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Government, Politics & Issues

This time is different -- St. Louis really wants to host a national political convention

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2010 - For more than 20 years, it's been a ritual without a happy ending.

Officials in St. Louis announce plans to seek a national presidential convention. A year or so after, the city drops its designs for fiscal reasons or gets a signal from the targeted national party that St. Louis is a no-go and out of the running for the once-every-four-years partisan gathering.

On Friday, in a story first broken by the St. Louis Business Journal, St. Louis officials announced that the city is making yet another bid for the national Democratic presidential convention 2012.

A website, Twitter account and Facebook page already have been set up to promote the effort.

And city Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby swears that this time is different.

"This is a great opportunity for our city to showcase itself, and we've got a great shot at getting selected," said Wahby, who is in an influential position since he is one of Missouri's delegates on the Democratic National Committee.

Mayor Francis Slay and Gov. Jay Nixon, both Democrats, have already weighed in with letters and some well-placed phone calls, spokesmen said today.

"The governor's staff has been in contact with the DNC," said communications director Jack Cardetti.

The state Democratic Party says it also is working closely with city Democrats to help craft the best proposal, which has to be submitted to the DNC by May 21.

St. Louis' selection "would be good for the state party, good for the area economy and the state overall," said state Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Hobart. "We're happy to support it in any way."

In an interview Saturday, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., added, "I think we're all going to work at it."

Such across-the-board enthusiasm is, in itself, something of a change from recent past bids for a presidential convention.

Long history of seeking conventions

St. Louis last hosted a presidential convention in June 1916, when incumbent Democrat Woodrow Wilson sought re-election.

But St. Louis' latest quests for a presidential convention hail back to the 1980s. City officials at the time were still smarting from Kansas City's success in snagging the 1976 Republican convention, which saw President Gerald Ford nominated (despite a strong challenge from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan).

The last time St. Louis was in a strong position to host a presidential convention was in 1988 with the GOP, but it lost out to New Orleans.

In late March 1994, St. Louis dropped out of the running for the 1996 Republican convention (which ended up in San Diego). That decision was particularly galling at the time to U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., who wrote an angry letter to city officials telling them that St. Louis was missing its best chance in decades.

Bond said then that his office had gotten strong signals of encouragement from national GOP leaders, and that then-RNC chairman Haley Barbour had been shocked after receiving St. Louis' official letter of withdrawal.

"I believe they are so excited about St. Louis that we could win the convention with a proposal that has a relatively modest financial package," an angry Bond told reporters at the time.

But St. Louis' reasons were practical. Then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and convention officials said the city didn't have the money to mount a serious offer -- or the hotel rooms to house the thousands of conventioneers.

St. Louis officials declared then that the city would make a serious bid in 2000. But in 1998, then-Mayor Clarence Harmon demurred, for the same fiscal and lodging reasons cited four years earlier.

St. Louis was mentioned early on as a potential contender for the 2004 and 2008 conventions but never applied, and never made either party's short list.

Does the city have the goods?

The financial issue is a serious one, McCaskill said. And Wahby acknowledges that the city's convention proposal will likely include a budget of at least $50 million in local spending. With public funding out of the question, Wahby says he will soon launch "a serious fundraising component."

Denver, which hosted the 2008 Democratic convention, put its pricetag at $60 million -- but has estimated that the payoff in convention spending was close to $300 million.

Unlike 16 years ago, St. Louis also has strength in the hotel department. Convention officials say they have commitments to offer 15,000 rooms in their convention proposal. In the 1990s, many of those hotels -- new construction or rehabbed historic structures -- weren't around.

Still, McCaskill isn't sure that the region has enough hotel rooms. There also is the matter of air access, since St. Louis no longer is an airline hub with the demise of Trans World Airlines. Its successor, American Airlines, also has dramatically cut back on flights to St. Louis over the past year.

One advantage, Democrats privately say, is Missouri's reputation as a swing state. President Barack Obama narrowly lost the state in November 2008 to Republican John McCain, but the less-than-4,000-vote margin gives both major parties a strong incentive to mount a strong presence in 2012.

And there's the fact that Obama found himself facing one of his largest (if not the largest) campaign audiences under the Arch in October 2008. That crowd was unexpected.

Another possible plus: McCaskill's close ties to Obama, and the fact that she would be up for re-election in 2012. A Democratic convention on her home turf could whip up grassroots enthusiasm.

(But other Democrats say privately that the fact McCaskill and Nixon will be up for re-election in 2012 might be a drawback, because of Democratic money that they might lose if it goes instead to a presidential convention in St. Louis. There's also the question of whether the duo -- who are publicly enthusiastic now -- might prefer by 2012 to devote more time to their campaigns, especially if they end up with strong Republican challengers.)

McCaskill sought Saturday to play down any potential influence that she might have, and St. Louis' chances. "It's a highly competitive process,'' she said. "This is not a done deal."

So why not make a pitch for the GOP convention as well?

"Democratic conventions are larger," a consultant to Slay explained, noting that the Democratic Party fields almost twice as many delegates as the GOP.

And, for the moment, there also may be the Barbour factor.

Now the governor of Mississippi, Barbour currently is rumored to be considering a presidential bid in 2012. He may not want to envision giving his presidential-nomination acceptance speech in a city that, in effect, once rejected his advances.

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