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In RNC negotiations, Nashville is standing up for itself. Where does that leave Milwaukee?
Guest column from Marquette professor Phil Rocco
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.
This is a guest column by Phil Rocco, associate professor of political science at Marquette University.
For the moment, Milwaukee seems to be the frontrunner in the competition to host the 2024 Republican National Convention.
The reason for this lies more than 500 miles away, in Nashville.
While “Music City”has been in competition with Milwaukee to host the event, Nashville Metro Council members seemed to boost Milwaukee’s chances by pulling a draft host agreement from consideration to address "to address multiple concerns and objections" of Council members.
While the proposal will be reintroduced later this month, possibly as early as next week, the delay suggests that the host agreement faces stronger political headwinds in Nashville than it did in Milwaukee, where the agreement essentially sailed through. Even a proposed requirement that the city receive $6 million from the host committee was quashed by a Common Council majority for fear that it would “kill the deal”.
So why is Nashville standing up for itself while Milwaukee is backing down?
First, Nashville is considering the RNC decision in the midst of an electoral fight between incumbent Mayor John Cooper and Councilmember Freddie O’Connell. O’Connell has been critical of Cooper’s handling of the contracting process for the RNC bid. For his part, Cooper has noted “serious concerns about the unprecedented resources it would require to secure either party’s national convention in 2024.” By contrast, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson faces no strong countervailing political pressure to ask for a better deal from the RNC, nor did he in what turned out to be a less-than-competitive spring election this year. If anything, his Republican-supported opponent Bob Donovan made it less likely that Johnson would take this stance.
Second, it is worth noting that between June 1, the day Milwaukee Common Council approved the draft host agreement, and today, the Supreme Court’s elimination of a federal constitutional right to an abortion has brought have been seismic political changes in the United States, highlighting already existing tensions between heavily Democratic cities confronting Republican state legislatures. In Tennessee, a near-total ban on abortions will take effect this month, enforced by Republican state officials. On June 29, days after the Roe decision was released, four Nashville Metro Council Members sent a letter to Tennessee Republican Party Chair Scott Golden, asking “whether it is the intention of the Tennessee Republican Party to continue to be outwardly hostile in intent and actions” toward Nashville. As Councilmember Angie Henderson put it:
State government and local government are inextricably linked and stronger together. It would be nice to believe that if we were to take on the mutual burden of hosting this convention, Republican leadership would call off their ‘this-blue-city-is-a-crime-ridden-woke-failure’ hounds making a sport of deriding Nashville in the media and preempting local control on myriad matters simply to score points with the now cultish base of their party.
To anyone familiar with the way that Republican state legislators in Wisconsin treat the city of Milwaukee, all of this will bear a striking resemblance.
Equally striking, however, is just how much more eager Tennessee Republicans have been to persuade Nashville to host the RNC than their counterparts in America’s Dairyland. In February, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee approved a $25 million tourism grant to sweeten the deal.
By contrast, Wisconsin Republicans have offered no positive inducements to persuade Milwaukee to host the RNC. Instead, they seem to be relying on a tacit threat: host the RNC or we’ll make things even worse. Whether or not that threat is credible, Milwaukee’s revenue structure has left the city in a weaker bargaining position, as the tables below suggest.
The City of Nashville’s own source revenues per capita are, on average, nearly three times higher than Milwaukee’s. As a result, Nashville depends on the state for a smaller share of its general revenue when compared to the Cream City. Declining state shared revenue, combined with severe state limitations on the city’s ability to raise revenue from other sources, have placed the city at a disadvantage. Not only does Nashville have higher average property values than Milwaukee, it has the ability to capture revenue from its booming nightlife and tourism industry.
In other words, Milwaukee’s fiscal conditions—driven in large part by state policies that limit the city’s ability to raise revenue—have enabled Republicans to engage in hostage taking: host the RNC or the city gets it (though the “it” is never specified). Combined with the electoral situation, the state’s implicit fiscal threat––and not the fictional promise of a convention-generated economic multiplier effect––is a better explanation of why Milwaukee’s elected officials more readily dropped their objections to hosting the RNC while their Nashville counterparts stood tough. Ironically, however, these same state-imposed limits on municipal revenue collection will ensure that the city sees no fiscal boost from the convention.
Whether or not Nashville forfeits, city officials should at the very least try to bargain for more fiscal concessions in the host agreement. As it stands, the legislation approving the RNC agreement assumes that the City will be able to wrangle at least “funding consistent” with what prior host cities have received. That would be a good start. But city leaders need to demand more, especially given that, in stark contrast to Tennessee, Wisconsin’s tax structure makes it impossible for the city to extract any fiscal dividend from hosting a convention. Rather, sales tax dollars generated by the RNC will go directly back to the state, where the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee will determine how to allocate them.
At the very least, in exchange for the enormous security risks involved in undertaking its hosting duties, the City of Milwaukee is entitled to a cut of the revenue the convention generates.
If the city can’t secure a rent for the indignity of playing host to a party whose operatives have actively undermined democracy in this state, then we have no dignity left.
Phil Rocco is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. He is the author of Obamacare Wars: Federalism, State Politics and the Affordable Care Act (University Press of Kansas, 2016) and editor of American Political Development and the Trump Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.