The strategic siting of the GOP convention

ONE DAY LATE in 1981, the President of the United States huddled with advisers, weighed a few options, pondered a “straightforward” letter from Texas Gov. Bill Clements, then decided, “Okay, let’s have it in Dallas.” Ronald Wilson Reagan then sent a message to Richard Richards, then chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), saying that he favored Dallas if the city could handle it. “With that,” adds Bill Greener, the RNCs director of communications, “it was a done deed.” And that sums up the official version of how Dallas was awarded the 1984 Republican National Conventiom.

“It was sort of like ’Uncle Sam wants you,’” agrees Beverly Gandy, director of public affairs for the city of Dallas. “And it was done much earlier than these things normally happen.”

Charles Bass, director of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce’s Visitors and Convention Bureau, remembers the exact moment he learned that the city might host the convention. It was January 12,1982, and he was at home watching the evening news on TV when the newscaster reported a letter from Reagan to Gov. Bill Clements agreeing that Dallas might be a “logical” spot to have the ’84 convention.

“My first thought, as I slid to the floor,” Bass recalls, “was, Oh my God, what about the 1984 summer schedule?” Dallas books many conventions four years or more in advance. Accommodating the president, Bass knew, would mean begging some very big customers to please change their dates.

Jack Evans, then mayor, got the $40 million good news a bit more directly: straight from the president. Evans was in Washington, D.C., serving on a panel at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, when someone asked him to break away for a hurry-up meeting called by the Republican National Committee. When Evans arrived, he found representatives from St. Louis and Kansas City waiting to make their pitches for the 1984 GOP Convention. And Evans quickly discovered that he was expected to make Dallas’ bid, too.

“This caught me totally by surprise because we had not yet prepared any presentation,” the former mayor says. The traditional deadlines for going after the two parties’ nominating conventions were still months away. He, his staff and other Dallas officials had held some informal meetings and had made low-level inquiries to both parties. But one of his intended missions at the Conference of Mayors, Evans says, was “to get a feel for how many cities were going to make bids for the conventions.” While in Washington, before the RNC called, Evans also had managed to meet briefly with some Democrats, including Robert Strauss. They told him that “Dallas was not in their plans. They didn’t think we could accommodate the size of their convention. And that left the gate wide open [for the Republicans].”

So Evans winged it. “I told them that we would like to have it, but that I would have to check with our City Council. Also, I told them that since Dallas is a non-partisan city as far as local politics is concerned, we couldn’t spend any taxpayer money. It would have to be done with funds from the private sector. But I said that we would make every effort to accommodate them. Immediately after that, they told me that the president wanted it in Dallas.”

Evans was then summoned to the White House to meet with Reagan. “Very cordially, he told me, ’We’d like to have it in Dallas, but you’re really going to have to want us, because there are other cities that want this convention.’ ” At the first opportunity, the mayor grabbed a White House telephone and called Trammell Crow in Dallas. “I said, ’Trammell, will you take on the chairmanship of raising money from the private sector? I don’t know how much it’s going to cost.’ And he said, ’Don’t let it get away. We’ll get it.’ That’s how it happened.”

Why Dallas got the convention is more complicated. And the reasons have nothing to do with Southfork, America’s Team or Big D’s ranking as the nation’s third busiest convention city. Instead, the reasons-and reasonable conjectures-go straight to the heart of such matters as how presidential campaigns need “backdrop” cities to reflect their message to voters and how cities on the rise or on the mend need the “priceless” publicity a nominating convention can bring.

“The economics of the convention are irrelevant,” contends Dallas Republican Host Committee Chairman Fred Meyer. “It’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars.. .in exposure.” Wildly optimistic estimates range in the billions.

Anyway, as Woody Allen might have said, Dallas needs the eggs. You can’t be an official Big-Time City in the eyes of other Big-Time Cities, the media corps and certain convention customers until you have hosted at least one presidential convention. You can build marvelous arts districts and stage mammoth swarmings of home builders. But that isn’t enough to put you in the club.

