After losing Wisconsin to Donald Trump in 2016, Democrats vowed not to take the state for granted — taking steps like picking Milwaukee to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
For months, Milwaukee was preparing for an influx of 50,000 people. Organizers were preparing to wine and dine visitors with local favorites such as cheese curds and cream puffs. But now, with the convention mostly taking place online because of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no delegates networking, beer in hand, on a Milwaukee River cruise or partying on the waterfront.
So, what does it mean to be a delegate to a virtual convention? First of all, if you’re from Milwaukee, it generally means plenty of disappointment, says Deiadra Queary, a first-time Joe Biden delegate.
She grew up watching DNCs at home and couldn’t wait to participate in what she calls “a grown-up pep rally” in her hometown.
“I just think, you know, it’s just like being a kid on Christmas. It’s like somebody canceling Christmas,” she says. “You know, you’ve been good all year, you wrote your letter, and then somebody cancels Christmas. That’s a lot to deal with, you know.”
Standing outside the Wisconsin Center in the city’s downtown, where Democrats had planned to hold the scaled-down convention until earlier in the month, Queary says the party’s decision was the right thing to do. Instead of being there in person, she’s working hard to encourage people to vote for Biden.
“My focus is young people and, in particular, young Black males,” she says. “So I will talk to young men I see in the store. I talk to them in the restaurants because I want to know what’s on their minds, and I want to know what their hiccups are.”
In addition to rallying the party around its nominee, convention delegates usually do a lot of schmoozing. For Wisconsin state Rep. LaKeshia Myers, her time as a delegate to the 2016 DNC in Philadelphia meant getting a chance to meet Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, have her picture taken with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and mingle at National Black Caucus meetings.
This year, Myers will be casting her delegate vote for Biden from her computer, which means missing out on longtime convention traditions.
“Button trading is very, very popular,” she says. “When you go to Democratic conventions, there are people who have buttons from the ’68 convention, the ’72 convention. I actually was able to trade for an original ERA button.”
Not everyone is as disappointed by the change in the convention’s format. Biden delegate Vik Verma is the vice chair of the Lincoln County Democrats, in a swing county in northern Wisconsin. He says the switch to virtual events has allowed him to pay close attention to Biden’s campaign around Wisconsin.
“By watching these events and seeing the vice president with no applause, there’s just a focus on what he’s talking about. I can only speak for myself — I have very much enjoyed watching it in that way,” he says.
While they won’t be showing up in person, many delegates are putting their energy into political activism this summer. State Rep. Myers, whose district is in Milwaukee County, is holding virtual focus groups for women of color, to make sure their voices are heard, and is also registering voters.
About 3 1/2 hours northwest of Milwaukee, in Eau Claire, Bobbi Green is stapling together “Biden for Wisconsin” yard signs in her pickup truck and taking them to houses in a congressional district that swung from Barack Obama to Trump in 2016.
As she delivers a sign, a neighbor asks where she got it. Green eagerly asks if he wants one too and grabs one for him when he says yes. In one way, Green says, she’s dreading the convention.
“I’ve got a little bit of Zoom fatigue to be honest with you,” she explains, referring to videoconferencing apps. “Just because that’s how all of our meetings for everything have been lately.”
But at the same time, she’s optimistic her efforts may pay off with a victory for Democrats this fall. “I think that [Biden’s] going to use this convention as kind of a way to assure us that we can straighten this ship out.”