Why the Hell Would Democrats Want to Host the 2016 Convention in Brooklyn?

Picking the site of the 2016 DNC is about the future of the party as much as anything. But is Brooklyn the image Democrats really want to project?

Dec 4 2014, 5:00am

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"We are a diverse city—stronger for our diversity—8.4 million people, representing all that is good about the United States of America. We're the nation's media capital, and capital of so many other parts of our economy and our society. And we're a city moving in the right direction, and that's important. We're a city that's more inclusive than ever. We're a city that's moving forward. That matters to the decision makers in this process." —Bill de Blasio, November 24, 2014

If the mayor gets his way, New York City will play host to the 2016 Democratic National Convention next summer. De Blasio continues to enthusiastically endorse NYC, specifically his home borough of Brooklyn, for the honor. By his telling, New York is a shining beacon of progressivism and prosperity in a country that's going off the rails; he touts the modernity of Barclays Center, the unionized workforce, and the short distance CNN and Fox News trucks will have to travel for their special brand of 24-hour coverage. Surprisingly, the hosting committee seems to agree, selecting New York as one of three finalist cities being considered host the convention, along with Columbus and Philadelphia.

Let's just get this out there: Holding the DNC at the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn would be a shitshow. An absolute, unequivocal shitshow. It would take the traffic-snarled, congested subway hub around the Atlantic Center and force-multiply the chaos in innumerable and unimaginable ways.

But that doesn't mean it would be a disaster. To live in New York City and Brooklyn is to constantly be assaulted by shitshows. Residents would get by, just like they always do. We would be inconvenienced, but only for another day or three. And the money might balance the equation, or at least swing it slightly. De Blasio cites the $250 million economic impact the 2004 Republican National Convention had on New York as a starting point for the injection he expects from the 2016 DNC, arguing the benefits will be felt across all five boroughs. This may or may not be true—I asked the mayor's staffers how exactly the convention would benefit Staten Island and the Bronx but they didn't respond—but past conventions across the country have given local economies a short-term boost.

Logistically, a DNC in Brooklyn isn't the best idea. But it's not the worst idea, either. The question, though, is whether it's a good one for Democratic Party that is still reeling from its midterm thrashing? A convention in Brooklyn will be about two people: the nominee, of course, presumably Hillary Clinton, and Bill de Blasio. It's a profile-raising move by the populist mayor who wants more.

"I don't think it's any secret that the mayor has ambitions outside of Gracie Mansion," said Austin Finan, senior vice president at the political consulting firm Mercury. "This is a great way for him to raise his profile as a leader on the national side of things. It's an opportunity for himself to draw parallels between himself and Brooklyn, which is a borough that's been on the up and up for the last several years."

In short, it's a power play by de Blasio—an exercise in vanity that seems to echo Mayor Michael Bloomberg's coming-out party during the 2004 RNC. "The convention has turned into an opportunity for lesser-known folks with political ambitions to get their five minutes of fame," Finan said. "I think he's doing what any mayor would do, which is that this is the ultimate political exercise in self-promotion. You really can't fault the mayor for doing that."

Although there's some sense that conventions should be held in politically important states, it's worth pointing out that the choice of a site doesn't have much of an effect on actual elections. Still, the location of the DNC is about the future of the party as much as anything. Choose Columbus, and the Democrats are telling the country that they haven't given up on Middle America—and the white, working-class voters who are abandoning the party in droves. Pick Brooklyn, and the party will embrace its most progressive elements.

On the other hand, hosting the DNC at the Barclays Center could provide an injection of youthful energy to the party after its dismal turnout efforts in the 2014 midterms. It might get younger people excited in a way that Columbus or Philadelphia would not.

"Brooklyn represents an opportunity to involve the next generation of politicians," said Allison Kopf, vice president of the Manhattan Young Democrats. "We need to have a strong youth delegation at the DNC in 2016. To do that, we need more young people sitting on the delegate selection committees. And we need to have young people involved in every aspect from the beginning to the end."

Ultimately, however, the decision will—or at least should—come down to the optics the Democratic Party hopes to showcase. And Brooklyn the borough is different than the national perception of Brooklyn the brand.

"Brooklyn is not the New York Times Style Section version of Brooklyn," said political commentator and longtime Brooklyn resident Glynnis MacNicol (who also happens to be my former boss). "When we talk about a tale of two cities, we see that exemplified in Brooklyn in terms of the poverty versus the sky-high real estate prices. And in between, there are still very livable parts of Brooklyn. I think that even though New York City gets pegged as not representative of the country, Brooklyn is more representative of an America in terms of culture, economics, and lifestyles."

The question then becomes whether this distinction is too subtle or complex for Democrats to make in the limited time constraints of a three-day convention.. The notion of "Brooklyn" will no doubt turn off some voters who see it as a sign that the party has capitulated to the East (and West) coast elites and abandoned the middle of the country. In 2008, Obama caught endless flak for simply mentioning arugula. Hosting the DNC in Brooklyn would basically be devoting the entire nominating convention to arugula, and kale, and every other overpriced leafy green vegetable.

"Holding the convention in New York does nothing to broaden the party's appeal," said Finan. "That's a given."

And yet, the party might not need to broaden its appeal. The two previous presidential elections proved that the Democrats have expanded the electoral map enough to win the highest office in the land. The next election is more about repairing damage and recruiting past Democratic voters who failed to turn out in the 2014 elections, for whatever reason.

Kopf spoke about the importance of uniting the Democrats again, of standing as one group to the left of the nominee, in the way that Tea Partiers and social conservatives have taken over the GOP's nominating convention. Finan agreed that some return to the party's progressive roots might be in order.

"The party recently took a serious licking in the midterm and you can argue that's because Democrats didn't run as Democrats and that they failed to claim credit for things like the improved economy and lower unemployment," he said. "I wonder if selling progressive policies and accomplishments may make more sense with a Brooklyn backdrop as opposed to a Columbus stage."

Given that, Barclays might be the play. Traffic on the road to the White House was always going to be hell anyway.

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