Tampa loses GOP convention to Minn.
Was it hurricane fears or politics that led GOP leaders to choose Minneapolis-St. Paul?
By TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Published September 28, 2006
TAMPA - The specter of a hurricane raging across Tampa while Republicans took shelter or fled was apparently a little more than the GOP was willing to risk.
GOP leaders said Wednesday that they would hold the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, far from any cone of uncertainty.
Al Austin, who chaired the team working to lure the Republicans to Tampa-St. Petersburg, said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told him weather was the deciding factor in passing on Tampa.
Austin said the explanation surprised him, and said he suspected politics was a more likely reason.
"We addressed the hurricane issue head on, from day one," Austin said at a press conference. "In my mind, it was political."
He declined to elaborate. "Ask Mr. Mehlman if it wasn't hurricanes, was it something else," he said.
When the site selection team visited the Tampa Bay area in August, a meteorologist told them the possibility of a hurricane striking the week of the event, scheduled for Sept. 1-4, 2008, was only about 2 percent.
And Tampa's bid package promised extra planning to protect conventioneers if a storm did hit.
It's the second time Tampa has tried and failed to win a GOP convention.
Tampa lost the 2004 convention to New York, and local Republican leaders consoled themselves at the time with the thought that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, choosing that city made a strong patriotic statement.
Now, though, Tampa has lost to a Midwestern city with a history of voting Democratic, in a state known for a giant mall and electing a former professional wrestler as its governor. Minneapolis-St. Paul was chosen over Tampa and two other competing cities: New York and Cleveland.
"It was a really, really, really hard choice," said Sara Gear Boyd, a Republican National Committee member from Vermont and a member of the site selection team.
"On each of several points, Tampa didn't score quite as high as Minneapolis. You have a great facility; Minneapolis seemed to have a better facility. Media space was further away; in Minneapolis it was attached," she said.
Tampa had proposed using the St. Pete Times Forum as the main convention area, and housing the media in the Tampa Convention Center a block or so away.
Jo Ann Davidson, a co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said the committee chose Minneapolis in a voice vote that was not unanimous, but she declined to give details.
In the days after the GOP site selection team visited Tampa in August, party representatives called the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau frequently for more information on hotel rooms and transportation.
But then it got quiet. Too quiet, said Paul Catoe, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We were concerned the phone wasn't ringing," Catoe said. "Their comeback to us was, 'You guys set the standard. Everything you did was so well done and you provided such detailed information. The other cities did not give us that amount of information.' "
Austin said he went to Washington, D.C., to see Mehlman personally a few weeks ago, and was told Tampa's bid was fine.
And Charlie Crist, the Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate, called Mehlman on Wednesday morning in hopes of boosting Tampa Bay's chances.
But those last-minute efforts weren't enough.
Initially, GOP leaders said they wouldn't pick a city until after the general election in November. Then came Wednesday's unexpected news.
That led some to speculate the GOP decided early to foil the Democrats, who were also considering Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The Democrats are now left to choose between New York and Denver. And the Denver Post reported last month that the lack of a union hotel is likely to chase the Democrats away from that city.
"In my opinion, it would be extremely out of character" for the Democrats to choose a city without a union hotel, Debbie Willhite, executive director of Denver's bid, told the Post.
"I have no idea why the RNC did what they did," Catoe said. "Having said that, if it were me making that decision and I knew the Democrats were looking at the city and I wanted to make a pre-emptive strike, that would look like a plum to me."
Davidson said it was not politics, but "strictly a business decision."
The committee had all the information it needed, she said. And, faced with a busy election season, the members decided not to wait.
Details of Minneapolis' bid were not made public, but Greg Ortale, president of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune the tab would be $53-million, with $15-million coming from the federal government.
Tampa put the cost at $64-million, with an estimated economic benefit of at least $180-million.
Mark Drake, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Minnesota, said the selection illustrates the political shift in the state. Long considered a Democratic stronghold, Republicans started gaining ground in recent years. The state hasn't thrown its votes to a Republican president since Richard Nixon in 1972. But John Kerry barely eked out a win in 2004, beating President Bush 51 percent to 48 percent.
And Minnesota recently elected a Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, and a Republican U.S. Senator, Norm Coleman.
News of the failed convention bid took some area leaders by surprise.
"In my opinion, and I think for most of the host committee, Minneapolis wasn't even on the radar," Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who served as local chairman of President Bush's campaign, said: "I'm obviously disappointed, but I thought it was a great effort."
Public officials said Tampa had everything in place for a successful GOP convention: ample hotels and restaurants, top-tier meeting facilities, deep financial backing and strong electoral support.
The area's hurricane potential, they said, wasn't a good enough reason to go elsewhere.
"We will not accept the fact there is a hurricane problem," Catoe said.
Tampa City Council member Mary Alvarez said it was a poor excuse for not picking her hometown.
"We certainly would have made an effort to try and prevent hurricanes from coming," she said.
Elected officials disagreed on whether the choice was politically sound.
"Minnesota is not anywhere near as critical a state as Florida is," Hagan said. "If you don't win Florida, you're not going to win the presidency. You can lose Minnesota, and I think the Republicans have in the last several election seasons."
That's exactly why the choice makes sense, said Tampa City Council member Rose Ferlita, a Republican. "I think the GOP has tried to make that swing vote state Republican," she said. "Politically, it's a good arena to be in."
So should Tampa go after another convention?
Absolutely, leaders said.
"We have all the assets necessary to host large-scale events, and when we host special events we shine," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said in a statement issued Wednesday. John Dingfelder, another City Council member, suggested maybe the city should pursue national events held during the winter. That strategy has worked before.
"You know," he said, "we've still got the Super Bowl."
Times researcher Cathy Wos and John Martin, and staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.