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Should Milwaukee host the RNC in 2024?
Republicans in Wisconsin are in an endless cycle of demonizing, demeaning and defunding Milwaukee. Hosting the RNC here would be a tough pill to swallow. But the political reality might demand it.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
(Note: The Milwaukee Common Council unanimously approved the contract agreement to host the RNC in a session the morning of Wednesday, June 1. This column was first published shortly after that vote.)
In normal times, the question over whether or not Milwaukee should host the Republican National Convention in 2024 would have an easy answer. These are not normal times.
When it comes to the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin Republicans have been locked in an endless cycle of demonizing, demeaning, and defunding the state’s largest, most diverse city. So obviously, welcoming Republicans to a place they have shown nothing but contempt for just so they can throw their big party is a tough pill to swallow for Milwaukee.
Much of that is nothing new, though, and would have been the case no matter the year. What is new, here in 2022, is that the GOP has spent much of the last two years voraciously arguing that Milwaukee’s votes don’t count. They’ve tried endlessly to overturn or “decertify” the 2020 election – a recent New York Times investigation showed that 73% of Republican state legislators took steps to discredit or overturn the results – and all too often the target of these baseless, insulting claims has been the city of Milwaukee. This is an attack on a central plank of our very democracy and it’s happening here, in this city, perhaps more than any other place in the nation.
We could be looking at a scenario where Milwaukee is both the site of Republicans’ biggest political event of the year and home to the place where democracy is most acutely backsliding because of those very same Republicans. The divide is stark. The contradictions are hard to ignore.
As Milwaukee has become one of two finalists for the convention, along with Nashville, Tenn., a number of important voices have expressed their opposition to Milwaukee hosting the RNC in 2024, including a coalition that includes Voces de la Frontera, Power to the Polls, Never Again is Now, SEIU, and Freedom Action Now, which wrote an open letter to Milwaukee leadership, titled “Don’t hold the Republican Convention in Milwaukee.” Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), also wrote a commentary piece on the issue, titled “Keep the Republican convention out of Milwaukee.”
This frustration and this opposition is more than warranted. The points made here are valid ones. The Republican Party does active harm to communities in Milwaukee, and this has to be a consideration with this decision.
I would contend, too, that this frustration has been exacerbated by the lack of political fortitude shown by leaders throughout the Milwaukee area, particularly in the face of these unprecedented attacks on the legitimacy of the city’s votes. The ruling class in Milwaukee and the region’s centrist business community establishment has done an abhorrently pathetic job of standing up for the people of Milwaukee at this critical moment for our democracy. Many of those voices who have been pushing for the RNC have been doing so as they’ve allowed these attacks, like the ones coming from Michael Gableman’s “investigation,” to continue without even a modicum of public criticism. Any “failure” to land the RNC would be theirs just as much, if not more, than it would belong to an opposition raising legitimate concerns at a time when fears are heightened.
Ultimately, there’s quite a bit more nuance to this question over Milwaukee potentially hosting the RNC than being politically at odds with the Republicans looking to convene here. So, let’s step back and take a look at the issues.
First, the only reason the RNC is even a discussion for the city right now is because the Democratic Party did not turn right around after 2020 and commit to Milwaukee to host its convention in 2024. Choosing not to hold the convention in person two years ago was the correct, safe decision, but as we argued at the time of the in-person cancellation, coming back to the city for 2024 would have been the right move. Effectively, Democrats built the infrastructure for Republicans to waltz in and have a turnkey event ready for them. It’s quite the metaphor for what’s happening across the nation, but that’s not the point. The point is that the DNC should have done right by Milwaukee and committed to hosting its convention here in 2024. They didn’t, and it opened the door for Republicans to make their bid.
During this latest process, leaders from VISIT Milwaukee and elsewhere have estimated that this convention would generate a $200 million economic impact. Detractors should not overlook this figure. This would be a big, big deal. These are real dollars, and this convention would undoubtedly boost tourism and service industries that were hit hard during the worst of the pandemic.
Are Republicans being complete hypocrites by trumpeting how the RNC would help restaurants all while voting to block federal funding for the Restaurant Relief Fund? Of course they are. But that doesn’t change the fact that an event of this magnitude would do great things for the local economy in Milwaukee, just as it would have with the DNC.
What it would not do is do great things for are Milwaukee’s City and County budgets. This was the case with the DNC, too. One of the big problems with Wisconsin’s taxing structure is that local municipalities are denied the option of making their own decisions on revenue, so for the cash-strapped City and County – both of which are staring down budgetary crises that are a few short years away from being full-blown calamities – events like this one can only do so much. The Republican-controlled state legislature has repeatedly denied local control to places like Milwaukee, so with an event like the RNC, Milwaukee would be missing out on any additional sales tax revenue because of Republicans’ failure to act at the state level.
