Party City

by by Mary-Evelyn Farrior

illustration by by Diane Zhou

I sat with my mother in an unusually deserted Outback Steakhouse in Tampa, Florida on the final Monday of August. This specific Outback is the first in the chain and, as a result, a local landmark. Though so few patrons typically would not have been an exceptional event, that evening the Republican National Convention was in town, and 50,000 visitors had just descended upon the city—a near 15 percent increase in the city’s population for this week alone.

Everyone expected the deluge of visitors to cover every corner of the city. Stores miles away from the convention put political paraphernalia and elephant statuettes in their front windows. Meanwhile, nearly 5,000 delegates and 15,000 media affiliates were locked down in the convention area in downtown Tampa, hardly ever straying from a barricaded six block area.

The City of Tampa had assured its citizens that the convention would be a boon for the city. A Tampa-based research team estimated that the convention would bring $153.6 million directly into city’s economy. Everyone anticipated booming businesses and packed restaurants. Yet as the convention arrived, none of it happened, even as millions of dollars were funneled towards crafting a secure and indulgent convention for the delegates. Tampa residents were left questioning the convention’s intent within the city.

The Hostess with the Mostess

Political conventions began in 1831, with the Anti-Masonic party wishing to include more people in the nominee selection process than just a few elite within the party. Delegates from all economic and geographical areas gathered to cast ballot after ballot until a nominee was selected. After the advent of presidential primaries in the 1960s, the original purpose of the presidential nominating conventions was lost. Although primaries made the process more egalitarian, they left the delegates and conventions stripped of nearly all their purpose and power.

While intense days of voting have been substituted for long nights of political rallying and celebrities talking to inanimate objects, cities still furiously compete to host conventions and all the people that come with them. After selecting a handful of cities based on political symbolism, logistics, and economics, the Republican National Committee then ask these cities to bid to host the convention. At that point, the cities’ host committees battle to have the chance to play host.

After being considered and ultimately passed over to host the 2004 and 2008 conventions, the Tampa Bay Host Committee finally enticed the Site Selection Committee in 2010. Tampa became the official host of the 2012 convention, beating out Salt Lake City and Phoenix. “Ultimately Tampa Bay presented the best mix of transportation infrastructure, lodging and dining options, cultural diversity, and of course our beautiful Florida climate,” said Florida National Committeewoman Sharon Day in a press release from the Republican Party of Florida.

Florida is also one of the most important swing states in the nation, having played a notoriously crucial role in the 2000 election. In every presidential election since 1996, the winner of Florida’s 27 electoral votes has also been the winner of the presidential election. Additionally, Florida is home both to large populations of elderly citizens and to Hispanic communities: two groups that Romney needs to woo. Yet while the GOP’s motivations for choosing Tampa are relatively transparent, the city’s incentive to host the convention is less clear.

In the late 70s and early 80s, Tampa was named one of the top cities of opportunity by sources like U.S. News & World Report. Despite the hype, nothing really happened in Tampa. The haphazardly developed city became a mess of urban sprawl. But one man, Al Austin, never forgot the city’s potential. An important builder and developer in Tampa since the 50s, Austin has been one of the area’s most important Republican fundraisers and has been a delegate or alternate at every Republican convention since 1972. After working for 10 years to bring the convention to Tampa, Austin, at the noble age of 83, served as the chairman for the successful 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee. “The goal was to help bring jobs here. It will take a while to find out for sure how we did. I am absolutely, absolutely, positively 100 percent convinced we succeeded. Absolutely,” Austin told The Tampa Tribune.

The members of the Tampa Bay Host Committee wanted the exposure and the economic boost of the convention, hoping to make Tampa the city it was always supposed to be. After committing to hosting the RNC, the Tampa Bay Host Committee, a non-partisan and non-profit group, was responsible for coming up with the $55 million it cost to stage the RNC. The Committee hired national fundraisers, crossed party lines, and emphasized the corporate branding opportunity of the convention, and the Tampa Bay Host Committee managed to raise all the money before the last days of the convention. The Democratic National Convention put self-imposed limits on their spending, intended to highlight Obama’s commitment to take money out of politics. As a result, the Charlotte Host Committee was responsible for raising only $36.7 million, a near $20-million difference from the 2008 convention in Denver. For both parties, this money comes in addition to the $18,248,300 in public grants that each received specifically for the conventions from the Federal Election Commission as part of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which comes from an optional $3 tax check off box on income forms. Neither party uses the over $500 million they each has raised for this presidential campaign to subsidize their convention.

