Inside Chicago’s intense, behind-the-scenes effort to secure the DNC

Democratic officials eager to score the 2024 party convention for their city learned pretty quickly that there was one method above all others to win the bid: appeal to President Joe Biden’s sense of nostalgia.

Over the course of several weeks, organizers in Chicago, Atlanta and New York did just that.

One party official said it was clear that some people around the president and possibly Biden himself were sentimental about the idea of holding the convention in Atlanta, after Democrats won two Senate seats there and the Peach State helped boost Biden to victory over Trump in 2020.

Another official noted a letter sent by labor leaders from New York that implored Biden to choose a labor town, owing to his emotional ties and political connections to the union movement.

Chicago labor leaders sent a letter of their own. The larger Chicago team felt increasingly confident about its chances through last week. But they knew it was a done deal when Biden and Gov. JB Pritzker spoke early Tuesday, when the Illinois Democrat played up the president’s love of the country’s iconic cities.

“Chicago is your kind of town and we’re going to throw a huge party for you,” Pritzker said, according to a person close to the Chicago bid who was granted anonymity to discuss the conversation candidly.

Biden gave him the news on the call, after which the Democratic National Committee put out an announcement saying the city would host delegates and convention-goers Aug. 19-22, 2024.

The announcement was a coup for Pritzker and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and early on nudged Chicago Democrats to try for the convention. But it also revealed some of the thinking inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where Biden is eyeing both reelection and a memorable convention after having had to skip the festivities in Milwaukee during the pandemic in 2020.

Biden had struggled with deciding which of the three cities to pick, even quipping to confidants at one point about why Democrats couldn’t simply hold the confab in Philadelphia, according to a person familiar with the exchange. Philadelphia had not actually applied to host the convention, though it did enjoy one strategic advantage over the other cities: a proximity to Biden’s cherished Delaware.

Privately, Biden thought of Atlanta as a smart strategic choice, noting that it was a swing state that could propel him to another term if he ran again. He had already moved Georgia up in the Democratic primary calendar.

But his views were at odds with those in the party who convinced his team, which conceded that Atlanta simply didn’t make sense logistically. Though the city is increasingly powering Democrats to victory in some key races, it is still nestled in a conservative Southern state, with a six-week abortion ban in place.

Georgia is also a right-to-work state and has few unionized hotels compared with Chicago. Another party official noted it would be easier for Biden and the convention committee to work with Pritzker compared with Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, who is increasingly eyeing a national profile (Democrats had been working more with Atlanta’s mayor, rather than with Kemp).

Still, Illinois and Chicago elected officials were fearful that Biden’s sentimentality about Atlanta would win out. And so they and their neighbors made a full-court press of their own. When the DNC came to Chicago to discuss the city’s bid, they happened to be there during Lollapalooza’s kickoff. Mayor Lori Lightfoot took them to watch Metallica warm up in an empty Grant Park.

Later in the process, Midwestern governors and other elected officials, along with Midwest state Democratic Party chairs and union leaders sent letters to Biden urging him to pick Chicago. They also talked to his team directly, underscoring how critical the Midwest region had been to him in 2020.

“The Midwest is key to a victory in 2024, and there is no city better positioned to reach those voters than Chicago,” Duckworth said in a statement. She had privately appealed to Biden with this message, too.

But even those pitches were coated with the type of odes to history that organizers believed were critical for winning Biden over.

“Chicago is an engine for progress. Chicago proudly represents millions of Democratic voters and is an historic Democratic stronghold. Given Detroit already won the honor of hosting the 2024 NFL Draft, it would be right to share in the victories with a nearly as great Midwestern city,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wrote in her personal letter.

There was concern, however, about Chicago’s persistent problem with violent crime. Statistics showed it was declining but still higher than pre-pandemic levels, making it an issue in the recent mayor’s race and a concern that it could put Democrats in a hot spot for their handling of it.

What ended up helping Chicago, according to a person close to the city’s bid, were two recent Democratic wins on the issue of abortion. The first was for a state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin, which will likely help block an 1840s abortion ban on the books. The second was Whitmer repealing the state’s 1931 abortion ban. Each affirmed that progressive politics continues to have a strong foothold in the Midwest.

“It was the Blue Wall,” the person said.

Money mattered, too. Pritzker, who has been integral in pushing for Chicago, assured that the DNC would not go into debt holding a Chicago convention, which was a problem in 2012 when the convention in Charlotte, N.C., ended up millions in the red.

The Illinois governor, who self-financed his past two elections, enlisted his sister, former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, businessman Michael Sacks, Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts and Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea to help fund Chicago’s effort. Jerry Reinsdorf and Rocky Wirtz, who head the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively, also were part of Chicago’s pitch to the DNC. Both teams play at the United Center, where the convention will be held. It’s the same location as the 1996 Democratic Convention.

“We are ready for a repeat performance,” they said in a joint statement.

Still, as the time approached for Biden to make a decision, he and other party officials were holding out for one last domino to fall: the Chicago mayor’s race on April 4. Those close to Biden say there was some internal hand-wringing about hosting the convention if mayoral candidate Paul Vallas, who had previous ties to Republicans and had been publicly critical of prominent Democrats, won. It wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker, according to a person involved in the talks, but it could have been a complicating factor.

When Brandon Johnson emerged with a clear victory in an April 4 runoff election, it further cemented the city’s reputation as a union town (Johnson is a former organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union) and put Chicago’s DNC bid in the driver’s seat.

Johnson himself talked directly to Biden in recent days about the convention during a private call in which the president congratulated the new mayor.

“We pulled out all the stops,” said Lightfoot. “Anybody who had a connection in the White House, in the president’s orbit, we were in their ear saying ‘Chicago, Chicago, Chicago.’”


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