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Milwaukee city council, mayor sign off on city hosting Republican National Convention — if chosen

Maayan Silver
Mayor Johnson signs RNC framework agreement.

Updated 2:04 p.m. CDT

Milwaukee is inching closer to possibly hosting the Republican National Convention in 2024.

The Milwaukee Common Council approved a framework agreement among the city, the Republican National Committee and the local host committee Wednesday.

The RNC is deciding between Milwaukee and Nashville. The framework agreement, one step forward for each city, is a contract between the city and the RNC about who does what, who has access to what — if Republicans choose that location.

Milwaukee's framework agreement covers topics from permits to use of city parks and parking lots to who comes up with security and transportation plans.

The Common Council unanimously voted to approve the deal Wednesday morning. A few hours later, Mayor Cavalier Johnson signed off on it in the City Hall Rotunda. Several host committee representatives, council members and other city officials looked on.

The approvals came about a week after a key Common Council committee tabled a vote on the deal, after digging into issues like security, equity and economic impact.

READ: Milwaukee council members raise issues, delay vote on hosting Republican National Convention

Johnson gave his take on how that happened. “A collaborative spirit, a collaborative approach,” he said. “And we got the deal done because we worked together. We were transparent. We talked to each other, we got it and we got the deal done.”

He said the biggest obstacle left is making sure Milwaukee is chosen over Nashville.

Lake Effect's Joy Powers speaks with Alison Dirr from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the possibility of the RNC coming to Milwaukee.

But Johnson also responded to critics. They include two retired MATC instructors who wrote an op-ed published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

They’re opposed to having the RNC convention here, arguing that the GOP has morphed into an extremist organization, home to violent racists, conspiracy mongers and insurrectionists.

On Thursday, several advocacy and labor groups, including Voces de la Frontera Action, Never Again is Now, SEIU Wisconsin State Council, Freedom Action Now and BLOC, agreed.

In a response statement, they called the framework agreement “a betrayal to the people of Milwaukee,” and said they are “appalled that the 13 members of the Milwaukee Common Council and Mayor Johnson are legitimizing and normalizing the contemporary Republican Party that has become a modern-day neo-fascist party inspired by Donald Trump’s unapologetic allegiance to white supremacist ideas.”

They say Republican excusal of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, efforts to undermine voting rights and buy-in to replacement theory, which claims that white Americans are being replaced by immigrants and people of color — a theory that led to mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; El Paso, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia, do not ensure Milwaukee will be safe hosting the RNC.

They argue that Republicans in the state Legislature have not had Milwaukeeans’ interests in mind and write that, “inviting the Republican Party to hold its convention in Milwaukee is like inviting the fox into the henhouse.”

These advocacy and labor groups, and the op-ed writers, say the GOP is working against the people of color who comprise a majority of the city’s population.

WUWM asked Mayor Johnson about the op-ed in particular, and its claim that the GOP is working against people of color. He stated he believes in the economic benefits of such a pivotal convention, and says that a sizable number of people who work in the tourism and hospitality industries are Black and Latino.

“And those are the folks who will benefit from $200 million of economic impact in Milwaukee. And let's not forget that this lays a concrete foundation on which we can build, the city build a new and stronger convention and tourism economy here that will also benefit those workers, helping them to put money in their pockets and take those dollars home to their families and to their neighborhoods," he said.

The op-ed also discusses a study, which it writes, “analyzed every city hosting Republican and Democratic national conventions between 1970 and 2004 and concluded that neither party’s presence had a discernable impact on employment, personal income, or personal income per capita in the cities where the events were held.”

The Milwaukee organizations, like the op-ed writers, also question the economic impact of the potential convention. They say, "[It] overestimate[s] any real financial gain because Milwaukee’s hotels and restaurants are already filled during the summer. The RNC convention will simply replace those who normally visit our city.”

The Democratic National Convention was largely estimated to have an economic impact of $200 million on the city of Milwaukee, and officials are offering similar numbers for the RNC.

