Committee working to ensure mountain convention not rocky

The last time the Democratic National Convention was held in Denver, the party nominated William Jennings Bryan.

A century later, the convention is returning to the Mile High City, and the host committee knows it has miles to go before its hometown is ready for its hour in the spotlight.

Elbra Wedgeworth, a member of the Denver convention’s host committee, and Mike Dino, the committee’s chief executive, say they will get there, and the 35,000 anticipated visitors will leave Colorado with a new and favorable impression.

Wedgeworth is largely credited with persuading the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to select Denver as the winning bid for the convention, and she says she did it for the city.

“It’s about what’s good for Denver,” Wedgeworth said.

The Denver native tried to bring the convention to her turf instead of Boston in 2004, but, as she put it, “All the moons just weren’t aligned at that point.”

After running into DNC Chairman Howard Dean at a reception in 2005, Wedgeworth said she was encouraged to try again, and this time, both the city and the party were prepared.

Dino said the start-up to the convention has gone smoothly, as the committee is “building upon the efforts that were put into place to get the bid.”

“That in itself put a lot of wheels into motion over a year and a half ago,” Dino said.

The committee is expecting 35,000 visitors to Denver next August, and is estimating those visitors will spend between $150 million and $200 million to go along with the $70 million it is planning to raise and contribute to the community through local vendors.

The trick, Dino and Wedgeworth say, is raising the $70 million in a city that doesn’t enjoy the presence of Fortune 500 companies as do New York City and Boston.

When asked what was the biggest challenge the committee faces, Dino said without hesitation: “Fundraising.”

“I think it’ll be a challenge for any cities in the future,” Dino said. “It’s just the nature of these endeavors. It’s a big challenge, and we’re certainly up to it.”

Dino said the committee is reaching out to other cities for support and is engaging smaller corporations for help.

In addition to the fundraising headaches the committee is facing, labor leaders also have proven to be an early hurdle.

Union officials have been vocal in their disapproval of Denver as the convention site, criticizing the city for being unfriendly to unions and having a unionized labor presence too small to make a significant contribution.

A number of unions — a crucial bloc for the Democratic Party — had threatened to withdraw from the event, and Dean was forced to fly to the city in April to try and prevent a convention catastrophe a year and a half before it starts.

“It’s not an unusual part of being involved in a convention on the Democratic side,” Dino said. “I think the labor issues tend to get a lot of visibility in the press.”

When Denver was announced as the convention site, a number of critics questioned whether the city was capable of boarding and entertaining such a large crowd in the way bigger cities have.

Both Dino and Wedgeworth insist there are plenty of hotel rooms and loads of entertainment options.

The city has about 38,000 hotel rooms, and the convention has reserved about 19,000 of them.

And for those who lament missed opportunities to take batting practice at Fenway Park in 2004, Wedgeworth says: Take heart.
And bring hiking boots.

Wedgeworth said the city boasts a number of fun activities, and she notes that the glory of the Rocky Mountains and all the recreational opportunities they provide are just a short drive away.

Wedgeworth said there are museums, Coors Field and, with the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater just a few miles down the road, the potential for unforgettable concert experiences unique to the Denver area.

Perhaps more importantly, the selection of Denver could prove to be a brilliant strategic move on the Democrats’ part as they seek to retake the White House and add to their numbers in the Senate.

Colorado has been trending Democratic in recent cycles, with the election of a Democratic governor and senator and two congressional pick-ups.

With an open Senate seat and nine electoral votes in the balance, Wedgeworth and Dino said holding the party’s biggest pep rally in Colorado could provide momentum that could carry over into surrounding Western states.

“We kind of feel the pathway to the presidency is through the Western states,” Wedgeworth said.

Dino added that the bonus that comes with holding the convention in a swing state provides “a very viable opportunity for the Democratic Party to become more successful.”

Dino said if the South is in fact a lost opportunity for Democrats, then “the Rocky Mountain region is a found opportunity.”