Dallas also needs the convention for a more obvious reason. Reflecting back upon the days of Adlai Stevenson, LBJ and JFK, the city has not acquired a favorable image in presidential politics.

In 1979, candidate Reagan openly favored Dallas as the ’80 GOP convention site over Detroit, which was chosen by the RNC only after a bitter fight. Reagan’s preference had nothing to do with the local skyline or America’s Team. “My reason for favoring Dallas,” he told reporters then, “was that for the first time in the history of our country, the majority of our voters are in the Sun Belt and the three states on the West Coast “

Jack Evans says the president told him two reasons why he wanted Dallas in ’84. “He felt that Texas was a swing state and that we were the type of city-the type of government-that his administration appealed to because we were not seeking federal funds.”

Texas will be a key state in November Indeed, Texas Republican Chairman George Strake Jr. has predicted that Reagan “can’t be re-elected without carrying Texas.” In addition, the City of Dallas’ fiscal manage-ment and its distaste for federal aid stand in many voters’ minds as tough but enviable acts for other cities to emulate.

But Reagan’s fiat for Dallas had to have a few more strings. At its smoothest, presidential politics surges forward just ahead of a very long, very wide trail of deals, favors spoils, debts, egos and compromises. The party in power still owed Texas a few favors from 1980. The convention was an obvious -and appreciated-payback.

Fred Meyer, the county’s senior Republican official, remembers the summer of 1981 as the time when local GOP leaders began talking about going after the ’84 convention’ “Some people were not too excited about it and some were.” Among those who “pushed hardest” for the convention, says Meyer was former City Councilman and now state Sen. John Leedom.

Meyer also consulted with state Rep. Fred Agnich, who had spearheaded Dallas’ convention efforts in 1979. Agnich gave Meyer his files and shared his insights on matters Including “the politics of the site-selection committee.” Late in September, after discussions with other political leaders and one of Gov. Clements’ aides, Meyer met with Evans and Jon White [then chairman of the board of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce]. The three agreed that Dallas should go for it.

Meyer then called Gov. Clements, who wrote to the president.

Clements’ no-nonsense letter to Reagan written in mid-November 1981, which stated that he would be “proud and honored” to have the convention In Dallas, undoubtedly was a key to why Dallas is now hosting the event. Reagan may have admired Clements’ gall. Between the lines, the governor was clearly reminding Reagan: “You owe us. Pay up, please.”

Some political observers also credit veteran Texas Republican Ernest Angelo Jr, with handling the all-important liaison for the convention deal, making sure it proceeded without hitches from Dallas to the Governor’s Mansion to the White House.

PERHAPS DALLAS could-and should -have hosted the 1980 GOP Convention. But when are politics (especially presidential politics) fair? For Dallas, the big problem in 1980- aside from the fact that Michigan was senior Republican Gerald Ford’s home state-was that Dallas didn’t project the right politico-economic image for the times. How could you attack Jimmy Carter’s economic record as “dismal” against the panorama of a city still rising on the momentum of a strong, diversified economy?

No, you needed unemployed auto workers, striking teachers, laid-off policemen, a city budget millions of dollars in the red and a county government with a recent history of skipping paychecks. A little fear and loathing in Motor City.

Also, the Dallas Convention Center wasn’t available until August-too close, the RNC decided, on the heels of the ’80 Moscow Olympic Games (funny how the Los Angeles Games failed to stop them this time).

GOP Chairman Bill Brock further argued that Dallas was too far away from what he perceived as the Republican Party’s new Power base: the Midwest. Detroit also presented a stronger magnet, he said, for draw-ing minorities, blue-collar workers and ethnic Americans into the GOP fold.

It helped that Michigan had given the OOP its biggest plurality when Gerald Ford and Robert Dole lost to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1976. And it didn’t hurt that Detroit had some financially (and therefore politically) powerful friends in the OOP, among them Henry Ford II. Or that a consortium led by Henry Ford II recently had built a $350 million hotel and office complex in the Motor City and that a 20,000-seat sports and convention arena was near-ing completion. Or that Rockefeller Center Inc. was helping to build two Detroit office towers worth $70 million.

