Activists worry as Milwaukee inches closer to hosting the Republican convention

A coalition of community groups release a joint statement denouncing the 13-0 Common Council vote on RNC contract

By: - June 3, 2022 6:30 am
RNC stage in 2008

Republican National Convention stage on Sept. 2, 2008. (photo by Nico Pitney, Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On Wednesday Milwaukee city council unanimously approved a contract to host the 2024 Republican National Convention (RNC). The vote  secures a second chance for Milwaukee to host a major political convention after the disappointment of hosting the 2020 Democratic National Convention (DNC), which was dramatically scaled back because of the COVID-19 pandemic If Milwaukee were ultimately chosen to host the RNC , the contract would take effect immediately. Mayor Cavalier Johnson, wearing his DNC pin, signed the contract framework, bringing an end to weeks of anticipation and debate.

Johnson has sidestepped concerns brewing among activists and community leaders over the RNC’s potential social impact on Milwaukee. “This is not a political decision, this is a business one,” he declared. The Cream City’s new mayor has big plans to revitalize the city’s economy. “I want the eyeballs of the world to be on our city,” Johnson said in February when he was still serving as acting-mayor. Although the DNC was dramatically cut back, the city and its police department retained the framework and equipment needed to hold such an event.

Wisconsin legislators on both sides of the aisle have joined the mayor in boosting the prospect of a Milwaukee RNC. But the enthusiasm isn’t universal. Many activists and community members fear that the RNC will both be underwhelming in terms of economic benefit and open the door to volatile rhetoric and could even encourage armed white supremacist Trump supporters to converge on Wisconsin’s most diverse city.  Republican talking points about election fraud are a provocation, they say, and the party has  advocated policies that have negative effects on minorities and marginalized groups. In late March Milwaukee Election Commission director Clair Woodall-Vogg took to social media to declare that if Milwaukee hosted the RNC she would work from home, “lest I be hung in the town square like some have threatened.” Woodall-Vogg was admonished by Johnson. Like many election workers nationwide, she had received threats after rumors took hold that Milwaukee helped steal the  2020 election from former President Donald Trump.

A joint statement by Voces de la Frontera Action, Never Again is Now, SEIU Wisconsin State Council, Freedom Action Now, and Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) denounced the common council’s 13-0 vote and stated  that members were “appalled” by the decision. The group blasted the common council for “legitimizing and normalizing the contemporary Republican Party that has become a modern-day neo-facist party inspired by Donald Trump’s unapologetic allegiance to white supremacist ideas.” It continued that the GOP has “declared war on our democracy,” and the party’s leaders have “enabled and then excused a violent insurrection at our nation’s Capitol and are continuously working openly and aggressively to undermine our voting rights.”

The convention will take place as neo-facist groups like Patriot Front and the National Justice Party have organized rallies in Waukesha calling on residents to “resist Black terror.” Racist letters were also left at the homes of Black families in West Allis. Southeastern Wisconsin has continued to see racist political activity in recent weeks.

“The Republican Convention will not have a positive impact on the vast majority of Milwaukee neighborhoods,” the coalition’s letter states. “The claims of a $200 million impact are little more than public relations talking points. They overestimate 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 coalition cites a 2009 study published in the Eastern Economic Journal, which found that hosting the RNC or DNC “has no discernible impact on employment, personal income, or personal income per capita in cities where the events were held, confirming results from other ex post analyses of mega-events.”

A lack of real economic value, particularly for the most vulnerable portions of the city, is a point raised often by activists. Angela Lang, founder and executive director of BLOC, wrote in a commentary for Wisconsin Examiner that “having the RNC in Milwaukee is a disaster waiting to happen.” Lang points out that Republicans have historically not shown much interest in the city, only opening a Republican Party office in Milwaukee in 2020, and making the city a lightning rod for GOP attacks on criminal justice reform. The Republican-led Legislature has caused city  budgets to dwindle by choking the flow of state revenue, even though Milwaukee is a major economic engine for the state.

The coalition, of which BlOC is a part, listed a litany of policies pushed by the state’s GOP which have dampened prosperity in Milwaukee. These include stopping the city from implementing paid sick days voters ratified in a citywide referendum vote, cutting funds for public schools, blocking drivers’ licenses for immigrants, and continued battles over generating revenue. In a June 1 tweet Markasa Tucker-Harris, executive director of the African American Roundtable and founder of Liberate MKE, expressed dismay at the prospect of hosting the RNC. “I’m not interested,” she tweeted. “And there are more of me in MKE who aren’t interested. I hope a different city is chosen.”

“We are deeply disappointed that the voices and concerns of Milwaukee’s Black, Brown and immigrant communities and the community members and organizations who publicly opposed the RNC being hosted in Milwaukee were ignored by this vote that normalizes an organization that has embraced white supremacy, authoritarianism, and acts of violence,” the coalition said in a statement. “Inviting the Republican Party to hold its convention in Milwaukee is like inviting the fox into the hen house.”

Johnson’s extolled the benefits he says the convention will bring. “My support of this agreement, which has been long standing, is primarily driven by the benefits that hard-working Milwaukeean’s will receive when the Republican National Convention comes right here to the city,” said Johnson.

The mayor added that he hopes hosting the convention will help repair Milwaukee’s relationship with the Republican-controlled state Legislature. “I think, by and large, this is a good and positive development for the city, good and positive development for the region, good and positive development for the state.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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