Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Inside Milwaukee’s Successful DNC Bid

Mayor speaks off the cuff to reveal what happened, what's going on now, what is to come.

By - May 2nd, 2019 10:56 am
Tom Barrett. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Tom Barrett. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Gene Gilbert, a politically active resident of Saint John’s on the Lake, recently asked Mayor Tom Barrett to give a talk to residents. Barrett accepted, as he has for past invitations, and asked Gilbert to suggest a topic.

“How about the Democratic National Convention?” Gilbert suggested. Barrett agreed and appeared Tuesday afternoon, April 30th, where he spoke extemporaneously from a raised stage before an attentive audience of nearly 100 residents.

A Marathon Race Leads to the Starting Line

The Democratic National Committee invited bids to host the convention in late 2017. The list of applicants, including Milwaukee, was announced in spring 2018. After Las Vegas and Denver withdrew their bids, only Milwaukee, Miami and Houston remained in competition. Party officials visited the cities last summer, and party chairman Tom Perez announced Milwaukee’s successful bid on March 11th. When he got the news, Barrett told the audience at Saint John’s, “I felt like I had run a marathon race to get to the starting line.”

Throughout that time Barrett was involved in negotiations that were varied, complex — and confidential. But the time had come to share some of the particulars of what he has been through, what he is doing now, and what we can expect by the time 3,768 delegates, joined by thousands of media, thousands of police, 12,000 volunteers and countless others descend upon the Fiserv Forum July 13-16, 2020.

What Makes it Different?

“What makes this different from other conventions of 50,000 people?” Barrett asked. He revealed one nugget of information to provide some perspective. “I was told that NBC, MSNBC, CNBC alone will have 500 people working the convention,” Barrett said of the three news outlets of a single company. “Add CNN, CBS, ABC, Fox, Reuters — you name it — there will be a spotlight on our city unlike it has ever been under before.”

The Preliminaries

Throughout months of back-and-forth with party officials, Barrett learned much about what was expected of a host city.

The Partner

Firstly, the city had a “willing partner” in the Milwaukee Bucks, the owner and operator of Fiserv Forum. “The Bucks wanted it to happen,” Barrett said. He contrasted this with the situation in Philadelphia in 2016 where the management of the Philadelphia 76ers “was not so interested.”

The Venue

Furthermore, the Fiserv Forum was a brand new, state-of-the-art facility. As far as the site and partner was concerned, Milwaukee was in a good competitive position.

“Correct Number of Hotels”

The “next challenge for Milwaukee” was to demonstrate that it had sufficient hotel rooms available. More than that, the mayor said, Milwaukee had to demonstrate that it had “the correct number of hotels.” This complicated the calculus somewhat, since the party “prefers that each state be housed in the same hotel,” so as to keep delegations together.

There is a practical reason for this, Barrett said. Delegations customarily have breakfast together, and are often joined by candidates, who find it convenient to address delegates one state at a time so as to address concerns at that level.


“This was an eye-popper for me,” the mayor said, of the DNCs request that the city recruit 12,000 volunteers for the convention. Barrett recalled his visit to Philadelphia as a delegate in 2016, and the work of volunteers there. “There were people in the hotels, in the streets. We will have ambassadors for the city of Milwaukee,” he said.


Barrett also had to promise that the city could provide the space for 2,000 events that are expected to be held in conjunction with the convention. “The convention takes place during the afternoons and the evenings,” he said. “During the day delegates have meetings in restaurants, event spaces and parks,” he said. Barrett sensed a catch here. “The worst scenario would be having an organization make five reservations for the same time, and then cancel four of them.” Barrett said he is creating a “Clearing House” to expedite reservations and to coordinate with the facilities involved. “In the long picture this will give us  chance for more conventions,” he said.”I would like to get the Republican convention in 2024.”


Congress is expected to appropriate some $50 million for augmented security during the convention. Local officers from the Milwaukee Police Department, the Milwaukee County Sheriff and other agencies will be involved. Their ranks will be augmented by officers from other jurisdictions. “Milwaukee has sent officers to other convention cities in the past,” the mayor noted.

$60-$70 Million to be Raised

The selection committee also asked Barrett to raise additional funds to cover various guarantees and contingencies involved in the operation of what he characterized as a “giant four-day wedding.”

