Elections

On the Ground at the DNC

The control room in operation for the first night of the virtual Democratic National Convention (DNC) at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, Wis., August 17, 2020. (Scott Olson/Reuters)
Milwaukee was sleeping on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

Wisconsin, the land of cheeseheads and tight political contests. Historically a purple state that votes blue for presidential races, in 2016 Wisconsin was one of the constituencies that shocked pundits and laymen alike with a 20,000-vote margin of victory for President Trump. True to form, a Marquette University poll published on August 11 has the incumbent trailing by five points, showing Wisconsin to be the electorally fickle state it has long been. When I heard the president would be visiting Wisconsin on the same day as the Democratic National Convention’s commencement, my Honda Insight’s tank was filled and off I went to observe the similarities and differences as both campaigns simultaneously woo the land of milk and . . . more milk, I guess. (My report from the Trump campaign’s stop in Oshkosh, Wisc., will appear Wednesday.)

The DNC’s convention in Milwaukee had officially begun, but if you weren’t standing next to the Wisconsin Center downtown, you could be forgiven for not noticing. The streets, hotels, and bars were empty. The sparse foot traffic ambling about consisted mainly of yuppies with puppies, the sort who call recently gentrified neighborhoods home. The rest were dorky-looking guys with cameras (present writer included) circling the block and asking each other if they had seen anything of note. The answer was always, “Nah, howabout you?”

A convention that initially promised an estimated $200 million economic boon to the city will likely supply but a small fraction of that, as the Democrats have moved their convention entirely online. The DNC’s media and logistics department were, according to the security personnel and reports from local news, the sole inhabitants of the 188,000 square foot Wisconsin Center, though that would likely surprise you in light of the security measures outside the building.

(Luther Abel)

(Luther Abel)

Lapping the building a few times, I stood in amazement at the level of protection afforded the DNC. Eight-foot-tall riot fencing surrounded the entirety of the expanded city block, with multiple checkpoints manned by local police and federal plain-clothes officers. (A partisan hack might make a snide comment here about the DNC being anti-fence until it comes to their own security, but I’m not a hack so I shan’t make that remark.) Inside the cordon sanitaire roamed motorcycle and bicycle-mounted officers, along with UTVs and squad cars. I asked a photographer nearby what one needed to get access to the Democrats’ Green Zone and he informed me that it would require federal clearances of the type where it wasn’t worth bothering, given the time and effort required.

Making my way around the east side, I came across a wonderfully flamboyant gentleman by the name of “Geoff,” who was taking some video on his phone. Responding to my inquiry of what brought him down to the DNC, he told me, “I was further uptown when I saw these gorgeous federal officers, and followed them to see where they were going and that brought me here.” Geoff then noted how he had never seen such security measures for prior political events he’d attended, such as during campaign stops by H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as the Republican primary debates in 2016.

After wishing Geoff a good day, I looked around to make sure I hadn’t missed anything of note. Besides an inflatable union-worker figure protesting his inflatable-figure employer, nothing much was moving.

(Luther Abel)

I headed off to find the crown jewel of Milwaukee’s public transportation, a recently completed electric streetcar system called “The Hop.” Funded by a combination of federal grants, loans, and local TIFs — borrowing with the assumption of increased property-tax revenue — this $120 million public-works project has been the toast of Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. He intended for it to be a showcase of city planning and public transport, fitting nicely with the Democratic Party’s affection for such pursuits.

(Luther Abel)

(Luther Abel)

Having never ridden a nine-figure contraption whose engineering dates back to the 19th century and whose track runs all of two miles, I was eager to see what all the buzz was about. “The Hop” is free to ride due to a deal with the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. Upon stepping aboard, however, I was greeted by silence. The only other person in the car was the operator, who — because the track is S-shaped and linear — has to leave the cabin at the front of the streetcar upon track’s end and walk to the rear to drive us back the way we came.

During the entirety of the trip, approximately ten people boarded and exited. We would pass similarly depopulated buses and streetcars every few blocks. In the city’s defense, not many folks want to ride public transit during a pandemic, and it should be noted just how clean the cars were. A city employee armed with a weed-sprayer device would occasionally board and apply sanitizer to any and all surfaces, as well as to the railings leading up to the streetcar. I was quick to notify him of my sentience before he turned the spray nozzle in my direction.

Now midday, I returned to the Wisconsin Center to see if anything else was afoot. To my surprise, there was a “Democrats for Life” event taking place in Zeidler Union Square, a block away from the DNC. Attendees were quite progressive politically but staunchly anti-abortion. Citing the party’s extreme position and the DNC’s failure to listen to pro-life voices, the group’s leader said that they would be unable to vote for Joe Biden.

(Luther Abel)

Circling for hours above downtown was an airplane trailing a sign that read “Vote Anti-Abortion.” Anti-abortion messaging was the theme of the day, really the only interest group active and vocal on the periphery of the DNC.

(Luther Abel)

With the day quickly moving toward mid-afternoon, I needed to head out in order to make Oshkosh and cover the Trump rally. However, to ensure the safety of the nation’s elections, I sacrificed a few minutes and made sure both post offices were operational and that there weren’t red-hatted federal agents milling around or running off with the mailboxes. The pictures below should provide some modicum of relief to those worried about skullduggery.

(Luther Abel)

(Luther Abel)

Milwaukee was sleeping on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. There was no fanfare, no energy, no partisan passion. While it is foolish to read too much into a Monday morning and afternoon, if I were the DNC, I’d be concerned about the apathy displayed by the largest blue city in Wisconsin. Will Democratic voters in the city hold it against the party for abandoning the personal approach and moving the convention online? Unlikely, perhaps, but the stillness as I stood looking in through the riot fencing made me wonder if the DNC had not made a grave miscalculation.

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