At last week’s meeting of the Common Council committee before it tabled its vote, Ald. Bob Bauman challenged that number and asked how the convention would directly benefit the city and its ability to provide services. He said the rents will go to the owners of places like the Fiserv Forum and the Wisconsin Center. He added because of legislative prohibitions, the city and county have not been able to increase its sales tax.

Bauman asked, “How does [the Republican National Convention] directly impact the city as an entity with a $600 million general purpose budget, and a diminishing ability to satisfy the city services were required to perform? How does it directly improve our ability to do that?”

At that meeting, Lafayette Crump, commissioner of City Development, said, “I would say is that it doesn't harm the city's ability to provide those services. And what it then also does is help individual residents in the city of Milwaukee.”

VISIT Milwaukee, a local tourism organization, said it’s been looking at economic impact statements from previous conventions, like the 2016 Cleveland Republican National Convention. Peggy Williams-Smith, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee, said there’s many different ways to look at economic impact.

She said the Cleveland county where its convention was held is authorized to levy a sales tax on goods purchased within its borders on top of the state of the sales tax collected by the state of Ohio. "So, they do have a separate tax that they're able to levy," said Williams-Smith. That's in contrast to the city of Milwaukee, which doesn't have a sales tax, and county of Milwaukee, which has been restricted from increasing one.

Bauman said that affects his calculus as to whether Milwaukee would have the same economic impact as Cleveland.

At the framework agreement signing, Johnson said the city already hosts lots of large events, from the NCAA tournament to Harley Davidson rides to the Bucks making playoff runs, and those dollars are taxed with most of the money making their way to the state coffers.

He said, "If it were not for the fact that Milwaukee is in Wisconsin, there is no way that a large scale political convention, including the Republican National Convention, would be looking at Wisconsin, even though it's the purplest of purple states."

So, Johnson said, politically, having the Republican National Convention here is opportunity to build relationships between the GOP-controlled Legislature and the largest city in the state.

“To show that Milwaukee also deserves the opportunity to be able to reap the benefits of the prosperity that we create, not just for the city, but also for the state. You know, that's something that cannot be understated. And I want our partners in Madison to know that as well,” he said.

Ald. Ashanti Hamilton was also at the signing. He addressed a resolution brought forward by several alders at last week’s tabled committee vote. The request for $6 million from the host committee to pay for workforce development, housing, and higher education in the city was ultimately dropped.

“Yeah, I was on board with the spirit of where that was going,” noted Hamilton. “You know, it wasn't just tied to the convention, right. Like, there was an effort to get Republican buy in on local priorities in issues."

Hamilton said even if they can’t get a cash payment from the RNC, he hopes, like Mayor Johnson, that there’s a long-term commitment from Republicans to bring more state resources into the city.

But when it comes to a potential convention, Hamilton said his biggest concern is security or a “January 6th-type of activity," in the case that some on the right aren’t happy with the nominee brought forth at the convention. Milwaukee has also seen a spike in gun violence, along with several shooting incidents after a Bucks playoff game in which 21 people were injured.

To cover such security costs, the city will have to apply for a $50 million grant from the federal government.

The host committee would have to raise the additional budget for the convention. That could run anywhere from $65 to $75 million dollars, according to host committee secretary Gerard Randall.

“We scour every opportunity for donations to cover cost,” Randall said. “So there are donors that typically give to the Republican Party, there are those that would like to have a presence at the convention, corporate community and AT&T, Chase Bank, for example.” Randall said there already are bipartisan prospective donors.

Randall reiterated that the security costs are borne by the $50 million federal grant the city would apply for. "And any of the other costs will be borne by the host committee for what it has in its budget to be responsible for," he said. "We've never left a city hold in terms of debt for any of the things that they were responsible for, that we had agreed to cover."

When asked whether the host committee is aiming to ensure economic impact from the convention spreads beyond the borders of downtown and the convention districts, Randall said, "We're going to establish a committee that will work with the city to create a community benefits package that I think everybody will be proud of."

Now that the city has approved the framework agreement, Randall said it’s a waiting game. The RNC site selection committee will be the first to choose between Milwaukee and Nashville, then the full RNC needs to approve the decision. Randall expects the whole process to take about a month.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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