State and city leaders joined national Democrats Wednesday to hold a celebratory pat-themselves-on-the-back ceremony against the backdrop of the Chicago lakefront and skyline, cheering the awarding of the 2024 party presidential nominating convention to the city but still leaving plenty of questions about how they’ll pull it off.
Standing outside the Shedd Aquarium with Lake Michigan and skyscrapers behind him on a sunny April afternoon, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Chicago would provide an “ideal” setting for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to frame their reelection bid next year to serve four more years in the White House.
“A convention in Chicago, the center of the blue wall of key states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota, will show that Democrats don’t take this region for granted, that this is key to victory in 2024,” Pritzker said. “Illinois is home to a bustling metropolis, a strong rural tradition, thriving suburbs, not to mention a long-standing history rooted in civil rights and workers’ rights and reproductive rights.”
The Aug. 19-22, 2024, convention will be the first held in Chicago since 1996, when Democrats nominated President Bill Clinton and Al Gore for a second term. Biden hasn’t formally announced his bid for reelection but has strongly indicated he will run for a second term.
Outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot took the stage alongside Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison, Pritzker, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and other members of the Illinois congressional delegation to tout the event as an opportunity for Chicago to reframe itself post-pandemic.
“This convention will bring an opportunity to showcase the beauty and the truth of this great city on a global stage. We have too many things out there in the mouths of pundits and critics who talk about our city in a way that is unrecognizable to those who live here,” Lightfoot said, a nod to criticism from top Republicans that Chicago’s selection highlighted Democrats’ weakness in responding to crime.
[ Chicago selected as site of 2024 Democratic National Convention ]
Local business leaders celebrated the announcement Tuesday, hoping the convention will bring a reputational bump to the city and a direct economic boost to hotels and restaurants still recovering from the pandemic. Many were present at Wednesday’s celebration, including host committee Co-chair Michael Sacks, who is board chairman and CEO of asset management firm GCM Grosvenor as well as a top Democratic donor and close confidant of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Other host committee chairs are Pritzker’s former deputy governor, Jesse Ruiz, and Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th, the governor’s one-time pick to run the state’s Democratic Party.
Chicago beat out New York City and Atlanta to host next year’s convention and Harrison, the DNC chairman, said all three cities were “unique” and it was a “very very hard choice.” But he suggested Chicago’s turnkey operations at the United Center and McCormick Place put it over the top. The city also reflects the party’s diversity, he said.
“This region was critical to President Biden and Vice President Harris’ 2020 victory. We won big here in 2022, and it will be a big part of how we win big again in 2024. This region will also give us the opportunity to showcase the Biden/Harris economic agenda,” he said, adding that Democrats are “extra eager” to give them both the “celebration they missed out on” when the 2020 convention was held largely virtually.
New York Mayor Eric Adams was one of many party leaders who suggested Democrats picked Chicago because of its strategic importance to maintaining the “blue wall” of battleground states in the Midwest. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens suggested Pritzker’s pledge the DNC would not have to foot the bill — or close a potential deficit — was a major factor, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The event is projected to cost between $80 million and $100 million. While Atlanta had secured commitments of $20 million from major donors and corporations, Pritzker and city business and labor leaders in March pledged they could underwrite the estimated $100 million in convention costs to avoid passing expenses along to the DNC or local taxpayers.
Chicago also touted its robust infrastructure: tens of thousands of hotel rooms with a unionized workforce, two airports, public transit, and use of the United Center and McCormick Place, which are both equipped to host thousands.
In a brief interview with reporters after the event, Harrison said the city’s host committee will decide how much to detail about who and how much individuals, corporations and others will be contributing to the endeavor.
Asked how important Johnson’s victory last week over more conservative Democratic mayoral candidate Paul Vallas was to the story the DNC wanted to tell about the party, Harrison said, “At the end of the day, it was making sure, as I mentioned, that we had a turnkey operation. We were looking at logistics, what would make the best show in terms of putting the president’s story and the vice president’s story out there and how Democrats have delivered for the American people.”
