Miami Beach

Fifty years after protests, Miami Beach in the running to host Democratic convention

Miami Beach Convention Center’s $600 million renovation more than half done

Maria Hernandez, Project Director for the Convention Center District talks about construction underway at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Tuesday, August 8, 2017. The city says construction is now more than half done.
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Maria Hernandez, Project Director for the Convention Center District talks about construction underway at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Tuesday, August 8, 2017. The city says construction is now more than half done.

The mayor of Miami Beach once swore the city would never again invite a political party to host its national convention on the island.

That was in 1972, after three political conventions in four years — one of which drew destructive anti-war protests — left Miami Beach reeling.

Chaos reigned outside the Republican National Convention in August of 1972, where President Richard Nixon was being nominated for a second term. About 3,000 anti-war protesters overwhelmed South Beach on Aug. 21 and demonstrated outside the convention hall complex. Some clashed with police and delegates, pummeled passing cars and burned an American flag. Vandals smashed windows along Collins Avenue.

Chuck Hall, the mayor at the time, vowed not to invite either the Republicans or the Democrats to host their national gathering in the city again unless the federal government picked up the tab.

"I'm going to try to get a bill in Congress to have the federal government pay all the costs of these conventions," Hall said. "They really don't bring much money into the city. Politicians are usually freeloaders. They expect to get everything for nothing."

Now, Miami Beach is enthusiastically courting the 2020 Democratic National Convention. On Wednesday, the city was selected as one of four finalists in the running to host the event, along with Denver, Houston and Milwaukee. The current mayor said he welcomes the opportunity.

"I would have to believe that a state-of-the-art convention center along with all of the elements the South Florida community presents" would be selling points for Miami Beach's bid, said Mayor Dan Gelber. "We're very excited."

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Protesters outside the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. Miami Herald Collection, HistoryMiami Museum

Miami Beach has been invited to present its proposal to Democrats next week, said Marcia Monserrat, the city manager's chief of staff. The DNC first sent requests for proposals to eight cities in April, including Miami Beach, then narrowed contenders down to four. The committee plans to conduct site visits in the finalist cities during the summer and fall and make a decision following the trips, according to a Democratic National Committee official. The 2020 Democratic Convention will be held July 13-16, just before the 2020 Summer Olympics.

If selected, Miami Beach plans to host registration, meetings and other events at its convention center, which is in the middle of a $600 million upgrade. Speeches and voting to select a candidate — functions that usually are televised — would likely be held at AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami, Monserrat said.

Although Miami Beach is the lead host, the city submitted a joint proposal with Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami.

"A city has to figure out how to absorb this kind of event so you need multiple partners, which is why this isn't simply Miami Beach," Gelber said.

If Miami Beach is chosen, it would be the first time in nearly 50 years that the city will host a major political convention. Miami Beach was the site of the Republican convention in 1968 and both the Democratic and Republican conventions in 1972.

Tumultuous protests outside the 1972 Republican National Convention left a mark on the city's history.

Protesters outside the 1972 Republican National Convention march with elephant down Meridian Avenue in Miami Beach. Miami Herald Collection, HistoryMiami Museum

In addition to the vandalism and clashes with police, the protests were also visually dramatic. Some demonstrators, their faces painted a deathly white, led an elephant pulling a coffin down the street as they marched toward the convention hall. Others wore Nixon masks smeared with red paint.

Outside the Atlantis Hotel on Collins Avenue, where protesters ripped down pictures of Nixon, a demonstrator punched one convention attendee from Kentucky in the face as he waited to board a bus to the convention hall, knocking out two of his teeth. The attendee, Harold Barton, told the Miami Herald at the time that the protesters were part of "the great unwashed" but that he still thought Miami was "a good town."

By the end of the day, more than 200 demonstrators had been jailed.

Even Miami Beach hoteliers, usually happy to have an influx of visitors, said they hoped the national political conventions would stay away.

"I would doubt that we would invite them in the future," Edwin Dean, then the executive director of the Southern Florida Hotel and Motel Association, told the Herald at the time. "As of now, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages."

Five decades later, the city is ready to once again welcome a national political convention.

Hosting the DNC would be a big win for the Miami Beach Convention Center, which the city started renovating in December 2015 in a bid to attract bigger bookings. The upgrade was thrown off schedule last year after damage from a torrential rainstorm in August and Hurricane Irma in September added roughly $7 million to the price tag. Miami Beach still expects to complete most of the renovations by the end of August.

In addition to staying in hotels in Miami Beach and throughout Miami-Dade County, guests might also have the opportunity to stay on cruise ships during the convention, Gelber said.

Miami Herald Washington correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report