‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Milwaukee

Thursday marks the final night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention – and nominee Joe Biden is in Delaware instead of Milwaukee, which had been chosen as the party’s host city. This would have been Milwaukee’s first time hosting a major political party convention.

Claire Koenig of Visit Milwaukee says the city had been planning for this week since 2018, and that in order to even compete for the convention, Milwaukee had to have 16,000 hotel stays lined up (a few of which, by the way, would have been in northern Illinois).

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“It would have been this massive, wonderful group of people staying in our hotels, eating in restaurants, going out to the bars, enjoying the beach, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Harley Davidson Museum, and on and on,” Koenig said. “Now, of course, that is not what's happening.”

The DNC and the 50,000 people the convention was going to bring here were estimated to have an economic impact of $200 million. Instead, Koenig says there are about 2,000 people in Milwaukee for the DNC, and that’ll have an impact of just $3 million.

Local establishments are feeling it. On a typical Thursday before COVID-19, Steny’s Tavern and Grill would be packed. The sport bar’s been around since 1985 and is known for its Bloody Marys. We met a bartender who says that back in March, when the coronavirus first shut things down, Steny’s was doing a mean takeout business: 1,000 fish fry orders per Friday. But she says that’s slowed down, and even though Steny’s is now open to anyone wearing a mask, it seems like people are still too scared. That’s why they were looking forward to the DNC.

“We were definitely looking forward to having a huge crowd come out. (When) you Google great sports bars or restaurants in Milwaukee, we pop up right away,” Natalie Duvall of Steny’s said. “We were getting specials together, different Wisconsin foods ... for people coming in from all over the United States to try. It’s really a letdown.”

She says there’s been no uptick from the DNC.

The convention was supposed to have been held at the Fiserv Forum. That’s where the Bucks play; typically, political conventions don’t overlap with the NBA playoffs. Instead of hosting Democratic delegates, Bucks Vice President Alex Lasry is planning basketball watch parties. Lasry, who’s the finance chair of the DNC’s Host Committee, says this was Milwaukee’s chance to show the world it’s a top-tier city.

“This week has been a bit of a disappointment, but I think that’s kind been most of 2020. I think for us the toughest thing has been the fact that it’s the right decision what the DNC did and the Biden campaign did to put the health and safety of everyone first. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t, you know, suck for us,” Lasry said.

The downsized, virtual convention would have been easier to take, he says, if this week had been rainy or even humid. But the weather’s Midwest perfect. Local leaders are already lobbying for Democrats to give Milwaukee a second chance four years from now. Lasry says he’d love for the DNC – or the RNC for that matter – to come in 2024. But he isn’t waiting, and says it’s time for Milwaukee to look at landing conventions that will come yearly.

Biden delegate and Milwaukee County Democratic Party chair Chris Walton was also disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to show off his “amazing” city, but he’s still energized for the 2020 election, and eager to pitch his party and its presidential candidate to undecided voters.

“In this administration the economy collapsed, we are living through a pandemic right now that this president thought was a hoax and didn’t take seriously, we are living in a situation where racial animosity is at an all-time high,” Walton said. “What of the last four years do you want to see continued?”

Video: Our full interview with Milwaukee County Democratic Chair Chris Walton.

Walton hopes to energize Wisconsinites to vote Democrat – so too do Republicans, with the Trump campaign holding several rallies in the state this week to distract from the DNC’s message. Wisconsin’s seen as a key state to win, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying Thursday that the election is riding on the state.

Longtime Milwaukee journalist Vince Vitrano of WTMJ-TV says that’s because of the state’s swing electorate.

“We're so deeply divided as a state, hence our swing nature … a really reliable poll out of Marquette University Law School has the president behind by 5 or 6 points,” Vitrano said, but since Trump has typically been under-polled it could be even closer. “It’s razor thin, and it’s really going to come down to a few tens of thousands of votes who carries this state. ... Milwaukee’s a Democratic stronghold, but they need a huge performance out of the city of Milwaukee in order to carry this state.”

Video: Our full interview with Vince Vitrano of WTMJ-TV Milwaukee.  


Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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