That is a large sum of money. “Don’t expect the city property taxpayers to pay for this!” Barrett declared. “Northwestern Mutual was the first to step forward with a $1 million donation.” After all, “this is not a partisan event: it is a civic hosting opportunity,” the mayor added. Furthermore, the insurance giant, which usually holds its annual meeting downtown at the time of the convention, has changed its meeting schedule for 2020 to accommodate it.

Free Streetcar

“Another thing they asked me was ‘Could the streetcar be free?’ Barrett mentioned that the Potawatomi have guaranteed free rides, and said, “O.K. We’ll put that in the contract.”

Streetcar Extension Plans

Initially, Barrett had hoped that the streetcar could be extended to Fiserv Forum for the convention. But the security officials stopped that idea in its tracks. “You can’t have the car stop within 150 feet of the convention facility. So we will bring it to Wisconsin Avenue, and then south,” he said. There will be other transportation issues, Barrett said. “You can expect to see buses and buses and buses galore,” he said. “It worked well in Philadelphia.”

Moratorium on Bradley Center Site Redevelopment

Party officials were particularly interested in the site beneath the former Bradley Center, which is nearly entirely demolished at this time. (The roofless building “looks like the (Roman) Coliseum now, with its columns,” Barrett said.) The Bucks, which own the site, promised that there “would be no development until after the convention.” The site would “likely be a press area,” the mayor said. But this raises a question: “Should it be a tent? Or a semi-permanent structure?” he asked. Philadelphia had a tent, he recalled, and thousands of media had to be evacuated from it during a powerful storm.

Designated Protest Area

Barrett said the contract requires the host city to set aside a designated area for protest activities. “We decided it would be Saint John’s,” he joked, to great laughter from the audience.

Looking Forward

“This is a much bigger deal for us than for Miami or Houston. They have conventions and superbowls. … We are humble, but there is a time to toot our own horns. Whether Millennials or the World War II generation, people are going to learn more about Milwaukee in four days than they ever have,” he said.
Barrett said the city is close to hiring a team to run the convention operation here. “The host committee will work with the national committee,” he said.

Cruise Ships Considered

The mayor was asked if cruise ships could be used to house delegates. “Miami built that into its bid,” he said, adding that Adam Schlicht, the director of Port Milwaukee, “is on top of the issue. We got a green light from the Coast Guard,” he said. However, cruise lines tend to schedule their voyages years ahead, so that ship may have already left the dock.

Miller Park As a Venue

Miller Park does not have any events scheduled during the convention, Barrett said. He added that the last night of the Denver convention was held in its football stadium, raising the possibility that the Miller Park could be used here.

Summerfest Grounds a Possible Site

Barrett said he took the search committee members to the Foley & Lardner offices atop the U.S. Bank building to show them the 75-acre Henry W. Maier Festival Park, the site of Summerfest and other ethnic festivals. Summerfest ends on July 5th, 2020 he said, with no events scheduled until Festa Italiana, which begins July 17th. “But Festa needs setup time,” Barrett said, making it unlikely that the convention could use the entire site for related activities. However, Festa occupies only about 60 percent of the grounds, leaving the remaining 22 acres to the south a possible venue.
Which is just one of countless details to be determined. “It’s an exciting time and a lot of work,” Barrett said.

No Endorsement

Barrett was the first mayor to endorse Barack Obama in 2008. “I picked the right horse,” he joked. But he won’t have a horse this time. “With 21 candidates, I most likely will not have an endorsement” before the convention he said. Indeed, there is much speculation that no candidate will have locked down the nomination by then, meaning the Milwaukee convention will decide the Democratic nominee for president.

Saint John’s Residents Get Out the Vote

By the time of the convention, Saint John’s on the Lake, a retirement community affiliated with the Episcopal Church, will have seen the completion of its third tower. Saint John’s, located at 1800-1840 N. Prospect Ave. might well be a stop for prospective presidential candidates, as it has been for local ones over the years, thanks to the efforts of Gilbert, who invited Barrett to speak on this and several previous occasions. (“I always like to come here,” Barrett told him after the speech.)

According to Neil Albrecht, the Executive Director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, there are 274 registered voters at Saint John’s. Of that number, 187 — or 68 percent — voted in the Supreme Court election this spring, compared to a citywide turnout of only 22 percent.

Forty percent of the voters cast their ballots absentee, while the citywide average was 14 percent. The polling place for Saint John’s residents is the Charles Allis Museum, conveniently located across the street.

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