It’s official: Chicago will be the town where thousands of Democrats convene for their first national convention since the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and one that’s meant to set the stage for a Joe Biden reelection victory in 2024.
“It’s going to be a tremendous experience. And we are going to activate the entire Midwest to make sure, and I’m biased here, that the Biden-Harris ticket gets reelected in 2024,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday.
The Democratic National Convention in August next year could draw up to 50,000 visitors, with the potential for up to $200 million in economic impact, if outcomes from previous conventions hold true.
Beating bids from New York and Atlanta, Chicago will host the convention at the United Center, which was the centerpiece of the last Democratic convention held here in 1996. Chicago has hosted more presidential nominating conventions than any other U.S. city — with some going on to alter the course of American history. This will mark the city’s 12th Democratic convention.
Once regarded as a swing state, Illinois is seen now as reliably blue, having voted Democrat in the past eight presidential elections. Democrats are hoping to capitalize on that influence throughout the key Midwest, including the battleground states of Wisconsin and Michigan. Republicans are hosting their own convention in Milwaukee.
Hosting the convention in Chicago will put Illinois on a national stage and could elevate the profiles of some of Illinois’ top Democrats, including Gov. JB Pritzker — whose name has been floated as a potential presidential candidate — and soon-to-be mayor Brandon Johnson.
The convention will be a key test for the mayor — and whoever is leading the Chicago Police Department by that time — to oversee a major event, the likes of which the city has not seen since the 2012 NATO summit. That would include the possibility of thousands of visitors, but also thousands of protesters, along with large-scale security measures and transit congestion.
Here’s what else the DNC in Chicago could mean for the city.
A boost for pandemic-worn Chicago
Cities that have hosted the Democratic National Convention typically saw between $150 to $200 million in economic impact, previous reporting has shown.
With the 2020 convention largely scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic, the most recent comparison is the 2016 event held in Philadelphia to push for Hilary Clinton’s nomination.
That event was expected to bring in around $350 million for Philadelphia, according to initial estimates, but raked in significantly less. The estimated impact was about $230 million dollars, according to the city’s tourism bureau, though even that number might be inflated.The 2012 convention brought in about $163 million in economic impact for Charlotte, North Carolina.
The event will have an impact on dozens of hotels and restaurants after the hospitality industry was battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jack Lavin, the president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement Tuesday the convention’s visitors will serve as “a critical element to the overall economic recovery of our entire region.”
Michael Jacobson, the president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, said “the economic benefits of hosting this convention will extend beyond Chicago’s city limits and will last for years to come.”
In its pursuit of the convention, the city advertised about 45 unionized hotels that could be included in the convention if Chicago was chosen — a fact that likely played a role in Chicago’s triumph over cities such as Atlanta, which is in a right-to-work state, according to University of Chicago politics professor, William Howell.
“This is a reasonably strong union town and unions are going to play an important role in not just to the Democratic Party’s base generally, but also in ensuring Biden’s prospects in particular,” Howell said.
Illinois Restaurant Association President and CEO Sam Toia said Tuesday he was not yet sure how many restaurants would be impacted by the convention, but he celebrated the news.
While the convention will be centered around the United Center, Toia said the Restaurant Association will help plan external parties for out-of-state Democrats, and potentially use buses or trolleys to trek visitors to different neighborhoods, in an attempt to spread the convention’s economic benefits across the city.
“I know that Mayor-Elect Johnson is going to want to make sure that we are pushing the conventioneers out into our neighborhoods,” Toia said. “He’s all about the independent restaurants throughout our 77 communities.”
The costs and who will pay
In 2014, Congress enacted legislation that eliminated public financing of presidential nominating conventions, except for security grants.
Now, presidential nominating conventions are typically funded by private donations to the national and host committees, according to an analysis by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Illinois officials and business leaders were so eager to see Chicago selected that Pritzker assured Biden that they would launch a fundraising effort that would leave the DNC debt-free, Politico previously reported.
With policing and security sure to be a major part of the cost of the convention, Chicago is likely to receive a federal grant to help. Host cities for the 2012 and 2016 conventions received federal security grants of $50 million to pay for police, fire and the Secret Service.
When Chicago hosted the NATO convention in 2012, the city requested millions of dollars in reimbursements for money it spent on police overtime and room and board for out-of-state cops that were hired in light of protests.
When the 1996 Democratic National Convention was held, all eyes were on how the city would vindicate itself from the chaotic and violent 1968 convention nearly 30 years prior. That’s according to Delmarie Cobb, a veteran Democratic political strategist who served as the convention’s first African American press secretary in 1996. Everything from the city’s summer weather to the success of the 1990s Chicago Bulls was on staff’s minds as they prepared, she said.
There was nervousness about even “when were we going to be able to get a hold of United Center, because if the Bulls were going to be in the championship, then it meant that we weren’t going to get it until late,” Cobb said. “So there was a contingency plan.”
In the late ’90s, a Federal Election Commission audit found Democrats had surpassed federal spending limits by more than $700,000 to throw the 1996 Chicago convention, according to previous Chicago Sun-Times reporting. In all, the host committee had spent $34 million, according to the Sun-Times.
A microcosm of today’s Democratic party
The news of the convention comes just days after voters selected progressive Johnson to be Chicago’s next mayor. Johnson’s priorities include raising taxes on certain businesses to fund violence prevention programs and he has been criticized for previous support of the so-called “defund the police” movement — though he has said repeatedly he will not slash police spending as mayor.
Cobb said the recent mayoral election was a microcosm of the push-and-pull between the more progressive and conservative wings of the Democratic party that is playing out on a national scale.
Cobb said the voters who helped elect Johnson are the ones “that Biden is going to have to have” as he faces questions from some that he’s too old to run for another four-year term.
“But it’s those progressive voters who are younger who want to see change,” Cobb said. “And not only does Brandon Johnson represent the kind of change they hope to see, but that’s the kind of change they want for the Democratic Party in terms of the direction that the party goes, and so Biden knows that. And I think that might have played a role in the deciding factor to have the convention here.”
But UChicago professor Howell added Johnson’s progressive bonafides could be a double-edged sword as Republicans look to criticize what will be, at that point, Johnson’s second year in office handling the city’s long standing issue with gun violence.
“Republicans have claimed that they are the party that is going to make America safe and that these sort of ‘weak-kneed liberals’ are incapable of meeting the challenge of this particular task,” Howell said.
“And here we are seeing the DNC coming to a major American city that’s riddled with crime and run by this left wing Democrat. ‘And that’s all you need to know, fair Republicans, when you think of how you cast your vote in 2024,’ ” Howell mused, paraphrasing what he said Republicans might say. “I mean, I think we could expect to hear those sorts of narratives developing on the right.”
Pritzker, speaking at a press conference last week on an unrelated topic days before the news was announced, said he believed Chicago and Illinois has proved to the DNC that it is a pro-choice, pro-labor and anti-assault weapons state, and that Johnson’s excitement for the job “is being felt in Washington D.C.”
Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover Chicago city government and politics at WBEZ.