City has conventional aspirations

Baltimore will bid to serve as host for Democratic convention in July 2004

March 01, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Seeking to recapture its place in a national tradition, Baltimore will bid for the Democratic Party's presidential convention in 2004.

The competition, however, is formidable - 10 cities have been invited to bid - and city and state officials appear to be patiently positioning Baltimore for a convention in a more distant presidential year.

It has been a long wait: Baltimore was host to the first major party nominating convention, in 1831, but hasn't served as host for one since Woodrow Wilson earned the Democratic nomination in 1912.

"As Wayne Gretzky said, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take," Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday. "We'll take our shot at it. We're going to pursue it. It's a long shot. The logistics are difficult."

The other cities invited by the Democratic National Committee to submit bids for the convention, scheduled for July 17 to 23, 2004, are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Miami, New York and Pittsburgh.

Chicago, which was host of the 1996 Democratic convention, has turned down the invite. The DNC is expected to make its choice by the fall.

Realistically, O'Malley said, the city doesn't have enough quality hotel rooms, or a large enough convention center, to serve as host for an event the size of a national political convention. If Baltimore were selected, O'Malley said the city's plans could include erecting a canopy over Oriole Park at Camden Yards to create meeting space.

DNC Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe made clear in his letter to the 10 cities that the bidders must be prepared for a big party: "The host city must be one that can handle more than 50,000 visitors, with a suitable convention facility and adequate hotel space."

"For us to do that, we'd have to get a little creative," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "We don't have quite the facilities to say, `Come on in.'"

Finding the necessary 17,000 hotel rooms would entail spreading delegates and guests across five or six counties, he said.

Downtown Baltimore offers about 6,500 hotel rooms and the state has about 24,250, he said.

The convention calls for a headquarters hotel - something Baltimore does not have - along with other large hotels, he said.

Another obstacle is that Baltimore didn't pursue the 2000 convention, as Boston did, which lays the political groundwork for a successful future bid. Now, city and state officials are making a push they hope will pay off in a future election year.

"I've talked to a lot of congressmen and senators about this over the years, and I think it's getting close," said Secretary of State John T. Willis, a member of the Democratic National Committee and author of a book about presidential elections in Maryland. "I think we can, as the birthplace of the [national] convention, make a good case for having one return here."

Baltimore was host of the first presidential nominating convention in 1831, with the selection of William Wirth by the Anti-Mason Party, Willis said. (He ended up carrying the state of Vermont). Henry Clay won the National Republican nomination later that year in Baltimore, and Andrew Jackson was chosen by the Democrats in Baltimore in 1832.

The city was host of the next five Democratic conventions, then two more, including Wilson's nominating convention in 1912. The city last was host of a Republican convention in the midst of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln was nominated for re-election.

"The reason that we were the birthplace [of the convention] is basically because ... we were ... literally a geographic midpoint in the country in the 1830s," Willis said. "You could get here ... by water, by land, by rail, and we were close to the capital, so the political people could get here easily."

Then Baltimore fell off the national convention map: "One of the reasons we fell off is that parties started to go where there were bigger blocs of votes and where media centers were," Willis said.

Sun staff writers June Arney and David Nitkin, Sun researcher Elizabeth Lukes and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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