A few delegates would have to be consigned to hotels in Canada, but so what? Given the size of its economic woes, Detroit desperately needed the money and publicity, which would show the world the capital of chrome was still alive and fighting back.

Finally, Californian Ronald Reagan was leading the polls in 1979, and two Texas candidates-John Connally and George Bush-were making strong early showings. To many Northern and Eastern Republicans hacking Dole, Howard Baker, Philip Crane and others, Dallas in ’80 was triple trouble.

So it mattered hardly a whit in late January 1979 as the RNC prepared to make its site choice, that Dallas GOP leaders were optimistic.” Or that some sources were declaring “Dallas has it.” Or that right down to the wire, Dallas Mayor Robert Folsom kept getting calls from the Republicans, seeking clarifications about Big D’s facilities -including the 10,000 incentive telephones he had lined up from Southwestern Bell. Ody Fish of Wisconsin, head of the GOP’s site-selection team, broke the bad news. Detroit’s convention center had more seats and space than Dallas’ and was available for more days (not surprising, since it wasn’t open yet). Therefore, Detroit was “technically better than Dallas,” Fish said.

Angry supporters of Dallas’ bid charged that “political considerations” had influenced the decision. U.S. Rep. Jim Collins, who already had called Detroit “a town going downhill” labeled the choice “stupid.” Less kind critics simply reviled Henry Ford’s city as “dead

Which was exactly the point. For Campaign ’80, Motor City was tailor-made for backdrop duties. It was running on bald economic tires and on shock absorbers gone bad from too many jolts. A proud industrial capital and symbol of American capitalism writhing in pain was just the right setting for Republicans to point accusing fingers toward and say: “See? Grits and Fritz got you this!”

The strategy worked, of course, and Reagan made the best of it. Now, if you were a presidential adviser looking for the next image city, a re-election symbol that seemed to shout: “See? Reaganomics works! Republican philosophy works!” would you pick (a) St. Louis? (b) Kansas City? or (c) that Ozlike wonder town full of reflective glass towers, sleek architecture and soaring building cranes-that TV town with the booming economy, blaring-trumpets theme song, bouncy, leggy cheerleaders and low unemployment-not to mention lots of cash and a long history of Republican votes?

“Dallas County had given Ronald Reagan the greatest plurality of any county in the United States,” RNC’s Greener says. Adds Meyer: “There were 512,000 votes cast here in 1980, and [Reagan] carried this county by 117,000. That’s a nice stick

The stick was no fluke, either. In the last 32 years, Dallas County has voted Republican in seven of eight presidential elections: Eisenhower over Stevenson; Nixon over Kennedy; Nixon over Humphrey and Wallace; Nixon over McGovern; Ford over Carter; and Reagan over Carter. Dallas County’s vote for Texas Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson was reasonably strong in 1964, but 45 percent of the area’s voters still liked Goldwater and Miller-despite rumors that they might nuke somebody.

In choosing Dallas, the national GOP briefly tried to play down the notion that city image once again had been a key factor. The New York Times, for instance, reported on April 15, 1982, that Reagan had chosen Dallas simply because he “liked” the city and because Texas Republicans had lobbied hard. “No strategic considerations of how to sell the party to the nation or a region, like those that drew the Republicans to Detroit in 1980 or the Democrats [to New York] in 1976, played an important role in this choice, according to officials.” This was political hogwash, of course, and Texas Republicans effectively said so in the same article. Chet Upham, then state GOP chairman, promised that Dallas would literally “radiate” the messages of Republicanism in ’84.

