Miami-Dade woos Democrats with Emilio Estefan’s food, mojitos and gay men’s chorus

Local officials rolled out the red carpet for Democrats on Thursday as party representatives toured Miami-Dade to evaluate the county’s bid to host the 2020 national convention — what could be the region’s first major political convention in nearly 50 years.

There was a serenade from the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida at the newly renovated Miami Beach Convention Center, a golden statue of a lifeguard chair with a lifesaver reading “DNC 2020” and lunch with Emilio Estefan at the music producer’s Design District restaurant, Estefan Kitchen. The night before, the delegation visited Wynwood Walls, an outdoor street art museum, and dined on Peruvian food.

Then, on Thursday afternoon, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and a group of city and county commissioners officially welcomed the Democratic National Committee’s site survey team. At a press event in front of the Design District’s Fly’s Eye Dome, a giant art installation circled by palm trees, the officials stressed South Florida’s diversity and experience hosting major events.

“I couldn’t think of a better city and community to celebrate America in than a city and community that celebrates America every single day in the mosaic of its population,” said Gelber, the top Democrat representing Miami-Dade’s convention pitch. (Gimenez and Suarez are both Republicans.) “We are America, not looking backwards, we are America looking forward and that’s what this convention is going to be about and that’s what we believe our city is about.”

Despite the hard sell, the head of the DNC’s site selection team wouldn’t say how Miami-Dade ranked compared to Houston and Milwaukee, the other cities still in the running to host the convention, which is scheduled for July 13-16. “We’re looking at three impressive cities, these are the finalists, that bring their own unique character to the table,” said Jess O’Connell, who was accompanied by a team of logistics and security experts. “It’s crucial that Democrats put our best foot forward as we head into the 2020 convention process.”


Miami-Dade leaders tout the county’s bid to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention. The head of DNC site selection committee, Jess O’Connell, far right, gets the sales pitch from Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, center, as he stands with other mayors and commissioners on Thursday, October 18, 2018.

Carl Juste

O’Connell praised Miami-Dade, but noted that the committee’s final decision, expected sometime early next year, would depend on a number of logistical factors including hotel accommodations, security and transportation, as well as how well the host city “embodies the values and the character of our party.”

Local officials also fielded questions from reporters about security and how the police would handle possible protests. The last time Miami Beach hosted a national political convention, in 1972, anti-war protesters outside the Republican National Convention clashed with police and delegates. Gimenez, a former fire chief, stressed that Miami-Dade’s local governments have experience working closely together to handle major events. “I’m very confident in our capabilities,” he said.

The site survey team’s visit wasn’t just about sampling Miami-Dade’s food and music. The team also toured the AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami, where organizers have proposed holding speeches and voting to select the Democratic nominee, and the Miami Beach Convention Center, where caucus meetings would likely be held. Venues for fundraisers, welcome parties and other events associated with the convention might include Vizcaya Gardens, Zoo Miami, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and Marlins Park, according to Miami-Dade’s proposal.

Democrats visited Houston and Milwaukee in August and had planned to tour Miami-Dade in September, but the trip was delayed when Hurricane Florence interfered with the site survey team’s travel plans.

Although Florence steered clear of South Florida, the hurricane came at a bad time for the region’s bid to host the convention, drawing attention to weather concerns that were already making some site committee members wary of picking Miami-Dade, according to a POLITICO article that cited unnamed Democrats with knowledge of the selection process. On Thursday, however, O’Connell stressed that the selection was “a competitive process” and that the bid was “wide open.” (It probably didn’t hurt that the weather in Miami was a bit cooler when Democrats visited in October than it would have been in September.)


Protesters outside the 1972 Republican National Convention march with elephant down Meridian Avenue in Miami Beach.

Miami Herald Collection, HistoryMiami Museum

Bids to host national conventions are competitive in part because the host city stands to make a lot of money from the event. The 2016 Democratic National Convention generated $230 million in economic benefits for Philadelphia, according to estimates from the local convention and visitors bureau.

But hosting a national political convention is a massive undertaking. The DNC’s request for proposals includes nearly 100 pages of specific requirements related to security, venues, transportation, hotels, and environmental standards. The event, which would bring more than 30,000 visitors to the Miami area, could cost $50 million or more. Local officials have stressed that they would host the convention without spending taxpayer dollars, relying instead on a “host committee” that would raise the funds from private contributions. (Cities likely would have to pay for some initial expenses with the expectation that they would get reimbursed later.)

In South Florida, Miami Beach first proposed the idea of hosting the 2020 convention, and officials in Miami and Miami-Dade enthusiastically joined the bid. After the finalist cities were announced in June, Gimenez, Suarez and Gelber flew to Washington to promote the region.

The chairman of the county Democratic party has not been enthusiastic about the idea, however. In July, Miami-Dade chair Juan Cuba urged Democratic chairman Tom Perez to remove Miami-Dade from consideration unless the county reverses a 2017 decision to comply with federal immigration detention requests. Houston and Milwaukee also accept federal detention requests. Cuba told the Miami Herald at the time that his message to Perez was a “personal plea” and not the official position of the county’s Democratic Party.

Ricky Junquera, the outreach vice chair for county Democrats, said on Wednesday that the party’s local executive committee strongly supports Miami-Dade’s bid to host the convention.

“We overwhelmingly voted to embrace and support the push to bring the Democratic National Convention to Miami,” Junquera said. He added that Miami-Dade would be an ideal location to highlight issues at the core of the Democratic party’s platform, including immigration, climate change, gun reform and health care.

“If you talk about any of the major issues that matter to Americans across the country, here in South Florida we have lived it,” he said. “If you’re wanting to avoid the issues you would pick another city, but if you’re wanting to talk about the issues in a real way that has a real impact, you would pick Miami-Dade County.”