Atlanta Democrats shocked by loss of convention they were sure they won

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens couldn’t have sounded more confident about his city’s prospects for landing the Democratic National Convention than he did on the 26th floor of a swanky Buckhead high-rise a few weeks ago: “We’re going to get the DNC.”

It wasn’t a one-off statement. Over Atlanta’s monthslong quest for the Democratic Party’s showcase event, Dickens and his allies exuded a sense of near certainty that the city would land the big event.

Those hopes were dashed Tuesday as news emerged that President Joe Biden selected Chicago to host the 2024 convention, devastating local Democrats once so sure of their city’s bid. Over the Easter weekend, local officials seemed on the brink of signing paperwork finalizing the plans; on Tuesday they were left explaining why Atlanta was passed over.

They were told that national party figures were impressed by the United Center and the ample stock of nearby hotel suites, the city’s pro-union stance and its setting as the heart of the “blue wall” in the Upper Midwest that Democrats hope to fortify in 2024.

Perhaps most of all, key local officials say, national party leaders were wowed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s promise to the DNC to help bankroll an event that could cost more than $80 million.

“Atlanta had the culture they wanted in terms of this feel that the South would come to Atlanta,” Dickens said. “The thing that also Illinois had was a lot of cash coming from the governor, who had already expressly said, ‘I will write this check.’ The DNC would not have any expenses coming back on their balance sheet.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman for John R. Lewis

Credit: Jenni Girtman for John R. Lewis

By forgoing Atlanta for blue-state Illinois, national Democrats are also jettisoning a chance to gain a bigger foothold in a pivotal battleground state that both parties see as key to winning in 2024.

“Georgia is still very much in the center of politics and presidential politics in particular,” said Bobby Kahn, the former head of the state Democratic Party. “So good for Chicago, but I think the activity and action in the general election of 2024 is going to be right here.”

‘Everything on the field’

Indeed, local Democrats took solace that at least Georgia wouldn’t be supplanted by Illinois as a battleground state. Officials seemed obligated to note how Georgia voters helped Biden to victory in 2020 and ensured Democrats captured a majority in the U.S. Senate in 2021 and 2022.

“Georgia and the South are the epicenter for the present and future growth of the Democratic Party,” City Councilman Amir Farokhi said. “We would have hosted a fantastic convention. Chicago is a great city, but the South still has something to say.”

Still, there was no denying the depth of the rejection for local Democrats, who also worry that Biden’s proposal to move Georgia earlier in the 2024 primary schedule is doomed, depriving the state of another prize in the next campaign cycle.

Atlanta’s boosters used all the influence they could muster to pitch Atlanta to Biden and his inner circle — including at the White House celebration last year for the Atlanta Braves’ World Series title.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

They forged a formidable regional bloc, recruiting former Alabama U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and others close to Biden to promote the DNC as a way for Democrats to establish an important beachhead in the South — and a sign that he hasn’t neglected the party’s Black supporters.

In all, more than 60 Democratic leaders from across the South urged Biden to pick Atlanta to “send a message to the base of our party that we will never take you for granted.” Civil rights leaders added their voice, too, heralding Atlanta’s historic legacy.

Local Democrats promised an epic four-day party for the thousands of delegates, operatives, officials and journalists poised to crowd Atlanta. About 15,000 hotel rooms were lined up, and State Farm Arena was readied for a massive face-lift after next year’s NBA season concluded.

The Atlanta City Council, at the urging of party leaders, even passed a resolution in late March allowing Dickens to sign contracts with vendors in advance of the event.

‘Lakefront breeze’

All the while, Chicago boosters stepped up their opposition. Union leaders said a GOP-led state that has often warred with the labor movement shouldn’t host the DNC — and they eagerly pointed out their city had roughly 50 unionized hotels compared with just a handful in Atlanta.

Likewise, opponents also criticized Georgia’s anti-abortion law and permissive gun policies, questioning why a state led by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp should be rewarded with the Democratic Party’s premier event.

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Chicago also emphasized its logistical benefits. The city has an extensive public transportation network and excess hotel space. And importantly, it is a hotbed for Democratic megadonors — including Pritzker, the billionaire who led Chicago’s bid.

Taking a page from Atlanta’s playbook, Chicago boosters lined up regional endorsements of their own. And when Biden traveled to Wisconsin this year, a labor union financed a newspaper ad that urged the president to “defend the blue wall” by selecting Chicago.

“P.S. How about 81 degrees and a cool lakefront breeze?” it stated.

Atlanta organizers saw the backlash as a sign their city was, indeed, a front-runner. Amid encouraging signals, boosters prepared as recently as Monday evening to host a celebratory event for the DNC later this week.

That changed dramatically Tuesday, when texts began to fly about Chicago’s impending victory. Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison called Dickens around 10 a.m. with news that he “hated” to deliver.

Dickens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was proud of the city’s effort and that he was hopeful party leaders will give Georgia Democrats a prized role in the convention next year.

“The DNC and every other entity knows that Atlanta and Georgia are in play. We’re somewhere between blue and red — we’re purple — so the goal is to figure out our strategy to solidify our blue status.”

Still, the mayor’s disappointment was etched in his voice.

“From the start, we said that we are a group project and we will raise this money,” Dickens said of the regional push. “And the governor of Illinois said I’m just going to make this go away. Make any conversations about money go away. I got it. And so that makes it a little easier decision.”

Staff writers Tia Mitchell and Wilborn Nobles contributed to this article.

More coverage: Atlanta’s bid for the 2024 DNC

Atlanta’s bid to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention fell short, with party officials announcing that Chicago would host the convention. Here’s more about Atlanta’s unsucessful bid:

Atlanta loses bid for Democratic National Convention to Chicago

Podcast: Why Atlanta lost the race for the DNC

The difference? Labor unions sided with Chicago

Economic impact: Experts say loss is not a huge blow

Local reaction: Officials say they’re “disappointed” in Biden’s decision

Republican reaction: Why Georgia’s GOP held its fire

Things to know: Democrats pick Chicago for 2024