Other regional factors worked in Dallas’ favor. Sending us the convention seemed, at least in 1981, like a fine status gift, one that would help boost the re-elections of two major Republican powers, Sen. John Tower and Gov. Bill Clements. (Luckily for Dallas, Texas Democrats didn’t bounce Clements from Austin until 1982, after the convention contracts were signed. And Tower waited until 1983 to announce that he would not seek re-election

Certainly, the renomination bash was another way to repay Texas Republicans for their record-setting campaign dinners and other favors. For instance, Dallas’ Clements, the state’s first Republican governor since the carpetbaggers, had stumped Texas unusually hard on the victor’s behalf in 1980. Says Meyer: “He spent weeks and weeks and weeks going around this state working for Ronald Reagan’s election. I’m sure that was a factor [in Dallas’ selection].”

Bestowing the convention upon Dallas also appeared to be one more way to strengthen the GOP’s precarious toehold in the traditionally Democratic South. Three Southern Republican governors-in Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas-had held sway during the 1980 election and had helped Reagan attain the White House. But by 1981, that base was starting to crumble.

And finally, providing a three-year advance notice for the convention gave the strapped-for-cash Texas Republicans time to put the arm on wealthy contributors.

Whether it was good timing or presidential decree, Dallas basically had it in the bag-and key leaders knew it. But city and chamber officials still went after the ’84 GOP convention “as if every other city in the country wanted it,” Bass says. A bid book was put together, the GOP’s 10-mem-ber site selection team toured Dallas aboard a plush 22-passenger “Star of Texas” bus and split up to spend the night in an assortment of hotels. On June 18, 1982, Mayor Evans, Bass and a few others flew to Washington, showed a short movie-one that promised that “Dallas delivers’-and made the city’s formal pitch. The RNC accepted it unanimously.

Since then, Bass has heard only “a lot of conjecture” as to why Reagan chose Dallas. Bass did ask Clements once, and he quotes the former governor as replying: “Because he’s a damned smart man, that’s why.”

A White House spokesman passed the “why?” question to a spokesman at Reagan’s campaign headquarters, who passed it to the Republican National Committee, who recommended calling the White House.

For the RNC, however, meeting the president’s wishes did involve hammering out a few essential details. “They [the RNC] had to see if we could accommodate the convention,” says Assistant City Manager Levi Davis, who helped coordinate city services for the GOP event. “The keys were the availability of hotel space, parking space and space for the convention itself.” In addition, there had to be assurances that the chairs in the Convention Center would be properly color-coordinated and that there would be enough air conditioning to keep the Yankees and Alaskans alive in the Texas heat.

Reagan’s early decision to go with Dallas, Davis adds, greatly lengthened the city’s time span for planning and preparations. “It made it a whole lot easier for a whole lot of people, and it saved on dollars, too.” And if The City That Works succeeds in putting on a convention that works, “Dallas will be the model for years as far as the financing and planning are concerned,” Davis predicts.

But the real reason Reagan chose Dallas, Meyer theorizes, has little to do with politics and much more to do with home states, Costa Rican shotputters and how long the world’s media mob now needs to set up its lights, cameras, satellites and other gizmos. “We’d have been in California, in Los Angeles, if the Olympics hadn’t been there,” Meyer contends.

If Dallas’ version of the Grand Old Party goes according to hopes, look for strong efforts by city and chamber officials to land the Democrats, the Republicans or both in 1988. Dallas, however, will face tough challenges from Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kansas City, St. Louis and New York, among others. And Dallas already has “some heavy bookings in 1988’-including the 60,000-member National Home Builders Association, that would be difficult to move, Bass says.

Anyway, if Bush is the GOP’s front-runner in 1988, and if Lloyd Bentsen’s presidential or vice presidential star rises for the Democrats, Dallas’ chances for either convention may come up a little lame in the gift-horse department. Like Bush, Bentsen is a Houston boy. And Houston (at least its image) could use the eggs.

But in the Can-Do City, anything is possible. Angelo, the state’s Republican National Committee man and chairman of the ’84 Convention’s arrangements committee, had already promised: “The convention in 1984 in Dallas, Texas, is going to be the greatest convention that the Republican Party or the United States of America has ever seen.”

If that happens, the Democrats may forgive us for past defeats and come running, the Republicans may simply refuse to leave, then part of downtown will have to be converted into a permanent amusement park. Call it “Two Conventions Over Dallas.”


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