Chicago Wins the 2024 Democratic Convention: From “The Daley Show” to “The Pritzker Program”
When Chicago was awarded the 2024 Democratic National Convention, it came with the realization among the political class that it will be the first Chicago DNC in memory that isn’t an episode of “The Daley Show.”
Instead, it could be the debut episode of “The Pritzker Program.”
The notorious 1968 convention was a production of powerful Mayor Richard J. Daley, who strongly campaigned for the meeting to be held in his city and for the national spotlight it provided. But the nomination of Hubert Humphrey was completely overshadowed by bloody Chicago police clashes with thousands of anti-war demonstrators in Grant Park.
The “showrunner” for the 1996 convention was Mayor Richard M. Daley, who lobbied hard for the convention to showcase the city and erase the memories of the ’68 convention in the city controlled by his father.
“Richard J. Daley wanted the convention in 1968 to show off the city and all that had been done,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “The city had fallen into disrepair in the fifties and then had gotten built up in the fifties and sixties after Daley became Mayor, mainly in the Loop, so he was happy to showcase it. With Lyndon Johnson being President, he had a way of having some influence on the choice through Johnson.”
Cook County Commissioner John Daley, son of Richard J. Daley, was a 22-year-old college student at the time of the 1968 convention. “My father thought it was better to bring the convention back here as a center point for the Democratic Party,” said Daley. “But you knew there were going to be problems because everything was up in arms, be it at the universities, in the churches, everywhere authority was being challenged."The information they had received prior was that people were coming in to disrupt. You didn’t have the communication you have today. Even the police weren’t communicating with each other. So, you’re on the convention floor (at the International Amphitheater on the Southwest Side) and all this is happening on Michigan Avenue at the Hilton. My dad’s statements after were in support of the police. He never second-guessed the head of the police department.”
Both Simpson and John Daley agree the convention, combined with the Vietnam war, sabotaged Hubert Humphrey’s election chances.
“The convention defined the party. People left the convention not supporting Humphrey and we ended with Nixon as president,” said Daley.
“Democrats lost the election of 1968 because of the heightened tensions at the Democratic convention and Humphrey was never able to recover because he wasn’t willing to disavow the war in Vietnam early enough,” said Simpson.
Mayor Richard M. Daley was determined that the 1996 convention, set for the re-nomination of President Bill Clinton, would not be marred by scenes of protest and rebellion or clashes with police.
“In ’96, Rich was able to work with the President and urged him to come to Chicago,” said John Daley.
“One of the problems Richard J. Daley created was by not allowing permits to use the park which automatically set up clashes with the protesters. In ’92, Richie set up protest zones for peaceful demonstrators but far away from the United Center convention hall,” said Simpson.William Daley, the banker-businessman brother of Mayor Richard M. Daley said his brother was fortunate to have a period of relative national calm for the 1996 convention.
“You didn’t have the anger, the whole sort of craziness or division that was going on in ‘68, or is going on now,” said Daley. “Clinton had no Democratic opposition. The economy was starting to move positively. And Chicago was a long way from Council Wars under (Mayor) Harold (Washington). It was seven years since Rich had won and the tension that had been there for the previous decade almost, back to Jane Byrne, had subsided. So, it was a very good time, with not a lot of headwinds, to have that sort of global look at the city. Timing’s everything in life and we hit it at the right moment.”
Insiders said it was a concerted, combined effort by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth that led to Chicago winning the 2024 convention.
“I’ve never seen them work together as closely and efficiently on anything,” Chicago Federation of Labor leader Robert Reiter told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Lori and J.B. really worked well together. It was important to them. They got it done.”
The governors of surrounding states were also persuaded to lobby on behalf of Chicago.“The political reason to come here is compelling,” said Democratic campaign consultant Pete Giangreco. “You gotta win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. That’s the first step toward the White House for any Democrat. Doesn’t mean that Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada aren’t important. But you gotta start with first things first.”
Giangreco also pointed out that when Chicago hosted in 1996, Illinois didn’t have a Democratic governor. Jim Edgar, a Republican, held the office.
“Now, we’ve got a Democratic governor. We’ve got multiple hosts. Gotta think the labor movement feels like they’re part of the hosts, too. We’ve got the Mayor-elect and the Governor. That’s a good thing.”
