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'Just kind of sucks': Disappointed Milwaukee a political ghost town for the Democratic convention

The four-day event has gone virtual and the tens of thousands of hoped-for visitors are nowhere to be found.
Milwaukee police monitor the area outside the Wisconsin Center ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on Aug. 17, 2020.Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP - Getty Images

MILWAUKEE — Is it really a convention if nobody convenes?

The streets were lifeless by the Wisconsin Center on Monday for the kickoff of the Democrats' quadrennial meeting to crown their presidential nominee. A handful of police officers, including Secret Service agents, were guarding a fenced-off arena in which almost nobody was allowed.

Nearby storefronts and bars that expected to be bustling when this city was announced as the convention site were desolate or closed. The historic Riverside concert hall next door was shuttered. Mask-wearing pedestrians were jaywalking across major streets with few cars around. Hotels that initially sold out were operating under capacity and furloughing staffers.

"We were set up to have the best year we've ever had," said Kerri Huelsbeck, the general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott downtown, just one block from the arena. "Back in February, I would never have imagined this is where we'd be."

The hotel was just 40 percent full, the sales manager said. In the mostly empty lobby was a wall of heart-shaped stickers with names on them. On the left were 20 stickers of working employees. On the right were 24 stickers of employees still on furlough. Huelsbeck was working double duty as the barista.

The elimination of the in-person convention was the latest body blow to a city that had been overhauling its infrastructure in preparation for a huge year set to bring in billions in revenue. Music festivals and sporting events here have been canceled. The hometown Bucks, a contender for the NBA championship this year for the first time since 1971, cannot play in front of their fans.

"This could've been a moment for Milwaukee to really shine. And now it's associated with all the negative things," Huelsbeck said with a sigh. "It just kind of sucks."

As many as 50,000 people were expected here this week, before the coronavirus pandemic struck and turned the convention into an all-virtual event. Joe Biden is slated to accept the nomination on Thursday in live-streamed remarks from his home city of Wilmington, Delaware, along with every speaker starting Monday who was asked by the Democratic National Committee not to come.

Even most of the DNC staff stayed away. Chairman Tom Perez flew here to sign some paperwork.

Along the perimeter of the would-be convention hall were some dedicated activists, numbering in the single digits, who made the trip to make a point.

Stephen Parlato of Boulder, Colorado, was standing in front of the black fence wearing an N95 mask and holding a piece of art that read, "BROKEN GOVERNMENT, SHATTERED LIVES."

He said he had been planning to protest President Donald Trump at the convention since the 2018 midterm election and wasn't going to let the pandemic deter him.

Stephen Parlato of Boulder, Colo., holds an original painting framed by the words "shattered government broken lives" ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on Aug. 17, 2020.Sahil Kapur / NBC News

"I'm here to express my dire concern for the welfare of our country if this president is re-elected," he said. "You've got to do what you can do if you're going to live with yourself, and if you realize the moment is as dire as this one is for our democracy."

The weather was sunny and 80 degrees around mid-day Monday.

At a park across the street was a handful of people waving a "Democrats for life of America" banner. It was organized by Terrisa Bukovinac of San Francisco, who said she supports many progressive causes but said she could not vote for Biden because he supports abortion rights.

"We're all kind of left-leaning pro-lifers," she said. "And the only way that we're going to get any kind of visibility is to show up."

As she spoke one man, driving by, rolled down his window and said "go Trump" in a monotone voice. Bukovinac said she would not vote for President Donald Trump either.

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The cancellation of the in-person convention was a blow to Democrats, who picked Milwaukee to right a past wrong: 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton famously ignored the state and ended up losing it by less than 1 point. Election analysts say it could tip the 2020 result, too, as Biden leads in recent polls.

On Sunday evening, Trump's re-election campaign hosted a "women for Trump" event in the nearby village of Pleasant Prairie, featuring senior staffers Mercedes Schlapp and Erin Perrine.

Before the event, Perrine said Biden's decision not to appear in person to accept the nomination shows that Democrats "think they can take the Badger State for granted."

"We're here," she said, moments before walking out into a room of several-dozen attendees, many of whom were sitting in close quarters and not wearing masks.

Democrats say their decision to make the convention virtual was designed to save lives in a pandemic that they blame Trump for mishandling by ignoring the policy counsel and best practices offered by public health experts.

Around the city on Monday some businesses were wondering whether things would pick up — even just a bit.

"I just keep wondering if we're actually going to get busy," said Mel Wolfe, the general manager of a Potbelly Sandwich Shop. "We were expecting to be very, very crazy busy non-stop every day."

Even after it went virtual, she said, "I was still hoping for at least a little bit of something."

In front of the arena, just behind the fence, five officers were standing guard. A Secret Service agent in sunglasses said the convention was designated a National Special Security Event, which meant the agency was tasked with helping protect it.

But wasn't it odd to be deployed to essentially guard nobody?

"It's unusual," the officer said with a shrug.