CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The 2012 Democratic National Convention, Charlotte’s long-anticipated brush with hoopla and history, is now just more than a month away.
And while much has already been done to prepare for the early September arrival of 35,000 people – delegates, journalists, protesters, celebrities and others – several key challenges remain for organizers.
Will they be able to raise the $36.6 million to pay for the actual convention?
Can they make peace with labor unions – traditional Democratic allies put off by having the convention in a right-to-work state?
How exactly will organizers divvy up “community credentials” to the public for seats at Bank of America Stadium, where President Barack Obama will give his acceptance speech?
And with the Secret Service expected to release its Charlotte security plan this week or next, will organizers be able to convince locals that uptown – with its closed streets, parking restrictions, steel fencing and concrete barriers – is still “open for business” and worth visiting during convention week?
The stakes are high: Failing to meet any of these challenges could potentially affect Charlotte’s image or the president’s re-election prospects.
Mayor Anthony Foxx, co-chairman of the Charlotte in 2012 host committee, prefers to focus on how the city will benefit from getting everything right in these final pre-convention weeks. He said he’s feeling like an excited parent in the days before Christmas.
“You know that there is a surprise coming and you know exactly what it is,” he said. “And you know that when people see this city and get to know it and see it up close and personal that they’re going to fall in love with Charlotte.”
Paying the bills
The hard job of raising that $36.6 million to pay for the convention got even tougher in recent weeks.
Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers – the host committee’s co-chairman and “fearless leader on the fundraising front,” in the words of Foxx – became embroiled in a public drama over the way his company handled a merger with Raleigh-based Progress Energy.
With some on the N.C. Utilities Commission now threatening to oust Rogers, it’s hard to imagine he’ll have as much time to work the phones or fly around the country to raise convention money.
“He’s really preoccupied with internal, post-merger things – as he should be,” said Duke spokesman Tom Williams.
Asked about Rogers’ role in the wake of the Duke-Progress controversy, Foxx said that the Duke CEO has been “a wonderful asset to the convention effort and continues to be.”
The front-page photo of Foxx and Rogers locking arms in triumph at the news in 2011 that Charlotte had been chosen still hangs on walls in town.
And Rogers appeared ready to raise the money from Charlotte’s top companies.
But Obama threw the Charlotte host committee a curve: To pay for his convention, he wanted no corporate cash, no money from lobbyists, and no individual donations of more than $100,000.
Foxx and other organizers like to point out that this “unconventional way” of raising money has brought donations from 40 times more people than the number who contributed in Denver, site of the 2008 convention.
Still, for the past year, neither the host committee, which has to raise the $36.6 million, nor the Democratic National Convention Committee, which gets to spend it, have been willing to say how far they are from that goal. “Right on track” is all they’ve said publicly, even in the face of reports quoting sources in Washington that the effort is between $16 million and $27 million short.
Charlotte taxpayers will not be on the hook to close any gap, but it’s unclear what would happen if the local fundraisers come up short. Would the Obama campaign cut a check?
Foxx’s answer: “I’m very confident we’re going to have a great convention.”
Steve Kerrigan, CEO of the DNCC, put it this way last week: “We’re going to have the resources necessary to have a successful convention.”
Little help from Big Labor
To help fund the 2008 convention, large labor unions donated $8 million.
And loopholes in the DNCC’s contract with Charlotte’s host committee allow unlimited donations from labor union treasuries (and in-kind corporate contributions).
But Obama’s choice to get renominated in North Carolina, a state that has been historically unfriendly to unions, caused a stir.
In a memo this month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told affiliates that his organization was shifting its resources toward grassroots efforts and away from the convention.
“We will not be making major monetary contributions to the convention or the host committee for events,” Trumka wrote. “We won’t be buying skyboxes, hosting events other than (a) labor delegates meeting or bringing big staff to the convention.”
Reaching out to unions
National Democrats continue to defend the choice of North Carolina – a battleground state in the presidential race – and say the party will never broaden its appeal if it meets only in reliably blue states in the North.
But there are signs that the Democrats and Charlotte’s host committee are reaching out to labor.
Recent announcements about who will sit on the convention’s standing committees – Platform, Credentials and Rules – included various union leaders representing teachers, Teamsters, public employees, farm workers and others.
And though convention-related security rules may force some changes to this year’s Charlotte Labor Day parade – a new route and no marching bands or motorized vehicles – the host committee’s uptown CarolinaFest kickoff has incorporated the parade and will showcase union members.
Avoiding a ghost town
Last week, the Secret Service released the security plan for Tampa, Fla., where Republicans will nominate Mitt Romney for president next month. The plan called for parking restrictions and closed roads as well as temporary traffic delays caused by motorcades.
The convention-week security details for Charlotte could come at any time.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, is planning three town hall meetings next month to discuss with residents and businesses the impact of the GOP convention.
And in Charlotte?
Foxx said he and others in the city and on the host committee will be amping up what he called “the public relations piece” soon.
Translation: “We are still finalizing some efforts to communicate directly to the people of Charlotte about what they should and can expect over the four days,” Foxx said.
One message Foxx and convention organizers want to get out is that uptown will be “open for business,” even if parts of it may resemble an armed fortress.
What they don’t want is for uptown to be a ghost town, like parts of Chicago during a recent NATO conference.
Getting Charlotte-area voters involved in convention week was a community – and political – goal from the start.
Starting the convention a day later, and reserving Monday – Labor Day – for a family-friendly celebration open to the public was an idea cooked up by the DNCC, then agreed to by the host committee.
Having CarolinaFest in uptown was plan B. For months, the advertised venue was the massive Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But a few weeks after unveiling a stock car stenciled with the names of thousands of small donors, organizers abruptly switched gears and relocated the Monday kickoff to uptown.
Closer to the convention and to open-to-the-public meetings of the state delegations, they insisted.
But will enough Charlotteans brave uptown on Labor Day – and the days that follow – with all the disruptions?
Craig Depken, a UNC Charlotte professor of economics who has studied the impact of conventions and sports events, said it could be a hard sell.
“There’s as much a turnoff as a turnout” effect, he said.
The host committee plans to encourage people to use public transportation. The Lynx light rail will be open up to Stonewall Street and the temporary new transit center will be on Mint Street – both short hikes to Tryon Street, where the Labor Day festivities will be.
“There are lot of different ways to get there, a lot of access points, and a lot of parking opportunities within walking distance,” said Dan Murrey, the host committee’s executive director.
“So we think people will be able to get there.”