We just saw an example of how this would play out. When the NBA Finals came to Milwaukee, none of the tax revenue generated by the Bucks’ remarkable championship run went to the city. Those funds instead went to the Wisconsin Center District and to the state of Wisconsin. Rewiring this funding equation to help maximize the impact of a political convention is something we argued for here at The Recombobulation Area way back in the Before Times, when Milwaukee was preparing for the DNC, and those conversations need to be moved to the forefront if Milwaukee does indeed land this convention.
Continuing this broken dynamic heading into another political convention without recognizing the clear and obvious solutions – fixing the shared revenue formula; giving cities like Milwaukee the freedom to make their own decisions on sales taxes – would be a huge missed opportunity, and could compound already existing problems.
Some members of the Common Council have pointed this out. Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa went so far as to propose an amendment to the contract framework for the convention that would request the RNC provide $6 million to the city to go toward housing, higher education and workforce development.
Some have said this proposal would put the deal “in limbo.” This is not an inaccurate characterization, but that doesn’t mean the proposal has killed the RNC deal outright, a City Hall source tells The Recombobulation Area, who added that the Council’s “commentary about the state and national Republican Party could have been much worse.”
We’ll know more when the full Common Council meets on Wednesday, June 1, to discuss this deal. It’s entirely possible that a version of the deal without this amendment is the one that’s ultimately voted on.
And while Zamarippa’s proposal may have muddied the waters on this potential deal, larger opposition to the RNC does not appear to be materializing at the Council. Ald. Bob Bauman, who represents downtown, questioned many aspects of bringing the RNC to town, and Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic could be another in the against column, but it’s unclear how many more council members would end up voting against the agreement with the RNC.
Most city leaders, it appears, want to make this work. That has to matter in this discussion. An overwhelming opposition is one thing, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The mayor and most of the Common Council are on board. At a certain point, you have to recognize the reality of the situation.
Part of that political reality is that Milwaukee is a blue city that purples and otherwise cherry-red state. Republicans control many of the levers of government in Wisconsin, and that’s going to be the case for quite some time. That’s life in a swing state for you. Milwaukee cannot go it alone.
A source tells The Recombobulation Area that if Milwaukee were to say no to the RNC, the city’s legislative priorities, including any agreement on a sales tax or shared revenue, are “dead in the water” and that the city’s “name will be poison in Madison more than it already is.”
New leadership in Milwaukee has promised a reset with state Republicans. We can all recognize that’s needed (even if we might differ over who really needs to do the resetting). But if this deal went sideways, it would very much complicate that fresh start, and could instead fuel Republicans to pass any anti-Milwaukee bills they could dream up in the next legislative session (and depending on who wins the governor’s race this fall, could see those bills signed into law then, too), and would scuttle Mayor Cavalier Johnson’s priorities early in his first term.
There’s a long-term view of this that needs to be taken, too. If Milwaukee says no to this convention, it could complicate any conventions that might come to this city, political or otherwise. And it just so happens that the Wisconsin Center District is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the convention center downtown.
This isn’t 2020. Milwaukee will not be able to tell the story it wanted to tell that summer. While it will take some recalibrating, Milwaukee will still have the opportunity to tell its story with the RNC here in 2024, too. And groups opposing the RNC’s presence will have an opportunity to tell that story in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Milwaukee is an incredible city. Republicans don’t treat it as such. They’ve been genuinely awful to Milwaukee in so many ways. They don’t deserve to host their convention here. But Milwaukee isn’t going anywhere, and neither are Republicans. In fact, the single municipality with the most votes cast for the Republican at the top of the ticket in Wisconsin happened to be the city of Milwaukee.
At the end of the day, we need to be realists. The political reality of purple state politics demands that we find a way to work together. The city of Milwaukee choosing not to host the RNC in 2024 would do short-term damage to our local economy, missing out on a huge opportunity, and long-term damage to the city in a myriad of ways.
So, should Milwaukee host the RNC? The answer is yes. A begrudging “yes,” but a “yes” nonetheless.
Let’s recognize this as the opportunity that it can be, and use it to find ways to move this city forward. Refusing to play ball is not a long-term solution – and that goes both ways. Milwaukee is going to need to work with Republicans, and Republicans are going to need to work with Milwaukee.
In order to really move this city forward, Republicans will need to break their cycle of demonizing, demeaning, and defunding Milwaukee. What will be unacceptable is if Republicans use this event to further that cycle and deepen divides. It will be on city leaders to push back if and when that happens in ways they frankly haven’t demonstrated in recent years. If Milwaukee is willing to play host to the RNC, then Republicans’ viciousness toward Milwaukee needs to come to an end.
Let’s use this generational opportunity to start going about things differently. The future of this city – and the state with it – depends on it.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.