Convention Contention: ’92

    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 third in a series looking back at past battles to hold the national conventions.

    Bids for both conventions were up for grabs in 1992, and several enthusiastic dark horses emerged early. Cleveland was wrangling for the Democrats, while St. Petersburg, Fla., was trying to lure the Republicans. New York, Houston and New Orleans were vying for either convention.

    After the Democratic site selection committee enjoyed the best of what each city had to offer (including a mock convention featuring a live donkey in Cleveland), the frontrunners emerged as New York and New Orleans. New York’s bid was worth $22 million, while New Orleans offered just $12 million. But, there were concerns that Madison Square Garden wasn’t big enough. The spacious Superdome gave the Big Easy a big advantage.

    Then, weeks before the DNC’s decision, Louisiana’s legislature passed an abortion bill called the strictest in the nation. The National Organization of Women and other women’s groups threatened to boycott a convention held there, and party leaders, including DNC chairman Ronald H. Brown, made public their reluctance to reward the state with a convention. To no one’s surprise, the Dems’ ultimate choice of New York was announced two years in advance, in July, 1990.

    The fight to hold the Republican convention was more intense. St. Petersburg was a definite underdog, but city officials desperately tried to convince the GOP that the Florida vacation spot could handle it. Its convention center had no place for the media to work, so a plan was drawn up to erect the world’s largest air-conditioned tent in the parking lot. There was also a shortage of high-end hotel rooms, meaning some convention-goers would have to stay in neighboring counties. And, while the mayor was out wining and dining members of the site selection committee, his car was stolen. The incident was certainly embarrassing, but probably didn’t affect the city’s chances.

    Even as a long-shot, St. Petersburg thought it had a fighting chance, since none of the other bidding cities were perfect either. New Orleans had the best logistical plan, but some organizers were concerned that Louisiana congressman and former KKK leader David Duke would land in the spotlight.

    Houston, President George H.W. Bush’s adopted home, was high on the list, but the city couldn’t guarantee the six weeks of access to the Astrodome the Republicans were requesting. Plus, party leaders said they didn’t want to reward a state that had just elected Democratic Governor Ann Richards.

    President Bush was mum on the subject, but his chief of staff, John H. Sununu, was very vocal about his preference for San Diego. With elections coming up for governor and both Senate seats, Sununu wanted the GOP to have a strong presence in California in 1992. However, San Diego’s convention center was too small and it would only be available for 10 days, far less than the requested six weeks.

    In a surprising move, the GOP picked Houston in January, 1991. Some thought the selection committee was miffed by Sununu’s push for San Diego. Many in the party were unhappy with the choice, and Democrats chuckled over the prospect of Ann Richards giving the customary welcome speech (she went on vacation instead). In order to give organizers enough time at the Astrodome, the Houston Astros went on their longest-ever road trip.

    Message for Denver: Parties sometimes consider whether bidding cities “deserve” a national convention. But, decisions don’t always turn on the verdict.

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