Making it Rain, or the Lack Thereof

After the dribbles of rain that became of Hurricane Isaac as it passed over Florida, the weather was particularly humid that last week in August as the RNC took over downtown Tampa. The air, so dense after storms as to be palpable, worked in tandem with the sun, causing temperatures in the 90s. This led many to believe that Tampa had been selected in part for its dreadful, hurricane-season weather, perhaps as an effort to deter protests. Many neighborhoods were left oddly quiet as many residents fled town, expecting disastrous protests and tourist-thronged streets. Instead they were all closed off in an area known as the “perimeter.”

The perimeter formed a closed circle that expanded roughly three blocks in every direction from the epicenter of the RNC, the Tampa Bay Time Forum and the Tampa Convention Center. The Secret Service lined the perimeter with miles of concrete, steel, eight-feet-high anti-scale fences, and thousands of police officers from all over Florida. “When I first approached the perimeter, the first time, I thought I was in a war zone. So many police, National Guard, Secret Service, all in full combat gear. It was sort of eerie. This is the United States of America, and here we are in a lockdown,” said Rhode Island delegate John Robitaille. Both Tampa and Charlotte were given $50 million federal grants for convention security, with Tampa using the majority of its money to pay 3,500 police officers overtime. No one could get near the perimeter without the proper credentials and a clean pass through many security checkpoints, meaning Tampa residents had to run the gauntlet to participate in any RNC activities or events. Once inside the perimeter, it was incredibly difficult to exit and reenter. Ultimately, very few delegates actually ventured into Tampa proper.

While millions were spent on the RNC, the money tended to go to national contracting companies rather than local businesses. “I went from 30,000 people walking by my store every day and having plenty of customers to basically having zero – except for law enforcement, curiosity seekers and a few actual conventioneers,” Robert Szasz, the manager of Tropical Smoothie Cafe, told The Associated Press. Many businesses in the downtown area, Tampa’s economic hub, chose to shut down for the week, expecting the tight security and closed roads to be too great a nuisance. “The biggest thing that no one talks about is the impact on law firms and banks and everything downtown like ours. We’re losing a week. It’s going to be a big cost to people in and around downtown,” said Tampa native Tom Gonzalez.

Many delegates, like those from Rhode Island, were staying close to 30 miles away from downtown Tampa and were bused in on nearly 400 charter buses. The buses would drop them off at the perimeter and then swiftly pick them up once the speeches were finished for the night. The Rhode Island delegates ended up on the infamous lost bus; the driver took a wrong turn, and they ended up circling the perimeter for three hours. But others, like the Massachusetts delegates, stayed with Romney inside the perimeter, enjoying nightly concerts and parties. “I had a blast. There are times when you get to middle-age and where you think you will never have the time of your life and be out to 2am dancing. We got two hours of sleep last night! … Too much fun. We didn’t want it to end,” said Massachusetts alternate delegate Patricia Saint Aubin following the close of the convention.

With most of the keynote speeches not ending until far into the evening, the late night was when the delegates came alive, allowing one area of Tampa’s industries to thrive. Businesses from strip clubs to caterers saw an economic gain from the convention. Parties ranged from open-list to invite only—like the Back to Reagan 80s party hosted by Americans for Tax Reform—to thousand-dollar-per-plate fundraising meals, many of which were put on by companies hoping to get some assistance from delegates in legislation. The hotspots for Tampa’s elite, places like the Tampa Yacht Club and Merrymakers Club, charged five figures to be rented out for the night. Many places downtown were rented out until 4 am, leaving those Tampa residents hoping to continue working for the week to go to work in the early hours of morning while the delegate were still sleeping off the night before.

Cashing Out

The debt clock proudly displayed in the Tampa Bay Times Forum struck $8,539,526,393.07 at the end of the convention—the total national debt had increased by millions in the time of the convention alone. While the presidential nominees argue over ways to eliminate the debt, their campaigns—the most expensive in history—continue onwards. Tampa was enticed by the prospect of benefiting from this excessive political spending, but ultimately residents and business owners were left disappointed. By the end of the week, Tampa—which hosts an annual parade in which invading pirates are handed the keys to the city—was ready to reclaim its city. The pirates might make better guests than the Republican National Convention did.

Mary-Evelyn Farrior B’14 surrounds herself with eight-feet-tall, anti-scale fences