Chicago’s long history of hosting political conventions no doubt also played in its favor. The city has been the site of 25 national political conventions, dating back to the first Republican Party convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln in 1860. As the railroads became the primary mode for intercity travel, Chicago’s position as the nation’s rail hub enhanced its attractiveness as a convention site. Chicago hosted both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1932, 1944, and 1952.
Although O’Hare no longer holds the title of “World’s Busiest Airport,” Chicago’s still a major air hub in the middle of the nation with two thriving airports. Plus, its infrastructure of hotels, combined with the McCormick Center convention site, where some Democratic Party meetings will be held, and the United Center as the nation’s biggest indoor arena gave it the edge over its major competitor for the convention, Atlanta.
Even though she lobbied hard for the convention, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s loss to Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson means she won’t be around to reap the political rewards. Which also thrusts Gov. J.B. Pritzker, serving his second term, to the center of the convention-host stage as the state’s top elected Democrat.
While playing the “outside game,” making a strong push to host the convention in Illinois, Pritzker was also playing the “inside game,” moving to become the no-doubt-it top dog in the state party. The federal indictment of former party chair and longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan left a power vacuum that Pritzker used his clout to fill.Pritzker moved last year to take control of the Illinois Democratic Party, installing his hand-picked choice, State Sen. Lisa Hernandez as party chair. That put him in a stronger position as leader of the state government as well as de facto leader of the state party. All of that may have been part of his plan for a possible presidential run, hopefully capped by a Chicago convention coronation, but Joe Biden quashed that possibility by deciding to run for a second term.“
So, although Lightfoot was a pretty close partner, J.B. certainly wanted the convention and it helped enhance his role in the Democratic Party and does possibly place him in position to still run for president, if he so desires, after Biden steps down,” said Simpson. “It helps the economy. It helps the city. The benefits to the city are immediate because of the international spotlight. The advantages to J.B. are longer term if he does follow through on the ambition to become President.”
The convention also presents a lofty challenge to Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson to successfully showcase Chicago to the nation and the world.
“We have a new mayor I think Democrats are excited about,” said Giangreco. “Conversely, if Paul Vallas had won, I think that would have been used by Atlanta as a last-ditch effort to say why are you going to a city that just elected a guy who says he’s more Republican than a Democrat?”
But that excitement won’t last if the city underperforms when it steps into the limelight. “It’s a major logistical challenge. A lot of people feel Mayor Johnson made a really good choice with Rich Judice as chief of staff. Coming out of OEMC and having been around the city since the Daley Administration, you’ve got someone intimately familiar with how the city works organizationally and logistically,” said Giangreco.
“It’s not about what goes on inside the hall. It’s what goes on outside for a city. You have some control, but not a lot of control of that risk,” said Bill Daley. “My dad’s biggest fear in ’68 was not that something was going to happen on Michigan Avenue, but that which happened in the King riots, which destroyed the West Side, would happen again. And that was his big fear, protect the neighborhoods. Now, it was a debacle that happened at Michigan and Balbo but to a large degree he was very proud of the fact there weren’t problems in the neighborhoods.”
Controlling the image of crime as the dominant issue in the city will be a major task for Johnson, said Simpson. But the challenge is no bigger than the opportunity.“I don’t think people have really absorbed how big a deal this is, particularly the international spotlight,” said Simpson. “50,000 visitors. A shot in the arm for the downtown hotel, convention, and restaurant trade. But also, this is advertising you can’t buy. Now if we mess it up, it’s bad advertising. But assuming we do it right, for the city, it’s a chance to further our image as a global city. Because there will be more business deals, more tourism, more conventions coming to Chicago. The TV cameras are going to take beautiful images of Millennium Park, the museums, and McCormick Place that should put the city in a favorable light. It’s a once in a generation opportunity.”
Bill Daley warned the stakes are high and it doesn’t take much to shift the media narrative.“One bad shooting, a murder, a violent event in the middle of that week in an area near Michigan Avenue, or in neighborhoods where you don’t expect it, will get enormous attention worldwide. Because it will confirm what some people are thinking,” said Daley. It’s a herculean task. Everybody celebrates but I’m trying to be a realist. What’s the phrase, in ’68, the whole world was watching? Yes, the whole world will be watching for good or for bad.”
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