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Why Atlanta’s political case to host the DNC may be better than when Democrats controlled the state

By Riley Bunch, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: March 20, 2023, 6:02am

ATLANTA — When Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1988, Georgia Democrats controlled almost all levers of power in the state. That made the city a solid blue backdrop for the party to select its presidential nominee.

More than three decades later, the Democratic-led capitol city is often at odds with GOP state leaders and a legislature handily held by Republicans. The dynamic at first glance makes it a strange place for the White House to select for the 2024 convention.

But many argue that Atlanta’s case as host city has become even stronger, after big Democratic wins in the past few election cycles.

Many of Georgia’s top politicians involved in crafting Atlanta’s bid to host the convention next year were there in 1988, when the Democratic Party descended on downtown Atlanta for the first time in the history of its premier event. Atlanta is competing for next year’s convention against two other big blue cities — Chicago and New York.

Atlanta is no stranger to hosting mass gatherings and has been perfecting its hospitality industry largely through sporting events such as college football national championships, Super Bowls, Final Fours and, of course, the 1996 Olympic Games.

Bobby Kahn, former chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, was president of coordinating committee for the 1988 DNC. He remembers pitching Atlanta as the center of a Democratic stronghold.

“It was a huge deal then for Atlanta,” Kahn said. “It was the next step to being a major player.”

This time around, Atlanta’s bid is all about the recent past and what it means for the future.

Peach State voters shocked the country in the past few election cycles by backing U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock (twice) and Jon Ossoff, along with President Joe Biden. And all in a state otherwise led by Republicans.

Those victories set Atlanta apart from the competition, Kahn said. “This is where it’s at.”

But others worry that today’s polarizing politics make the showcase less desirable — and more risky.

Then-Mayor Andrew Young saw the ‘88 DNC as a chance to solidify Atlanta as a global convention destination. To be certain, Atlanta had hosted its share of conventions. But there weren’t many bigger than the DNC.

“We have conventions all the time, we are a convention city that has almost 2 million convention visitors a year,” Young said on July 14, 1988, to a crowded room of journalists. “ … So people kind of know what to do about conventioneers. We don’t know what to do about journalists — particularly when they come 10,000 strong.”

In retrospect, Young said the ‘88 DNC was a turning point.

“People fell in love with Atlanta around the Democratic Convention,” Young said in a recent interview.

Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was nominated for president with Texas U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate during the July convention, which was held over four days in the Omni.

The event thrust Atlanta into the political spotlight and gave local leaders an opportunity to show off on a national stage.

Then, as now, hosting the convention came with risk.

Young knew firsthand that any missteps would be magnified under the glare of the national event. That made him nervous, because the mayor was among protesters that were tear gassed while demonstrating against the Vietnam War at the 1968 DNC in Chicago.

“So I’ve been involved in one of the best conventions and one of the most difficult conventions,” Young said.

Young said he supports the city’s effort to host the event, but worries about today’s divisive political climate.

“Whatever we decide and whatever the Democratic Party decides, anybody that comes here will be well received,” he said. “But in 2024, right now that looks like a risk. This is the time to be risk-averse and hold what you’ve got and hang on to that stability and vision and cooperation.

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“We don’t need anything to divide us in any way.”

The city’s civil rights history also plays a crucial part in the argument to host the convention for a second time, which Young said is why Atlanta is uniquely positioned to face the country’s political challenges.

“Atlanta is always ready to serve,” he said. “And right now the country needs a city — needs a state — that has gone through many of the struggles that the rest of the nation is involved in.”

For the most part, the 1988 convention went off without a logistical hitch, although some attendees may remember the so-called “big lockout.” That’s when many delegates and VIPs found themselves on the wrong side of closed doors after the fire marshal declared too many people were packed in to the Omni.

Shaping Atlanta’s political future

Georgia Democrats are not shy about reminding the country of the key role Peach State voters played in big victories for the party in recent elections.

Georgia voted for Biden in 2020, making him the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in nearly three decades. The Democrats’ victories in the 2021 Senate runoffs clinched control of the chamber for the party.

Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman held up the city — in its diversity, growth and rich history — as an example of the best parts of the Democratic Party.

“Sometimes those lines kind of feel like lines of division,” he said. “And in Atlanta, they’re lines of partnership.”

The fact that Georgia has played such a crucial role in elections, he said, makes hosting the convention more than just an economic investment. It’s a political investment as well.

“It would be an acknowledgment of the outsize role Atlanta has played lately in national politics,” Shipman said. “Even more importantly, bringing the convention here will be an acknowledgment that that will continue to be the case.”

Georgia’s Democrats have been pressing the White House and the president’s allies to pick Atlanta through closed door meetings, lengthy phone calls, letters and full-page newspaper ads.

On the same day Biden visited Atlanta to visit and speak at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Democratic leaders took out a full-page ad in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to make their appeal.

“President Biden Cement Your Legacy Choose Atlanta,” it read and was signed by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, former Atlanta Mayors Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young, U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, Warnock and Ossoff.

In a pair of letters sent earlier this month, civil rights leaders including the family of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis and the daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Biden to choose Atlanta.

“Certainly in the last five years, the last 10 years, we have been aggressively developing our reputation as a place where politics happens,” Stacey Abrams, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2018 and 2022, said in an interview with the AJC.

Georgia Democrats aren’t the only ones hoping for the spotlight.

Leaders across the South also want to see the region solidified as a battleground for the party. More than 60 leaders from eight southern states signed onto a letter urging Biden to pick Atlanta.

“We know that the political opportunities in the South and the Southwest are real,” Abrams said. “And that by bringing the convention here is a forward looking moment to say that we know politics was here in the Sunbelt, and that Georgia is the epicenter of that evolution.”

FAST FACTS ABOUT ATLANTA’S DNC BID:

  • The convention is expected to draw nearly 5,000 delegates and around 50,000 people to Atlanta over the course of four days in summer 2024.
  • The main convention would take place in State Farm Arena and utilize surrounding event spaces like the Georgia World Congress Center and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
  • Upward of 15,000 rooms across nearly 70 hotels have already been secured. Seven hotels downtown would hold a majority of attendees while others are scattered from Midtown to Buckhead.
  • Top political players like Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, former Gov. Roy Barnes, U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and philanthropist Billye Aaron have all helped craft Atlanta’s bid.
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