“You can be,” said Jorge Neri, the national convention committee’s director of public engagement. “You should get involved in your local party. You should run for delegate, because there need to be more folks like us in those slots.”
Neri said some party discussions will be open to the public, and other organizers plugged the convention’s paid internship program and volunteer opportunities, along with events happening throughout the city that week that are open to all.
“Don’t undervalue what a watch party would be like that week,” said Liz Gilbert, president of the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee, the nonpolitical group tasked with organizing the convention. “There’s going to be a lot of excitement on TV, and people want to come together as a community and watch that. And you might not be inside . . . but you’re really close.”
Organizers are hopeful the convention — especially its estimated $200 million economic impact on the region — will improve the Democratic Party’s relationship with Wisconsin voters, not further strain it, and that many of the thousands of volunteers recruited to help with the four-day event can then be mobilized to help the nominee get elected.
In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won 71 of 72 Wisconsin counties in the Democratic primary, and the nominee, Hillary Clinton, chose not to campaign in the state during the general election. Donald Trump won the state that November, flipping 22 mostly rural Wisconsin counties that had previously voted for President Barack Obama. The turnout rate for black voters, most of whom live in Milwaukee County, fell nearly 19 percentage points between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.
It was the first time since 1984 that Wisconsin sided with a Republican for president, shocking Clinton and forcing party leaders to refocus on the state, a path that ultimately led to the convention.
“When you look at the maps and the paths to victory, it goes right through Wisconsin,” said Joe Solmonese, the chief executive of the convention. “The convention has the potential to both generate a great deal of goodwill but also to serve as a critically important organizing principle going into the fall — but neither of those will be the case if we don’t do this work here in a respectful manner.”
The last two elections have not gone well for Democrats in convention states. In 2016, after the Philadelphia convention, Pennsylvania went for Trump, the first time since 1988 it had been won by a Republican. In 2012, the convention was held in Charlotte; Democrats would lose North Carolina that year after winning it in 2008.
That year, Obama was supposed to give his acceptance speech at a stadium that could hold not just delegates and party officials but also convention volunteers and members of the public. A potential storm forced the speech indoors, and thousands were promptly disinvited — upsetting many and chilling enthusiasm.
Wisconsin Democrats say they see great potential for the convention but are well aware of the challenges. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), a host committee co-chair who represents Milwaukee, said she told DNC Chairman Tom Perez not to “even think about coming to Milwaukee” unless he had “a real strategy for engaging the entire community and availing yourself of the most diverse district in the entire state.”
But how can organizers make a city of more than a half-million people feel included in a celebration that is designed to be exclusive? Host committee organizers have visited churches on Sundays, held information sessions for small business owners, volunteered at Milwaukee Public Schools and elsewhere in the city, organized community discussions about addressing economic disparities, and said “yes” to as many invitations as possible, including the one from Stone to speak at a community meeting.
“We wanted to . . . really make sure this convention is not just about four days next summer inside of an arena, but that it’s a year-long experience that engages people in every neighborhood,” Gilbert said.
The host committee staff is much larger than in years past. Most are women or nonwhite or both, and they are led by Gilbert, who at 30 is the youngest person ever to hold the position for a Democratic convention. Angela Lang, who organizes in predominantly black neighborhoods and has been skeptical that the convention will be inclusive, credits Gilbert for reaching out, arranging a private meeting and saying, I don’t want to screw this up, so help me, tell me what to do.
“Tell us what we don’t know” is a common refrain for Gilbert, who grew up in Florida, studied elementary education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and has worked on two previous Democratic conventions. Another line she often uses when residents unleash their frustrations: “I hear you.”
In addition to all of the things that make Milwaukee an appealing place for outsiders to visit, it is also a city that has long struggled with extreme economic inequality, poverty, segregation, underperforming public schools, police brutality and mass incarceration.
When Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) — the other host committee co-chair and a four-term mayor who is running for reelection in April — talks about the upcoming convention, he nearly always couples his boosterism of his city with an acknowledgment of its serious problems.
“We know that there are poverty struggles in this city, we know that there are race struggles, we know that there are injustice struggles in this city,” Barrett said at a news conference. “And we want to do everything we can to have more partners to address these issues. And so we’re not going to shy away from the challenges that we have in this city, and we’re going to embrace the advances we’ve made.”
To make the convention “intentionally inclusive,” the host committee plans to reimburse some volunteers for lost wages, transportation and other expenses to expand the number who can afford to participate. Instead of having one staff member tasked with diversity and inclusion, as had been the norm, the Milwaukee host committee has nine.
The committee is also actively trying to connect with small business owners who might not think they would qualify as vendors. Lafayette Crump of the host committee said the formal events he organizes tend to attract business owners “who know that they should be networking, who know that they should be selling themselves.”
“But it’s really important to us that those aren’t the only businesses that we’re reaching,” he said.
In the most impoverished parts of Milwaukee, residents have long been frustrated to see continual investment and development downtown and in the city’s hip neighborhoods while their streets remain pockmarked with potholes.
At the community meeting, resident Donna Aabidah asked convention organizers if they plan to clean up the entire city — “not just the cute areas” — or if they just hope delegates won’t venture down certain streets.
Neri answered that convention officials are “not here to solve all of Milwaukee’s problems,” but that they can flag them to city leaders.
“We want to make sure that when we leave, we leave Milwaukee better than we found it,” Neri said. “We want to make sure that folks feel that they’ve been engaged, that they’ve been listened to, and that the Democratic Party is here for them.”
It’s the sort of answer that Aabidah says she often hears, and she has little faith that this time things will be different.
The sentiment is shared by Myron Edwards, who said he is frustrated that Democrats are not doing enough to combat mass incarceration, especially in the Milwaukee area.
“People in Milwaukee are tired, and we don’t have any solutions coming from leaders,” said Edwards, a local activist who once considered himself a Democrat but doesn’t know where he now stands. “And to have these people come here who don’t know about Milwaukee . . . I really pray to God that they talk about our situation here, because it’s ridiculous.”
Milwaukee has spent nearly $30 million on settlements related to police brutality since 1958. In August 2016, a Milwaukee police officer shot and killed 23-year-old Sylville K. Smith, prompting violent unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood. In July, city police will help guard the convention — along with several other law enforcement agencies — providing a barrier between the city and the convention.
On a recent morning at Coffee Makes You Black, a popular restaurant and community gathering place, mentions of the convention prompted shrugs. Donald Scott, 66, said he doesn’t believe the hype that the convention will dramatically impact the city in ways that continue long after the delegates have gone home.
“I don’t think people realize how transient it is,” said Scott, an Army veteran and semiretired garage door repairman and carpenter who describes himself as politically independent. “It’s not like a big factory coming in, or some major capital investment.”
Sitting nearby were two entrepreneurs who have attended events organized by the host committee. Hyacinth Nembhardt, 39, said organizers encouraged her to become registered as a diverse supplier, a step that will benefit her long after the convention ends.
“It really forced me to grow my business up a little bit and take that extra step to get registered,” said Nembhardt, who owns Concoctions, a frozen blended drink company.
Sitting close to the door was Anthony Houston, a Democrat who said he has heard the convention will “put the city on the map,” although he doesn’t know what exactly it will mean for him. About two years ago, the foundry where he had worked for 17 years as a union member was bought out; he lost his job. Since then, he has been unable to find steady employment and makes ends meet by driving for Uber. He has thought about going back to school to learn a new trade.
The convention could bring him a short-term burst of business.
“It could be a lot of revenue,” he said. “But it’s only a week.”