We’re Not Easy: Can City Seduce ’08 Democrats?

In an almost quadrennial ritual mating dance between New York and the Democrats that has persisted through the last nine presidential elections, a dozen or so members of the Democratic National Committee and their consultants are on their way into town. After they have checked into the Ritz-Carlton on the evening of June 14, they’ll ride horse-drawn cabs through a twilit Central Park and land at the door of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s East 79th Street townhouse in time for a lavishly catered dinner.

It’s just the first big kiss in a three-day affair with the Democrats that the Mayor hopes will result in their choosing New York City as the site of their national convention in the summer of 2008.

But it could also serve as a referendum on the Democratic Party’s 2008 strategy: to be aggressive in Red State America, as DNC chairman Howard Dean has counseled? Or consolidate the Blue State base as other party leaders recommend?

The city’s power brokers in the private and public sector will be working long hours feeding, cocktailing and jawboning these party functionaries on the theory that consolidation—in New York City—is the way to go.

Also that New York is the safe bet, a tried-and-true convention city that can handle the logistical details at least as well, if not better, than it did for the Republicans in 2004. And, this being a Democratic town, empty some of the deepest Democratic pockets to pay for a spectacular event.

Mr. Bloomberg’s last attempt to get the Democrats to hold their convention in what is arguably the capital of Blue State America was in 2002, some 10 months after the terrorist attack that leveled the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The tone then was somber, patriotic.

“Nothing could more eloquently speak to America’s resolve not to be defeated,” Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff told The Observer in July 2002, “than to see democracy celebrated in this city.”

Expect that tone in one of New York’s competitors’ bids: New Orleans, still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, is another finalist for the convention nod.

This time, New York’s presentation is all about old-fashioned Gotham glamour.

And the convention business.

“When you combine the diversity of the nine million individuals who call New York home, and our ability to handle big events and keep attendees safe, with the message of the Democratic Party, it makes sense than an event like this should be in New York City,” said Jonathan Tisch, the chief executive of the Loews Hotel chain and chairman of the city’s tourism bureau, NYC & Co. “We have the track record. We have the know-how to ensure the delegates and the media that come to town will be able to come to town and enjoy their time here.”

Mr. Tisch, a leading Democratic donor, is co-chairing the host committee that would raise the $70 million necessary from private contributors along with Robert Rubin, the Clinton administration’s second Treasury Secretary. (Ah! The bluest state remembers!) Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, who ran the 2004 convention, will play tour guide, and Mayor Bloomberg himself is expected to spend at least three meals with the visitors.

The party starts Wednesday evening, when the national committee team arrives, trots through Central Park in hansom cabs and heads to Mayor Bloomberg’s townhouse for dinner. The next morning, the Democrats will convene for breakfast at Gracie Mansion, followed by a tour of Madison Square Garden, which would again host the convention, and 1 Penn Plaza, the neighboring high-rise where the convention’s offices would be. The visitors will break out into subcommittees to hear about security preparations from Police Commissioner Ray Kelly or to visit the city’s fanciest hotels, along with some of its humblest.

The show-off event will be the dinner Thursday at Top of the Rock, the newly opened restaurant on the top floor of Rockefeller Center, with some of the city’s leading political operatives and donors.

Friday morning, they will travel across the East River for breakfast at the Bridge Café, arguably the Manhattanest restaurant in Brooklyn, and, last but not least, a boat tour of the city’s waterways.

The Competition

The final decision will be up to Howard Dean, the Democratic chairman, a New York native—but also one who has been pushing a 50-state policy, intent on winning support anywhere and everywhere, even in traditional red states.

In pursuing the policy, though, he has been butting heads with Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Congressman and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who favors investing money in races the party already has a chance of winning.

“Rahm Emanuel might favor New York, thinking it’s a place where you may be able to pick up a few upstate seats, versus Howard Dean, who would say, ‘Why not go to Denver and eventually turn it into fertile ground for Democrats?’” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “It never works. Frankly, I see no advantage in where the convention is held in terms of how many votes it pulls in. There may be some symbolic significance in having it in one place or another. But frankly, I think everybody wants to come to New York and will look for an excuse.”

In other words, New York is no longer the sentimental choice; that would be New Orleans. But right now the local committee is working on answering additional questions raised by its first bid, submitted in May, according to Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. No visit has been scheduled.

Besides New Orleans, Mr. Bloomberg will have to edge out bids from Minneapolis and Denver, cities that last hosted the convention in 1892 and 1908, respectively.

The Minneapolis visit, scheduled for June 26, will take D.N.C. members through a onetime capital of the Democratic heartland that has been exhibiting Republican tendencies lately. The site selection committee will also visit Denver, where Democrats run both state houses and recently recaptured a Senate seat.

Denver is the supposed front-runner, with a seven-year-old arena and a brand-new convention- center hotel.

Sources said Denver also fit in with Dr. Dean’s “50-state” strategy, in which the Democrats attempt ambitious wins in previously hostile territory.

Another source said that the size of the Denver and Minneapolis arenas would allow Dr. Dean to hold a convention that accommodated the largest possible number of people.

Neither theory of the D.N.C.’s motives would seem to put New York—or its small, somewhat haggard convention site at Madison Square Garden—in a particularly good light by comparison. The Minneapolis Metrodome, for instance, could hold some 10,000 more people when configured as a convention site.

But whether Denver or Minneapolis could deliver the hotel accommodations needed might be another question.

Denver’s bid has already been cursed by labor leaders angry because the city’s hotels have been unfriendly to unions. That could turn the party’s most important constituency against it.

In New York, by contrast, the Central Labor Council favors a convention in 2008 and has already begun discussions for a no-strike agreement, according to Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman.

Mr. Sheekey downplayed the Garden’s lower capacity, saying that the main point was to give ready access to media outlets and thereby a national television audience—that is, assuming people actually watch party conventions these days.

That said, Mr. Sheekey would not say where the media center would be in 2008. Two years ago, reporters holed up in the Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue from the Garden, but that building is supposed to undergo renovation beginning at the end of this year.

“There are very few cities in the country and the world that have the resources to handle an event such as this—if not maybe the only one,” Mr. Sheekey said.

New York’s donor base will also come in handy: The 2004 Republican National Convention cost $81.6 million, almost all of which came from private cash or in-kind contributions.

The city chipped in $7.9 million. In return, according to the Mayor’s office, the convention generated $255 million in “net economic gain.” New York’s 2008 convention bid totals $77 million, all but $7 million of which would come from private donations.

Minneapolis’ bid comes in at $50 million, while the organizer of the Denver bid, City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, said the size of the bid was still under negotiation.

And finally, money could certainly be a factor. Strangely, the fact that the Republicans staged what many considered to be a successful convention in New York in 2004 could end up providing one of the arguments for bringing in the more simpatico Democrats—or at least an argument against the need to hold the convention somewhere in the hard-to-win heartland.

“A lot of people have worked under the false pretences in the past that where you hold it is gong to make a difference, as opposed to what you did or what you showed or how professional the affair came off,” Mr. Sheekey said. “The Republican Party clearly showed last time that regional politics are not the point here. I don’t think the Republican Party won New York or Connecticut or New Jersey four years ago, and they were still very satisfied with the convention.”