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Las Vegas and the Republican convention

The latest phase of the Republican National Committee’s search for a site for the party’s 2016 presidential nominating convention has come to an end in the last few days. This was the “technical” phase, scrutiny of how well each of the six candidate cities (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas) can handle arrangements for the convention and for getting the tale of the convention to the public. This includes hotels, financing, convention venues, news-gathering arrangements.

“What you’re trying to do is create a stable platform for our nominee to be able to be the story,” said GOP site selection chief Enid Mickelson last year. “And so to the extent that you have people sitting on buses for three hours and they’re unhappy, or [in] the media workspace, the electricity goes out and you’re all unhappy – THAT becomes the story.”

A Nevada convention obviously won’t make the state’s reputation as a convention site. That happened decades ago. But one of the national political conventions is a whole different breed of cat. In 1984 my colleague Larry Wissbeck and I caught a cab from the Nevada delegation’s hotel across the street from Japan Center in San Francisco to get to the Moscone Center, where the Democratic National Convention was being held. The cab driver complained to us that San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein had arranged for another hundred cab licenses to be issued for the convention.

Naturally the driver was upset by the additional competition, which would linger on after the convention departed. “We had enough drivers to handle this convention,” he told us. “This isn’t that big a convention. We have bigger conventions than this all the time.”

He was right, of course. But all conventions are not created equal, whatever their size. A convention of dry cleaners or book publishers does not attract the news coverage a presidential nominating convention does. They may not attract any news coverage at all. But the Republican and Democratic conventions lure thousands of journalists from all over the world.

In 2012 the Republican National Convention had 2,286 delegates in attendance. The Democratic National Convention had 5,554 delegates. And each convention was covered by about 15,000 journalists. That’s a big public relations task for a city, and requires considerably more tending of matters like availability of cabs.

That San Francisco convention is also instructive when considering the trial Las Vegas faces in dealing with its special problems. Will Las Vegas streetwalkers and small county brothels and the whole “What happens here stays here” paradigm attract a lot of news coverage and steal some of the Republican Party’s message to the nation?

San Francisco had a similar problem. Bathhouses, retail merchandise in the Castro district that would make for lurid television visuals, rather pointed and direct public service posters around the city explaining methods for preventing the spread of AIDS, all made for a substantial distraction if reporters went for it. Mayor Feinstein had been accused of vetoing a domestic partners measure in order to (1) help the city lure the Democratic convention and/or (2) preserve her own vice presidential prospects.

As it turned out, there was very little of that kind of news coverage. The convention was newsworthy for the naming of the first woman vice presidential nominee of a major political party and other lesser political stories held center stage. Most journalists were not diverted.

Still, that was three decades ago. Both politics and journalism have changed a lot, and none of it for the better. Both are less responsible. It’s easy to imagine Paulists or social conservatives at a Las Vegas GOP convention using exhibits around them as examples of moral decay.

And it’s easy to imagine today’s journalists grabbing for bigger airtime or circulation numbers by reporting on the juicy neighborhood rather than the convention proceedings, particularly if the convention is just ratifying a decision already made in the caucuses and primaries.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.