Why Miami won’t be hosting the 2020 Democratic convention (and Milwaukee will)

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez selected Milwaukee on Monday as the site of the party’s 2020 presidential convention, choosing America’s heartland — and perhaps his heart — over the melting pot of Miami.

Rejecting a pitch based around South Florida’s waterfront views, diversity, deep-pocketed donors and experience in hosting major events, Perez chose to hold the party’s seminal event in the midwest, where Donald Trump shocked Hillary Clinton in 2016 in a series of victories that came to symbolize the Democratic party’s estrangement from middle America.

Perez also has deep personal ties to Milwaukee, where he married his wife.

The choice — confirmed by multiple sources after Perez called boosters in Miami and Houston, which also bid to host the convention — was not unexpected: boosters behind Miami’s pitch believed in the weeks leading into the announcement that if they were to be overlooked, it would likely be personal as much as political. But it still stung local politicians and donors who spent the last month hoping to mount a come-from-behind win.

“I can’t imagine Milwaukee winning this on the merits,” Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola said recently. “We checked all the boxes and he [Perez] has been trying to find a reason not to come here.”

A DNC spokesperson was not immediately available for comment. But people involved with Miami’s package believed the city had the best plan to offer.

Led by Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, the pitch included prime-time speeches at the AmericanAirlines Arena and meetings at the newly renovated Miami Beach Convention Center. Parties at ZooMiami, fundraisers at Vizcaya and accommodations aboard cruise ships docked at Terminal Isle — a kitschy proffer in a region with an abundance of hotel rooms — were among the menu of options.

In a February effort to pull ahead of Milwaukee, Miami Beach host committee co-chairs Chris Korge and Philip Levine nailed down $5 million in commitments, which they said took all of seven phone calls. The committee also nailed down a commitment for a block of 15,000 hotel rooms, the minimum amount required by the DNC.

That number was meant to be a baseline. Miami Beach and downtown Miami have more capacity to hold delegates and media members than Milwaukee and boasts more four- and five-star rooms. Boosters also stressed the importance of winning the 29 Electoral College votes in Florida, where presidential races have a two-decade history of being decided by the slimmest of margins.

“The point is, we are not like any other state because here the slightest advantage, or the most trifling headwind, is a game-changer,” Christian Ulvert, a prominent Democratic strategist in the state, wrote to Perez recently. “And if Florida is ground zero for presidential elections — Miami-Dade is clearly ground zero for Florida.”

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Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, pictured here at a protest in Lafayette Square outside the White House on March 6, 2017, is visiting Miami-Dade this week to evaluate the county’s bid to host the party’s 2020 convention.

Andrew Harnik AP

Though Wisconsin has only a third of Florida’s electoral college votes, Milwaukee representatives dismissed the idea that their city was less important to the party. And they said arguments that Milwaukee is unable to accommodate the convention crush were off-base.

Alex Lasry, chair of Milwaukee’s DNC host committee and Senior Vice President of the Milwaukee Bucks, said he doesn’t think the DNC focused solely on political considerations. “I think Miami, Houston and Milwaukee are all politically interesting cities,” he said in an interview last month. “I think it’s more about who’s going to offer the best experience.”

Lasry cited Milwaukee’s brand-new Fiserv Forum arena, which opened last year with more floor space and suites than Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena, as one of the city’s assets. He dismissed speculation that the city doesn’t have enough hotel rooms to meet the DNC’s needs. In its request for proposals, the DNC asked for 15,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 suites within 20 minutes of the main venue. Lasry said that because Milwaukee is compact, some hotels within a 20-minute radius are outside Milwaukee city limits.

“I think our radius is a little bit bigger, but when you’re talking about a 20-minute drive we meet it,” he said.

Lasry also dismissed concerns that Milwaukee might have a harder time fundraising to host the convention than its competitors, noting that Wisconsin is home to numerous Fortune 500 companies.

“I actually think what we’ve seen is tremendous support from the business community in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin,” he said, noting that the support has come from CEOs on both sides of the political divide. “We’ve got companies in Madison, Milwaukee, all throughout the state, who have already signed on and said, ‘We will be a part of this if we get it.’”

Miami hoped its status as a Democratic bastion in a purple state was also thought to be an allure, as was the region’s concentration of prolific donors. That, however, may have actually worked against Miami.

“Miami is one of the top places and South Florida for individual contributors and that would have taken a big bite out of what they would raise down here in the next 18 months,” said Korge, himself a major Democratic party fundraiser.

There was some consternation about the fact that three local governments — including two Republican mayors — were leading the pitch. But that was easily quelled by appointing Gelber, a Democrat, as the point man. And when DNC negotiators raised some dissatisfaction with the Miami arena’s lack of suites, arena representatives offered to make any necessary renovations to accommodate the convention.

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Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber

David Santiago dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Still, people involved with the negotiations became more skeptical with Miami’s chances as time went on and Perez made no announcement. Initially, they believed Perez would declare the convention site in early January, but the date kept getting pushed back. Last week, Levine warned that Perez was taking too long to decide.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said one source.

When the DNC hosted its summer gathering in Chicago last year, Gelber hosted party officials on a yacht anchored on Lake Michigan as a way to highlight Miami’s coastal perks and an offer to house delegates on cruise ships. This December, Perez visited during Art Basel, when he toured Miami and the Beach during one of the busiest large-scale events of the year. Perez was also treated to lunch at Joe’s Stone Crab and a private dinner at the home of Paul Cejas, a noted Democratic fundraiser and former U.S. ambassador to Belgium under former President Bill Clinton.

But following the 2016 convention in Philadelphia, a move away from the east coast may have been part of the allure. Perez also has deep ties to Milwaukee, where his wife grew up and they were married. One of his daughters attends a college in Wisconsin — a state that embodied Donald Trump’s unexpected sweep of once reliably blue midwestern states.

Perez’s decision continues Miami’s drought. The area hasn’t hosted a political convention since 1972, when both the Republican and Democratic gatherings were held in South Beach., setting up a campaign between President Richard Nixon and U.S. Sen. George McGovern. Protests outside the Republican convention that year led the city’s mayor to swear that Miami Beach would never again host a political convention.

“I’m not sure strategically how either one of those areas is a better fit for presidential politics than Florida is,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said of Houston and Milwaukee. “But we respect their decision.”