National Politics

Why Miami won’t be hosting the 2020 Democratic convention (and Milwaukee will)

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez selected Milwaukee on Monday as the site of the party’s 2020 presidential convention, choosing America’s heartland — and perhaps his heart — over the melting pot of Miami.

Rejecting a pitch based around South Florida’s waterfront views, diversity, deep-pocketed donors and experience in hosting major events, Perez chose to hold the party’s seminal event in the Midwest, where Donald Trump shocked Hillary Clinton in 2016 in a series of victories that came to symbolize the Democratic Party’s estrangement from middle America.

The choice was not unexpected: The people behind Miami’s pitch believed in the weeks leading into the announcement that if they were to be overlooked, it would likely be personal as much as political. That Perez married his wife in Milwaukee was a fact referenced often in Miami as the chairman waited, and waited, and waited to make a decision.

But it still stung some local politicians and donors who spent the last month hoping to mount a come-from-behind win. In an official press release Monday morning, the city of Miami Beach called Perez’s choice “a missed opportunity.”

“I can’t imagine Milwaukee winning this on the merits,” Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola said recently. “We checked all the boxes, and he [Perez] has been trying to find a reason not to come here.”

Perez issued a statement late Monday morning, calling Milwaukee’s selection “a statement of our values.”

“The Democratic Party is the party of working people, and Milwaukee is a city of working people,” he said. “I want to thank the leaders in Houston and Miami for all their hard work throughout this process. They both put forward competitive proposals that I’m sure will lead them to hosting future conventions.”

People involved with Miami’s package say they had cordial conversations with Perez Monday morning when he called to deliver the bad news, but still believed the region had the best offer.

Led by Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, the pitch included prime-time speeches at the AmericanAirlines Arena and meetings at the newly renovated Miami Beach Convention Center. Parties at Zoo Miami, fundraisers at Vizcaya and accommodations aboard cruise ships docked at Terminal Isle — a kitschy proffer in a region with an abundance of hotel rooms — were among the menu of options.

In a February effort to pull ahead of Milwaukee, Miami Beach host committee co-chairs Chris Korge and Philip Levine nailed down $5 million in commitments, which they said took all of seven phone calls. The committee secured a commitment for a block of 15,000 hotel rooms, the minimum amount required by the DNC. Some of the area’s large donors also got involved, lobbying the DNC to come to Miami and presenting the city — which has more hotel capacity to hold delegates and media members than Milwaukee and boasts more four- and five-star rooms — as an unrivaled party town.

But Miami’s glitz was only part of the offer. Boosters also stressed the importance of winning the 29 electoral college votes in Florida, where presidential races have a two-decade history of being decided by the slimmest of margins.

“The point is, we are not like any other state because here the slightest advantage, or the most trifling headwind, is a game-changer,” Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist in the state, wrote to Perez recently. “And if Florida is ground zero for presidential elections — Miami-Dade is clearly ground zero for Florida.”

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Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, pictured here at a protest in Lafayette Square outside the White House on March 6, 2017, announced on March 11, 2019, that Milwaukee, not Miami or Houston, had been selected to host the Democratic Party’s national convention in 2020. Andrew Harnik AP

Though Wisconsin has only a third of Florida’s electoral college votes, Milwaukee representatives dismissed the idea that their city was less important to the party. And they said arguments that Milwaukee is unable to accommodate the convention crush were off-base.

Alex Lasry, chair of Milwaukee’s DNC host committee and senior vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks, said he doesn’t think the DNC focused solely on political considerations. “I think Miami, Houston and Milwaukee are all politically interesting cities,” he said in an interview last month. “I think it’s more about who’s going to offer the best experience.”

Lasry, whose father, Marc, is a billionaire hedge fund manager and major Democratic donor, cited Milwaukee’s brand new Fiserv Forum arena, which opened last year with more floor space and suites than Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena, as one of the city’s assets.

He dismissed speculation that the city doesn’t have enough hotel rooms to meet the DNC’s needs. In its request for proposals, the DNC asked for 15,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 suites within 20 minutes of the main venue. Lasry said that because Milwaukee is compact, some hotels within a 20-minute radius are outside Milwaukee city limits.

“I think our radius is a little bit bigger, but when you’re talking about a 20-minute drive we meet it,” he said.

Lasry also said Milwaukee’s numerous Fortune 500 companies put the city in a good position to raise the money needed to host the convention.

“I actually think what we’ve seen is tremendous support from the business community in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin,” he said, noting that the support has come from CEOs on both sides of the political divide. “We’ve got companies in Madison, Milwaukee, all throughout the state, who have already signed on and said, ‘We will be a part of this if we get it.’ ”

Miami hoped its status as a Democratic bastion in a purple state was also thought to be an allure, as was the region’s concentration of prolific donors. That, however, may have actually worked against Miami.

“Miami is one of the top places and South Florida for individual contributors and that would have taken a big bite out of what they would raise down here in the next 18 months,” said Korge, himself a major Democratic party fundraiser.

Miami’s East Coast geography may have also been a problem for a party that lost its historic grip on the Midwest in 2016. At one point, after lobbying by some prominent Miami donors appeared to gain traction last month, boosters in Milwaukee fired back with their own campaign warning that the DNC couldn’t afford to neglect middle America.

“The delay to announce resulted in many Midwest members calling directly to the DNC to remind them that we must be a national party,” said one DNC member who asked not to be named. “With great wins in Wisconsin in 2018, it was the ideal place to show our commitment to the heartland.”

Miami had other complications.

The convention’s start date of July 13 would have put the event in hurricane season. There was some consternation early on about the fact that three local governments — including two Republican mayors — were leading the pitch. But that was easily quelled by appointing Gelber, a Democrat, as the point man. And when DNC negotiators raised some dissatisfaction with the Miami arena’s lack of suites, arena representatives who were initially cool to the campaign offered to make any necessary renovations to accommodate the convention.

Miami-Dade leaders tout the county’s bid to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. The head of the DNC site selection committee, Jess O’Connell, far right, gets the sales pitch from Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, center, appearing with other mayors and commissioners. Carl Juste

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said one source.

When the DNC hosted its summer gathering in Chicago last year, Gelber hosted party officials on a yacht anchored on Lake Michigan as a way to highlight Miami’s coastal perks and an offer to house delegates on cruise ships. This December, Perez visited during Art Basel, touring Miami and the Beach during one of the busiest large-scale events of the year. Perez was also treated to lunch at Joe’s Stone Crab and a private dinner at the home of Paul Cejas, a noted Democratic fundraiser and former U.S. ambassador to Belgium under former President Bill Clinton.

Perez’s decision continues Miami’s drought. The area hasn’t hosted a political convention since 1972, when both the Republican and Democratic gatherings were held in South Beach, setting up a campaign between President Richard Nixon and U.S. Sen. George McGovern. Protests outside the Republican convention that year led the city’s mayor to swear that Miami Beach would never again host a political convention.

Joe Falk, a prominent Democratic donor in Miami who tried to lure the DNC to South Florida, said he’s disappointed that the convention won’t be in Miami but happy that he at least knows where it will be held.

“All the people I’ve spoken to wanted the decision to be made,” he said. “Now we can all get on board and support the effort.”

Miami Herald reporter Taylor Dolven and McClatchy DC reporters Bryan Lowry, Adam Wollner and Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.