As the Twin Cities and Denver gear up for four days of politics and parties during the Republican and Democratic national conventions, advocacy groups in both cities are getting set to combat what they believe will be a surge in prostitution.
But police in both cities say that the groups are mistaken and that research indicates there will be no increase in the sex trade.
Whom to believe?
Some outcall services that have sex for sale seem in agreement with activist groups that would like to eradicate the business; both think the influx of 35,000 visitors during the Sept. 1-4 convention will mean a rise in prostitution.
On the other hand, St. Paul police spokesman Tom Walsh said his department discussed the issue with police in New York and Boston, which hosted the 2004 Republican and Democratic conventions, respectively.
"And what they have reported to us is that is that there is not an increase in that kind of traffic," Walsh said.
"There is so much going on, I don't know that there is a lot of unstructured time to be involved in any other activities. ... Is it something we are going to monitor? It is."
Lt. Ron Saunier of the Denver police said that while police in that city have set up several committees to deal with problems anticipated during the Aug. 25-28 Democratic convention, there's no committee on prostitution. "I have not heard of any information at this time about increased prostitution during the event," he said.
Nonetheless, activist groups have been meeting monthly in the Twin Cities since March developing a publicity strategy for the RNC. And local activists have been collaborating with a similar group in Denver.
The groups have a common message: Prostitution is not a victimless crime. They say many prostitutes began as abused children and teenagers who were trafficked nationwide and sometimes internationally.
The convention is expected to draw more than 30,000 out-of-towners, including about 4,000 delegates and alternates, 15,000 family members, lobbyists and convention guests and about 15,000 media workers.
'Want to raise awareness'
"We want to raise awareness," said Carla Ferrucci, director of public policy and prevention for the Minnesota Coalition of Battered Women, who has been helping to coordinate the campaign. "It's violence against women," she says of prostitution. "Girls are recruited as young as 12," and the men who pick them up should be held accountable, she said.
The local group plans to distribute anti-prostitution fliers and possibly put up a billboard if they can raise the money. "It is not our intent to upset the Democrats and Republicans," she said. "We want to say, 'Work with us.'"
In Denver, Amanda Finger says her organization, the Polaris Project, has been crafting an anti-prostitution strategy for the Democratic convention. Posters discouraging prostitution have been put up at rest stops and welcome centers along Colorado's highways, and the group hopes to put them in Denver restaurants during convention week.
She said her group also plans to train first responder emergency personnel on how to spot people who are being trafficked for prostitution.
Indications are that, within the Twin Cities sex trade, there's a general expectation that business will be booming during the Republican Convention.
Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free, a St. Paul organization that helps women escape from prostitution, said the talk among prostitutes is that there will be a lot of money to be made.
Two escort services said they are counting on a surge of customers, and one of them said in an interview that they will be bringing in women from out of town to supplement their local work force. "There are a bunch of women calling from different states to come here to work," said the owner of one escort service listed in the telephone book. "We hope to hire 10 or 15 women."
Male prostitutes say they are also hoping for more business.
Not everyone familiar with the sex trade is predicting a jump in business.
"In 2004 there were all sorts of media reports that sex workers were coming from all over the country to New York City because there were going to be so many potential customers during the Republican National Convention," said Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project at New York's Urban Justice Center. "The reality was that a lot of [prostitutes] we heard from said they were leaving because there was going to be such a strong police presence, and so many people coming to town."
Staff researcher Roberta Hovde contributed to this report.
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382