Convention Contention: ’96

    While Denver’s bid to host the 2008 Democratic National Convention is being hampered by labor union issues, contenders in past years have faced other hurdles such as a shortage of hotel rooms, not enough convention space and disadvantages in the political climate. Sometimes these cities have snagged the bid, other times they’ve lost out. This is the second in a series looking back at past battles to hold the national conventions.

    Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley pushed hard early on to bring both conventions to his city in 1996. Chicago hadn’t snagged a bid since 1968, when riots among police and anti-war protesters disrupted the Democratic convention and tarnished the reputation of Daley’s father, then-Mayor Richard J. Daley. For ’96, Chicago boasted about its new United Center and promoted itself as “cooler in August.” Other cities vying for either party’s bid were L.A., New Orleans, New York and San Antonio. Missouri cities were wooing, too – St. Louis wanted the GOP, and Kansas City hoped for the Dems. Chicago seemed like a shoe-in for the Democrats all along. It was the only city offering millions more than the DNC was asking for, and DNC chairman David Wilhelm was a former Chicagoan. But, the site selection committee still enjoyed the best food, drink and entertainment that New Orleans and San Antonio had to offer. A minor bump for Chicago was a concern about the timing of the trial of indicted Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. A major bump was a concern that footage from the ’68 riots would be replayed constantly. Daley did his best to convince the committee that showing off a different image of Chicago would be a boon for the Democrats. The DNC chose the Windy City in August, 1994, and Chicago celebrated its “redemption convention” with much fanfare.

    Dems’ early pick of Chicago left the field wide open for the Republican convention. St. Louis dropped out early, citing not enough time to expand its convention center. Chicago was still a possibility but had another event scheduled during the week the GOP had chosen. The frontrunners for the GOP convention emerged as New York and New Orleans, with San Antonio and San Diego still in the running.

    New York held a political advantage because it had just elected a Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani. The city’s sycophants spared nothing in their courtship of the selection committee. Members were wined and dined by Regis Philbin and were treated to a Broadway show and dancing atop Rockefeller Center. All the while, a troupe of volunteers followed them around being especially nice in efforts to dispel the city’s rude image. Giuliani also touted the no-strike pledges signed by union leaders.

    New Orleans had its shot at impressing the site committee next, and city leaders were determined to stuff the Republicans full of local delicacies like shrimp po’boys, hot tamales and pecan pie. New Orleans also had plenty of centrally located hotels and the 40,000-seat Superdome to show off. Still, the city was only offering $14.6 million in its bid, while New York was willing to put up twice that.

    San Antonio wasn’t thought by most to have a serious chance. The Houston Chronicle reported there were “snickers” among both party’s leaders when the city announced it planned to bid. Ultimately, San Antonio pledged $17.3 million, and the rarely mentioned San Diego pledged $14 million.

    Then, two months after New York’s volunteers were so nice, Giuliani endorsed Democrat Mario Cuomo for governor. The move effectively ended New York’s bid for the GOP convention, and city officials in New Orleans gloated. The Big Easy was the clear frontrunner now. It had a big enough convention center, plenty of hotel rooms and had hosted a successful Republican convention in 1988.

    In January, Republicans announced their choice: San Diego. The city had been overlooked by competitors because its convention center was much too small. Still, city officials had convinced the GOP that its outdoor professional sports stadium could be used for the final night’s festivities. More importantly, California Governor Pete Wilson was thought to have a shot at getting on the national ticket, and a convention in San Diego, where he was mayor for 12 years, would give his candidacy a boost. Also, California’s 54 electoral votes were an appealing draw.

    Message for Denver: Once again, cities seen as offering a political advantage can overcome other problems, even with another attractive choice in the mix. Plus, plying committee members with microbrews and bison burgers can’t hurt, but it might not help.

    Read about the fight for the ’88 convention here.