‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Milwaukee

Chicago is waiting to see whether Democrats will choose it above Atlanta, Houston and New York as the host city for the party's 2024 convention. But Republicans have already made their selection: Milwaukee.

On a blue-sky, sunny, 74-degree day, Peggy Williams-Smith, the president of the city’s visitor’s bureau, VISIT Milwaukee, stood along the downtown riverwalk as kayakers made their way down the Milwaukee River.

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“Everyone who goes by on the river waves at you. It’s really about our people, we are just such a friendly city. But in addition to that, our beaches. We’re on Lake Michigan. We’ve got amazing parks. We have the world’s largest outdoor music festival,” she said. “We’ve got the country’s best state fair, which is happening right now. We’re the city of festivals so every weekend in the summer you can find something going on down at the Henry Maier Festival Grounds. It’s just such an amazing city.”

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Cranes and construction cones dotting the city are evidence.

Milwaukee leaders are looking to show off the Midwest summer perfection two summers from now when thousands of Republicans, and nearly as many journalists, descend on their city.

“I think that any time you announce you’re hosting something like this, developers automatically become interested in the city as a whole,” Williams-Smith said. “We’re underway for a $420 million expansion of our convention center.”

That convention center is set to open early in 2024 and will host some activities, but the main event will be at the Fiserv Forum — home to the 2021 NBA Champions, the Milwaukee Bucks.

A few years ago, the arena would have been filled with Democrats, not Republicans.

Party leaders chose Milwaukee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention. But then, COVID-19 hit and the convention went mostly virtual.

Milwaukee's commissioner of city development, Lafayette Crump, said he's excited his hometown is getting another swing.

Because Milwaukee was all ready to put on the DNC, it's nearly turn-key. He said it’s notable that Milwaukee was chosen two election cycles in a row by two different parties.

“I think it’s a few things,” Crump said. “I think it’s certainly the fact that when you’re considering where you’re going to have a political convention, it’s worth considering if you’re going to be in a swing state. It’s the thought that if you’re there you’re going to certainly be getting more attention in one of the pivotal states of 2024. Both parties were certainly excited about the opportunity to be here and get that kind of attention.”

That political divide is also why not everyone in this largely liberal city is excited about the RNC. Crump said there's a vocal minority of people who don’t want to lay out the welcome mat to the Republican party.

“It’s incumbent on us to make sure that any of the concerns people have are addressed,” Crump said. “That we’re safe, that there’s appropriate protest zones for people to exercise First Amendment rights. If there are people who want to express themselves who have disagreements with the Republican party, what better place to have a convention than right here to get attention to those matters. These political conventions are a uniquely American phenomenon and have an opportunity for everyone to make their voices heard.”

Milwaukee's mayor is a Democrat, but fought for the RNC to come here.

Williams-Smith said Milwaukee hosts all sorts of conventions and they may not always be exactly what she's into or agrees with, but that's not the job.

“Our job is to bring visitors into the city, a convention that’s going to bring 15,000 journalists, to tell the story of our region and our state,” she said. “I would be grossly negligent if I didn’t bring it to the city of Milwaukee.”

Not to mention, the economic advantages are pegged at $200 million.

There's sure to be squabbles over just who will benefit from that. Crump and Williams-Smith both said the RNC contract guarantees local and diverse vendors.

“Community conversations about how people can get involved and make money from us being able to host this convention,” Williams-Smith said. “It’s us being able to put food on the convention floor. They want a representation of all of the food Milwaukee has to offer. It’s printing, it’s construction, it’s the trades. It’s everything. There’s going to be so much going on, it’s event venues, because there’s a lot of parties.”

The hope is that once Milwaukee gets its time to shine on the world stage, that party will go on for the city, its businesses and residents.

“What happens after the convention,” Crump said. “What happens when additional organizations decide they’re going to look at Milwaukee now because they saw how we handled this. The RNC now being here is a direct result of how we prepared for the DNC. You see what happens in other cities after attracting major political events.”

One of the potential businesses that could benefit is Leon’s Frozen Custard located off of 27th St. It’s been serving frozen custard to Milwaukee residents for the last 80 years.

For a taste of Wisconsin flavor, owner Ronald Schneider explained how custard has less air whipped in, higher cream content, and it is always served fresh.

“It’s served fresh out of the machine,” Schneider said. “Technically it [custard] has a little more butter than ice cream. Custard is 10 percent butter compared to 6 percent in ice cream. There’s far less air whipped into it. When you’re freezing a product like this you need to blend some air into it, otherwise it gets too heavy and greasy.”

Politics in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is fresh off its primary and cheeseheads came out to vote in big numbers, with nearly 26% voter turnout in the race for governor. That's the highest turnout for a non-presidential primary in about 40 years.

Vince Vitrano, a longtime TV anchor who now hosts “Wisconsin’s Morning News" on WTMJ-AM, and is an expert on Wisconsin politics, said the race for governor is sure to be a highly-competitive contest.

Incumbent Tony Evers, a Democrat, will face Trump-backed Republican Tim Michels in the fall.

“The Trump endorsement for Tim Michels clearly made an impact in the primary, which was very interesting,” Vitrano said. “Trump also endorsed a primary challenger for our speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly. That speaker has been in place for a long time. He’s a very powerful Republican in the state. He made it out by a few hundred votes. Trump’s endorsement certainly matters. Will it help Michels or hurt him in the general? That’s a really good question because I have heard from conservatives who have had it with Trump … whether or not they come home and go along with the party, that remains to be seen.”

No matter who wins that race for governor, Wisconsin will be getting a new lieutenant governor. That's because current Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes coasted to capture the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate after his top rivals recently dropped out of the race.

He'll be against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

There's national attention on this race given the U.S. Senate’s current 50/50 split.

“Democrats definitely feel like they have an opportunity to pick up a seat,” Vitrano said. “Senator Johnson is not wildly popular according to polling in Wisconsin, so I would agree that he is vulnerable. That said, he’s certainly liked and respected among conservatives within the party. I think a lot of it is going to depend on voter turnout and it’s that way everywhere. Who can get their side out to vote … his challenger is lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, very young African-Amercan, very popular and charismatic. He is a working class candidate coming from a working class household so that’s going to be his message. The billionaire versus the working class candidate.”

But while Wisconsin is a swing state, Vitrano said there's no chance there will be a power shift in the legislature. Republicans will keep control, he added.

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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