“It was great to get some certainty about who the leadership was going to be here but at the end of the day, we based our decision on what we thought was the best city to put that story out there,” Harrison said. “For us, it was the X’s and O’s, looking logistically at what was necessary, what was needed, looking at resources and budgets, how much money we needed to raise, how we could raise those funds, the plans that each city had to do that. Those were the most important things to us.”
Republicans have chosen nearby Milwaukee for their convention. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement she looked forward “to the DNC’s convention where their radical agenda will be on full display for the world to see.”
While the Democrats gathered in Chicago Wednesday heaped praise on each other and the city, they offered little in terms of details about how the convention would be paid for, including whether Pritzker, the billionaire governor, would dip into his own pockets to help cover costs.
“What I guaranteed is that I and the committee that we put together will work extraordinarily hard to raise all the dollars necessary,” Pritzker said, noting when Chicago hosted the Democratic convention in 1996 it “broke even,” which is “a difficult thing.” The 2012 DNC convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, ended with an $8 million deficit.
“We’re going to bring it in on time and on budget,” Lightfoot promised, though her successor will be the one to see it through.
In a nod to one of the Chicago Bulls six championship teams from the 1990s, Johnson joked he was “obviously Steve Kerr,” equating his final push to bring the convention to Chicago in a recent call with Biden to Kerr’s winning shot in game six of the 1997 NBA finals.
“I hope that my election proved that as Democrats, we actually get to run on our values,” Johnson said. “I’m eager to continue to work with this partnership and work closely with the DNC to continue to make this not only the best convention that our country’s ever seen, but will go down in history as the most remarkable testament to what is possible for the people of this great country.”
Duckworth, who was credited alongside Pritzker and Lightfoot with helping successfully lobby for the event, said she called Johnson to congratulate him on his mayoral win last week. “I said, when the president calls you, tell him to choose Chicago. He was the final push!”
In terms of work on roads and public transit, Pritzker said the federal infrastructure bill would help pay for needed investments around the city. The 1996 convention led to lasting beautification efforts downtown and surrounding the United Center, including efforts to clean up and beautify Madison Street. It paved the way for the neighborhood’s transformation into a bustling tech hub and home to a booming bar and restaurant scene, Lightfoot said.
“We will make sure we’ll get done what needs to get done, but because of the work that was really initiated by Daley administration in preparation for the 1996 convention, a lot of the work around the infrastructure was already done,” Lightfoot said, adding specific projects will be discussed with the DNC and passed on to the Johnson administration. “We don’t want to have specific dollar amounts we’re going to put on the table today.”
The Chicago Department of Transportation said construction of a new CTA Green Line station at Damen near the United Center is scheduled to be substantially complete by spring of 2024. The station was initially expected to opened by 2020, but was pushed back several times. The convention also will coincide with work on the Kennedy Expressway that runs between downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport. In 2024, construction is scheduled to be focused on express lanes and upgrades at the large underpass between Ohio and Lake streets downtown, known as Hubbard’s Cave.
As for security concerns, Lightfoot said “we’re going to be working hand in glove,” with DNC partners, the FBI and the Secret Service to make sure the convention sites themselves are “incredibly secure” and “they have safe passage wherever they go in our city. That is something I’m not concerned about.”
“The team understands that safety and security is a primary consideration. What the convention delegates and others will see, members of the press, is that our city is beautiful, our city is safe, and our city is one of the greatest cities on the globe.”
“Safe cities are safe when we have investments,” Johnson said. “So the Democratic National Convention coming to the city of Chicago is one of the best investments you can make.”
Democrats nationally have talked about using elements from and lessons learned during the pandemic-reduced 2020 convention and applying them to the Chicago event, such as remote events. Harrison provided one concept of how it may be used to reach younger voters.
“We want to make sure that the benefits of this convention also can reach out to these kids and help to change and form the course of their lives as well,” Harrison said. “So we will be looking at creative ways. We’re going to be talking to community organizations. We’ll be working with the leadership, not only the elected but the community leadership, to find ways that this is a convention not just in the United Center, but it’s a convention that is all over the city of Chicago, but the state of Illinois and the Midwest as well.”
Harrison, too, pledged to also “make sure that the dollars that flow out of this convention are flowing into all of our communities, not just a select few.”
Tribune reporter Sarah Freishtat contributed.
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April 12, 2023 at 07:36PM