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St. Norbert grad helps bring DNC to Wisconsin

By Paul Srubas

GREEN BAY – When Melanie Fonder Kaye watches the speeches and pageantry of the virtual Democratic National Convention Aug. 17-20, it’ll be with more than the typical enthusiasm of a garden-variety political wonk.

Make no mistake: she’s a wonk, all right.

Fonder Kaye, 43, was still a student at St. Norbert College when she already started working as a reporter for the Green Bay News-Chronicle back in the late ‘90s.

She served as Gov. Jim Doyle’s press secretary, worked at The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., and even spent three years working as communications director for former second lady Dr. Jill Biden.

But her interest in this convention goes way beyond all that.

She actually helped midwife the thing, helping to promote Milwaukee nationwide, getting Wisconsin-based Republicans and Democrats to work together to sell the Democratic party on the high-profile event, and then watching in horror as COVID-19 threatened to bring the whole thing down.

Now she’ll be watching from her home in Silver Spring, Md., with a fair amount of pride as the baby she helped birth grows to full height and becomes a history-maker.

“I think we’re going to see a convention like we’ve never seen before,” Fonder Kaye said. “I think there’s some real excitement around the way they are shifting to this new virtual format. They’ll not only have speakers woven in, they’re really weaving Milwaukee into this experience in, I think, a really creative way. That’ll be well-received. People will be excited.”

It was indirectly through her work with Dr. Biden during the Obama administration that Fonder Kaye got involved in the Milwaukee bid project.

She worked at the White House to oversee Dr. Biden’s office’s communications strategy, which included projects like working with Dr. Biden and Michelle Obama on Joining Forces, their veterans’ families initiative and with Dr. Biden’s promotion of community colleges.

Through White House connections, Fonder Kaye met Alex Lasry, who worked at the White House as the deputy counselor for strategic engagement.

Lasry, son of one of the Milwaukee Bucks’ co-owners, left to take a job as senior vice president of the team, but knew Fonder Kaye grew up in Grafton and reached out to see if she wanted to help the bid team.

By that time, Fonder Kaye had already launched her business, MFK Strategies, her D.C.-based media relations, writing and event management services company, skills that were bound to come in handy in trying to persuade DNC officials Milwaukee was the place to host the big show.

The Milwaukee bid team did its part at smaller DNC events to showcase Wisconsin culture whenever possible.

But it was at the DNC’s annual summer meeting, when the organization had narrowed its list to Milwaukee, Houston, Denver and Miami Beach, that Fonder Kaye, Lasry and other members of the team really turned on the persuasion jets.

Denver dropped out of the race, Miami Beach rented a boat and tried plying DNC members with mojitos, and Houston underwhelmed party officials with brisket and macaroni.

Melanie Fonder Kaye, left, along with her children, poses for a picture with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who also played a role in getting Milwaukee the Democratic National Convention. Submitted Photo

The Milwaukee contingent for its part put on that most Wisconsin of events, an entire Friday night fish fry, complete with brandy old-fashioneds and speakers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Was it the deep fried perch that did the trick, or was it because the DNC wanted to make up to Wisconsin for candidate Hillary Clinton’s having ignored the state in the 2016 general election campaign?

No one can say, but, in any case, Milwaukee won the race, and the prize was to be an estimated 50,000 visitors and some $200 million in economic impact, according to some estimates.

Fonder Kaye had been jetting back and forth between Milwaukee and her home outside D.C. throughout all this, so after the battle was won, she went back to normal life and let the Milwaukee crew handle all the fundraising and organization issues, such as persuading the city that Milwaukee bars should be allowed to stay open until 4 a.m. during the week of the convention.

It was heartening to watch people from both sides of the political chasm in Milwaukee working to make the event happen, she said.

“It wasn’t a blue thing, it wasn’t red – it was green,” Fonder Kaye said. “It was wonderful for Milwaukee, to shine the spotlight, a real international spotlight that would be put upon the city, and that was great for every Milwaukeean.”
But then, of course, the coronavirus hit.

The DNC went from plotting to shorten the convention to pushing it back a month to shutting it down entirely and going virtual.

“I definitely think this was the right thing to do, for public health, but it’s sad,” Fonder Kaye said. “It’s a setback, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. And, of course, it is a disappointment for everyone in Milwaukee, and everyone involved.”

And the DNC and city of Milwaukee are breaking new ground in this new era of pandemic.

VISIT Milwaukee, the city’s department of tourism, has been packaging up Milwaukee-themed gift boxes for virtual dignitaries, speakers have been lined up, and the official events will be dove-tailed with Milwaukee sites and attractions whenever possible, with high-profile restaurants hosting virtual events.

It won’t be nearly the economic boost that the real, live convention would have been, but it will still be a great booster for the city’s attractions, Fonder Kaye said.

“This is unprecedented, and they are finding extremely creative ways to put this together,” she said. “There are multiple daily online opportunities, and they’re rolling out new events every single day. It’s really going to be amazing to see all of this programming coming out of Milwaukee and every corner of the country. I definitely will be attending virtually.”

If you want to attend it virtually, too, go to demconvention.com/digital-toolkit/

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