Editorial: Why did Chicago get another Democratic National Convention? Because experience matters.


On the heels of a divisive mayoral election, news that Chicago has been chosen to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention reawakens something that feels like hope.

That’s partly because of the welcome emergence in this drama of something that has been all too rare even among Illinoisans in the same political party. Cooperation.

Chicago edged out New York and Atlanta for the Democratic National Committee’s approval after a highly motivated joint effort by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has made his own national ambitions well known; Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a DNC co-chair who enlisted Sen. Dick Durbin’s help; and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Her successor, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, joined her in celebrating the announcement.

With the city coping with surging violent crime and the economic aftereffects of the pandemic, the convention decision puts the spotlight on why the city has such strong appeal for the nation’s Democrats.

No other city comes close to pulling off the number of national political conventions that Chicago has hosted for both parties — 25, from the 1860 Republican convention that nominated Illinois favorite son Abraham Lincoln to 1996, when Democrats renominated Bill Clinton in the United Center, where next year’s convention is to be held.

The main decision-maker in choosing the convention city was President Joe Biden, which, much to the dismay of Georgians, gave a big advantage to Chicago. The Windy City is still a big union town, and that gave Chicago a decisive edge over Atlanta. Georgia is a “right-to-work” state where workers are not required to join a union as a condition of employment.

Chicago, meanwhile, has a mayor-elect who is a former teacher and paid organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. That likely helped Chicago’s chances with America’s pro-union president too.

Also important is Chicago’s location amid the Midwest’s “blue wall” states — Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Each of those states had Democrats reelected as governors in last year’s midterms.

The United Center offers one of the largest arenas in North America. The convention, scheduled for Aug. 19-22 next year, is expected to draw 5,000 to 7,000 delegates and alternates to the arena, and up to 50,000 visitors to the city.

Daytime business will be held at McCormick Place convention center, which was the main site of the 2012 NATO summit, and delegates will be staying at more than 30 hotels in the Chicago area.

Conventions cost money — lots of it — and the price tag can turn out to be wildly underestimated when it comes due. At the end of the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Democrats still owed money on everything from operational expenses to construction work and modifications made to the Time Warner Cable Arena, according to Politico.

To pay the $8 million bill, Charlotte secured a $10 million line of credit from Duke Energy, an electric utility in the region. But Democrats didn’t repay Duke, which claimed the money as a business expense, drawing criticism for leaving shareholders to foot the bill.

The cost of Chicago hosting the convention would be somewhere between $80 million and $100 million, according to various reports. Pritzker’s team has expressed hopes of a financially risk-free 2024 convention, hinting that a billionaire governor could be an attractive stopgap. “The governor has spoken directly to Joe Biden and committed that Chicago has the ability to fund the convention,” Natalie Edelstein, a spokesperson for the Chicago bid, told Politico in March.

Hopes are high for a strong economic benefit to the convention. By promising that the cost will be entirely covered, Pritzker is signaling to Democratic leaders that they won’t see a repeat of the borrowing controversy that embroiled 2012 host city Charlotte.

Anyone who remembers the Democrats’ disastrous 1968 convention at Chicago’s International Amphitheatre knows why, as the Tribune’s Ron Grossman wrote, “The phrase ‘68 Convention’ was about to join ‘Al Capone’ as mnemonic shorthand for the more notorious chapters of Chicago’s history.”

That was the summer when protests and bitter feelings against the war in Vietnam, the draft, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June boiled over into the convention hall and the streets. Images of Chicago police beating protesters in Grant Park as they chanted “The whole world is watching” were broadcast around the world.

A commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson and headed by businessman and future Illinois governor Dan Walker characterized the disaster as a “police riot.”

None of that did anything to hurt Richard M. Nixon’s presidential bid, which the Republican easily won the following November by campaigning on such themes as “law and order” and “peace with honor.”

But 28 years would pass before Democrats would return to Chicago, partly through diligent efforts by Mayor Richard M. Daley to redeem the reputation of the city and his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had been mayor in 1968.

As image redemption, the 1996 convention worked like a charm. The younger Mayor Daley spruced up boulevards with flowers, brightened transit tunnels with new paint and controlled protests, which were much smaller than in 1968, with comparative restraint.

There were controversies then about cost, and whether the financial return would be worth it for the city. But more people probably remember the event as the “Macarena convention” after then-first lady Hillary Clinton was shown performing the popular dance during a music break in the convention’s business. The cavernous United Center turned momentarily into a giant disco party.

Morale is a difficult entity to value in dollars, but in terms of how people feel about their city and the future of the country, convention moments like that can be priceless.

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April 12, 2023 at 09:03PM

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