For cities, conventions are risky business

With protests looming in Philadelphia and L.A., officials hope their bid to play host will pay off.

In theory, it's supposed to work like this: Thousands of political delegates descend on your city for a week of red-white-and-blue celebrations as they crown their party's candidate for the US presidential election. They spend millions of dollars beefing up the local economy. And thanks to the thousands of journalists who fly in to cover the convention, the city gets lots of free - and, as the theory goes, positive - media coverage.

In practice, however, hosting a political convention can be risky business - especially this year. As Philadelphia and Los Angeles count down the days to the Republican and Democratic gatherings, with protesters planning massive demonstrations at each event, city officials may be getting more than they bargained for.

"Bad publicity can last years," warns Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. The risk of holding a convention where things go wrong, he says, "is much greater than the upside gain. Good publicity only lasts about a week and a half."

The Democratic convention held in Chicago in 1968 - where riots broke out - still sets the standard for how wildly out of control such events can become. Then-Mayor Richard Daley suffered a black mark on his career from which he never quite recovered. And Chicagoans struggled for years with the stigma of the convention's chaos and violence. It wasn't until 1996, when Chicago again hosted the Democrats, that the city was able to project an updated image of efficiency and friendliness.

"Basically, anytime you're on television, there's risk involved," says Irving Rein, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "There's reward and risk. It's as simple as that. Media coverage, even though there's less coverage of the conventions than there used to be, is a window into the city. There've been plenty of cases where cities have either distinguished themselves or revealed themselves as having serious problems."

Both Philadelphia and Los Angeles have pinned high civic hopes on this year's conventions as a way to spin their urban images and to attract new investment. Philadelphia wants to show off its recent downtown revival and new self-confidence. Los Angeles also hopes to project an image of a bustling downtown and a well-run city, in part to counter the wave of negative publicity in the 1990s, from the Rodney King riots to the Northridge earthquake.

But political observers say that as conventions have become increasingly tame, reporters inevitably look for drama elsewhere. "Reporters look to cities hosting the convention for more compelling, [meaning] negative stories," says Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "Cities really have to have crisis-management strategies already in place before a convention hits town."

Recent events have highlighted some of the challenges this year's convention hosts may face. Philadelphia got a taste of negative pre-convention publicity in the wake of a videotaped beating of a suspect by police officers who have been accused of using excessive force.

And in Los Angeles, where the police department has been rocked by scandal and accused of mishandling the post-Laker championship street violence, there have been weeks of pre-convention coverage focusing on the jousting between city officials and protest organizers. Some 10,000 to 50,000 protesters are expected to take to the streets, not only around the convention center where the Democrats will meet, but all around Los Angeles.

In fact, Los Angeles - and the Democrats - may have the most to lose during the coming conventions. Many protesters - such as environmentalists and homeless activists - represent causes that appear more frequently on the agenda of the Democratic Party, and Democrats could suffer more fallout if they mishandle the protesters' demands.

"There is a confluence of forces this year that make Los Angeles the perfect place for tremendous counter-demonstrations and potentially very expensive and very bad publicity," says Floyd Ceruli, a pollster and political consultant based in Denver.

"Effective demonstrations against the main convention will always defeat the forces of order," he says. "The protesters are trained, they're committed, they're going to push the system until it overreacts someplace - and that overreaction will be covered by the media, and that will set in motion a spiral of more activity and more bad press."

Los Angeles police and city officials have said repeatedly they want to avoid violence and to ensure a peaceful convention as well as safe demonstrations. But protesters have already accused the police of being heavy-handed. And the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the city, forcing officials to drop their plans to restrict protesters to a permit-only demonstration area several blocks from the convention site.

"You face the potential for lots of things you can't control," says Heywood Sanders, a professor of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. "If it works perfectly, you get relatively little credit. If it doesn't work perfectly, there's potential for significant public embarrassment."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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