

Miller said he is confident that the NEA will forgive the loan. If it does, that will bring the total amount raised by the host committee to $44.3 million. 

The federal filings show the host committee paid $70,176 in salary, plus $27,650 in housing, to President Liz Gilbert and $62,739 in salary to Adam Alonso, her chief of staff, before the two were fired in early February. In addition, Gilbert’s consulting firm received $30,000 and Alonso’s consulting firm took in $24,000 in management fees during their seven months in charge.

The two were let go shortly after the host committee’s board launched an investigation amid charges that Gilbert and Alonso, both New Jersey political operatives, oversaw a toxic work environment. Alonso and Gilbert disputed the allegations.

They were replaced in late February by Raquel Filmanowicz and Paula Penebaker, two prominent Milwaukee business leaders. Filmanowicz has been paid $75,027 in salary since then, and Penebaker $59,076. The records include payments through the end of September. 

According to the filings, the highest paid employee was Leah Israel, the chief fundraiser for the host committee. She was paid nearly $145,000 in salary from October 2019 to September. 

All told, Milwaukee’s host committee brought in slightly more money than the committee charged with the same responsibility for the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24-27. 

Records show the Charlotte, N.C., host committee that organized the GOP convention raised $37.6 million. Convention business took place in Charlotte, but the main events were held in Washington, D.C., including the White House, where President Donald Trump accepted the nomination.

Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, chair and co-founder of ABC Supply, and Liz Uihlein, president of Pleasant Prairie-based Uline Inc., each contributed $500,000 to the Charlotte host committee.

Journal Sentinel reporter Alison Dirr contributed to this report.

Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 313-6684 or dbice@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.