What do the Mississippi River, golf courses, downtown parking lots, walleyes and food on a stick have in common?
Turns out they are all surprisingly strong selling points in the business of booking events for the 2008 Republican National Convention, which will be held here Sept. 1-4.
Local Republicans need not panic, and local Democrats need not gloat. Outsiders coming to town for the convention do want to check out our venerated arts and cultural institutions. However, convention organizers are finding that selling Minnesota is much different than selling the locations of recent convention towns.
That’s because the last four national political conventions have been held in places steeped in the history of democracy and the American psyche. Think Boston (the Democrats, 2004) and its famed tea party and midnight ride. Think New York (the Republicans, 2004) and Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Or Philadelphia (the Republicans, 2000) and the Declaration of Independence. Or Los Angeles (the Democrats, 2000) and … Hollywood.
Makes that statue of Mary Tyler Moore that TV Land dumped on Nicollet Mall all the more diminutive and hideous, doesn’t it? (We should hide her for the duration of the convention.)
Nevertheless, if New York is any indication, 600 to 800 convention-related parties will be thrown and events staged, ranging in cost from $25,000 for a decent breakfast for a 300-person state delegation to more than $1 million for the signature events with big-name entertainment, the best in food and liquor and guest lists numbering thousands.
Smaller proving to be better
What GOP event sales people are finding is that our smaller stature, compared with the country’s larger convention cities, is working to our advantage. Here’s the dirty big secret that corporations and trade associations learned at both parties’ 2004 conventions: Although they spent small fortunes on events, when all was said and done, they weren’t sure exactly what it was they paid for. In Boston, for example, a different sponsor booked Fenway Park every day of the convention. That practice batting cage was a thrill, but an expensive one — with a park rental price rumored to be close to $1 million a day.
To date, no group has expressed interest in the Metrodome (come to think of it, maybe that’s where we can stash Mary).
Here’s how this works. The official Minneapolis-St. Paul Host Committee is formally organized as a nonpartisan, nonprofit entity that will disburse federal money for big-ticket items like security. It also reserves all the hotel rooms (95 hotels totaling 17,000 of the available 35,000 rooms in the greater Twin Cities area) and major venues, such as the Guthrie Theater, the Walker Art Center, the new Minneapolis Public Library, Landmark Center, the Ordway, the Minnesota Zoo and the very few private restaurants that have good public event space like Solera. Anyone wanting to book these and other designated venues must work through the Host Committee, which tries to allocate their availability fairly.
But when it comes to deciding which state delegations get which hotels, it’s all politics. The hotels get ranked based on quality and proximity to convention events and then assigned based on how much of the vote each state delivered for the last Republican presidential ticket. So, because Bill Clinton trounced Bob Dole and Ross Perot in Minnesota in 1996, the 2000 Minnesota delegation in Philadelphia was sent packing more than an hour’s bus ride up the interstate to exurban King of Prussia, the political equivalent of Siberia.
Four years later, the state GOP bettered its numbers. George Bush got 46 percent to Al Gore’s 48 percent and Ralph Nader’s 5 percent, thus ensuring a decent domain in Midtown Manhattan. Because the Twin Cities are rich in hotel rooms, no state has to stay as far out as St. Cloud (although some media and protesters might). The northernmost hotel officially booked for GOP purposes is the Northland Inn in Brooklyn Park.
Event organizers face two wrinkles. First, the Host Committee’s reserved spaces won’t be assigned until the GOP chooses a nominee, which allows the candidate’s campaign to cherry-pick days and venues. That could happen in April … or, given the current state of the race, later or not at all, if there’s no clear nominee.
Current GOP speculation paints a plausible possible scenario where Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney battle it out all summer. (The last time Republicans went into an endorsing convention without a clear-cut nominee was 1948, when New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen and Ohio Sen. Robert Taft battled it out on the convention floor; Dewey, of course, emerged victorious but lost to Democrat Harry Truman.)
Contested convention would be a boon
Convention organizers, by the way, think a contested convention would be a boon, because it would draw at least another 10,000 people, including many international media, to watch the bloodbath. (They would be in addition to the 45,000 currently expected if there’s an endorsed candidate going into the convention.)
The second complication is the result of one of the GOP’s own, Jack Abramoff, a former Republican lobbyist now serving nearly six years at his own special convention in a prison cell for defrauding American Indian tribes and corrupting public officials. In the aftermath of that scandal, Congress passed an ethics bill that, among other things, includes a ban on what have been the most outrageously expensive and elaborate soirees, events to “honor” a member of Congress. The Federal Elections Commission is still promulgating rules and, of course, lawyers everywhere are still trying to figure out exactly what the new rules will mean.
The Republican National Committee promises that the Twin Cities area will enjoy an estimated $150 million to $160 million worth of “positive economic boost” from the 2008 convention. Despite — and perhaps because of — the uncertainty surrounding candidate selection and event location allocations, there are good incentives to decide what to do now, so that corporations can finalize their 2008 budgets.
Enter the well-connected GOP party insiders who are selling event ideas and trying to close the deals as quickly as they can. These are the people on the front lines doing the boasting and trying to deliver that economic boosting. We’ll meet them Friday, and I’ll tell you some of the things they’re learning, such as the unexpected appeal of a walleye “shore lunch.”
And for the record, no one looking to book an event has mentioned the infamous men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a possible “local tourist attraction.” That means that if someone books the Metrodome, we can always tuck the Mary Tyler Moore statue in the stall used by Idaho’s GOP Sen. Larry Craig.
Mary will be safe and sound there.
Friday: Meet the Republican Party insiders