What Milwaukee Means to Democrats
The city’s selection for Democratic Convention is symbolic. But of what?
The folks are not happy in Miami. How could Milwaukee, a much smaller city with far fewer four-star and five-star hotel rooms, win the contest for the 2020 Democratic National Convention?
“I can’t imagine Milwaukee winning this on the merits,” Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola declared. “We checked all the boxes, and he [Tom Perez] has been trying to find a reason not to come here.”
The fact that the national Democratic Party’s leader had personal connections to Milwaukee — Perez’s wife is from Wauwatosa and they were married in Milwaukee — certainly didn’t hurt Milwaukee’s bid, but really, wasn’t there any other reason for the pick? A raft of them, it seems, with the media and politicos throwing out many misleading if not downright fanciful descriptions of this city and state. For instance:
It’s a Deeply Democratic State: So said a coalition of Midwestern senators from Minnesota to Indiana to Ohio who signed a letter urging the DNC to select Milwaukee. Wrong. For much of its history there barely was a Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Elections pitted the Progressive Republicans against the stalwart Republicans with the Democratic Party almost like a third party. Democrats began to become competitive only in the late 1950s after more than half a century in the political wilderness.
It’s Oh So Progressive: Always trotted out to explain Wisconsin. Yes it’s the state of Fighting Bob LaFollette but also of red baiter Joe McCarthy. Wisconsin has generally been progressive on economic issues but conservative on social issues, which helps explain its sometimes bizarre swings between liberal and conservative politicians. Its voters also like mavericks and they apparently saw a wealthy celebrity business figure like Donald Trump as such a one. Go figure.
The Restaurants Serve Sausage: Yes, it’s a city where “local restaurants… still serve kielbasa and brats”, according to National Public Radio’s take on Milwaukee’s winning bid. Seriously? My wife and I have dined at countless local restaurants and I can’t think of one that offered this.
A Socialist Stronghold: “No city in America has stronger ties to socialism than Milwaukee,” Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin GOP, quickly crowed after the city’s selection. “And with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the embrace of socialism by its newest leaders, it’s only fitting the Democrats would come to Milwaukee.”
Yes, Milwaukee had decades of leadership by three Socialist mayors, but they were the dubbed the “sewer socialists” for their emphasis on good sewers and infrastructure, public transit and parks and clean, transparent government. They were also fiscal tightwads who refused to bond or borrow money, and this thrifty German pay-as-you-go philosophy landed Mayor Dan Hoan on the cover of Time Magazine for being the only mayor of a big city during the Depression who had a budget surplus. Hoan would have been appalled at the massive budget deficit being run up by Trump and the Republicans.
A Strong State for Workers: So said Tom Perez and it’s true… except when it’s not. As one of the leading manufacturing states Wisconsin was often in the forefront of labor rights, and the first state to create an unemployment compensation program in 1936. But three years later it was paradoxically the first state to rein in the power of unions granted by the federal Wagner Act (requiring companies to recognize and bargain with unions) with a law placing some restrictions on strikes and picketing, which presaged the federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Yet in the 1950s Wisconsin was the first state to allow public union bargaining — only to see this overturned by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011. Walker also signed a right-to-work law in 2015, joining 24 other states constraining private sector unions.
Most Segregated City in America: Yes, the New York Times already trotted that one out, and you can expect to hear it repeated. It’s based on a sociological measure called the dissimilarity index, created in the 1950s, when the idea was that all African Americans must be dispersed as evenly as possible. Thus, any neighborhood in Milwaukee that is more than 17 percent black (the average for the four-county metro area) gets faulted as not white enough. Seriously. Meanwhile there are other, less-cited rankings that show Milwaukee as less racist and more diverse than other cities. Yes, Milwaukee is segregated, both racially and economically, but is it the worst of all metro areas? There’s room for doubt.
Not Enough Hotels: The exact words tweeted by Democratic insider David Axelrod in response to Milwaukee’s selection. Or as Politico reported: “Some warned that Milwaukee would be ‘another Charlotte,’ a reference to the 2012 convention host city, which struggled to accommodate the influx of people.” Or how about New York Times columnist Gail Collins’ wry new slogan for Milwaukee: “More Hotel Rooms Than You’ve Heard.”
According to Visit Milwaukee, Milwaukee downtown area has 5,500 hotel rooms, but that is about to increase significantly, as my colleague Jeramey Jannene has reported. There are currently 17,800 hotel rooms in the Greater Milwaukee area, according to Visit Milwaukee, in excess of the 15,000 requested by the Democratic convention, but some are likely a half-hour drive away. That said, the Harley-Davidson anniversary event last year accommodated more than 100,000 bikers versus the 50,000 expected for the convention, though it’s possible some of those motorcycle maniacs simply slept on their hogs.
A State Snubbed by Hillary: Actually some of us felt we saw more than enough of Ms. Clinton, who campaigned here on a number of occasions, just not during the 2016 general election, given that every poll known to humankind showed she would win the state easily. Respected non-partisan elections expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson has concluded that states like Wisconsin were likely won due to Russian cyberattacks and internet trolls, but the Blame It All on Hillary trope is one of the few bipartisan statements we Americans now agree on.
Which gets us to what Milwaukee really represents. A message to a key swing state that Democrats really really loves you, even if some of your biggest city’s hotel rooms are located more than 20 minutes away in truly segregated places like Brookfield or Mequon.
And beyond that a message that the entire upper Midwest, from Pennsylvania (narrowly lost in 2016) to Michigan (ditto) to Minnesota (narrow win) really really matter. Which means we are going hear ad nauseam about the Rustbelt and the Heartland, preferably with poignant string music playing and not a mention of Flyover Country. Yes, Wisconsin, where the corn never gets as high as an elephant’s eye (see Iowa for that) and all the old manufacturing plants in town are being turned into condo and apartment complexes now filled with latte sipping urban Democrats.
“This is the first time the Democratic Party has held a national convention in the Midwest, outside of Chicago, since 1916,” Perez wrote. “This choice emphasizes the importance of the heartland and the strength of a diverse community working together.”
Which I guess means Milwaukee isn’t so segregated after all, but is right smack in the Heartland, which Perez neglected to capitalize.
Moving away from the flowery invocations, the choice of Wisconsin is a message that the Democrats are out to win over those Trump voters who previously voted for Obama and seem as changeable as a Heartland wind. And what better place than Wisconsin, where more than 500 communities voted for Obama in 2012 and the Donald in 2016, as a Journal Sentinel analysis found.
But this is also a message about what isn’t being emphasized. Mainly the Latinx voters who loom large in the losing cities of Miami and Houston and are just rising to a small amount of power in Milwaukee. Given Trump’s views on Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and the surge of Latinx voters supporting Democrats in 2016 and 2018, the party has decided they needn’t emphasize that quite so much in its 2020 convention.
Which means we’ll be hearing a lot about cheese and beer, bratwurst and kielbasa, socialism and segregation, blue collar voters and bowling alleys. By the time the convention coverage is finished, we will barely recognize Milwaukee.
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