Jigsaw Puzzles And A Swear Jar: Democratic Convention Chief Prepares For Philly

Dec 23, 2015
Originally published on December 23, 2015 3:35 pm

Who would you turn to to build a temporary city that will come to life for four days, then disappear? That's what planning and managing a national political convention amounts to, and the Democrats have turned to a Pentecostal minister and jigsaw puzzle master with a gift for organization and politics.

The Rev. Leah Daughtry was CEO of the 2008 convention, remembered for Barack Obama's speech in Denver's football stadium. Now the party has turned to her to handle the one in Philadelphia next summer.

While most remember the big speeches at conventions, Daughtry has to manage a host of not-so-glamorous details. She says the convention will host 16,000 delegates and guests and more than 15,000 members of the media, for whom she'll have to build a huge temporary workspace in the parking lot of Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center.

"We contract 15,000 hotel rooms," Daughtry said in an interview. "We put together I think it's 500 buses. We create our own transportation system. And so you're really kind of building a small city."

Daughtry, 52, keeps all those details straight without digital tools, relying on countless Post-its and paper lists. You can make a lot of plans ahead of time, she said, but there's always the unexpected — like the moment in 2008 when the Obama campaign decided they wanted to move the last night of the convention from the Pepsi Center arena to Invesco field, the football stadium.

"There weren't enough magnetometers in the state of Colorado or the three surrounding states to protect both the Pepsi Center and Invesco," Daughtry recalled. "So we had to strike everything at Pepsi, dismantle all of the security, all the magnetometers and ship it all over to Invesco."

That happened overnight, on a fleet of golf carts.

Apart from technical issues, running a convention presents plenty of political challenges. Howard Dean was DNC chairman in 2008, and Daughtry was his chief of staff. He said the party is full of big egos, people who expect prime speaking times, special seating for friends and other perks.

Daughtry, he says, can handle that.

"She has a way of dominating a room, even among members of Congress," Dean said.

Dean said Daughtry does it without ever raising her voice.

"She just looks and says, 'I've known you for a very long time, haven't I?' And she just stares them right in the face, and then she just tells the truth," he said.

Dean said he thinks Daughtry's quiet sense of authority is rooted in her faith. She comes from a long line of Pentecostal ministers, and her father, Herb Daughtry, had a church in Brooklyn and was well-known in the civil rights movement.

"I think she saw how religion and living in the world could be combined," Dean said. "She believes that without works, faith is dead."

Daughtry has her own congregation in Washington, where she still preaches on Sundays. She said she believes her faith gives her a strength of spirit, and maybe, yes, a certain stillness that's effective in those meetings.

One more thing: Her office has a "swear box" with a coin slot for those who can't mind their language.

"It's 25 cents per cussword," Daughtry explained. "If it's in the Bible, you don't have to pay. But any cussword that's not in the Bible is 25 cents."

By the time the convention arrives in July, the box should be bulging with coins. Dean said when Daughtry is stressed, she'll make a few contributions herself.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Imagine you had to plan and build a mini city in the middle of a major American urban center. It would come to life for four days and then disappear without a trace. Well, that's one description of what it takes to manage a national political convention. The CEO of next year's Democratic Convention is Leah Daughtry, a fifth generation Pentecostal minister with a gift for organization and politics. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Dave Davies has this profile.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: We remember big moments at conventions, like President Obama speaking at Invesco Field, Denver's football stadium in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: We cannot turn back. America, we cannot turn back, not with so much work to be done, not with so many children to educate.

DAVIES: But for Leah Daughtry, the CEO of that convention and the one in Philadelphia next summer, it's mostly about managing lots of unglamorous details. She says the convention will host more than 30,000 delegates, guests and members of the media.

LEAH DAUGHTRY: We contract 15,000 hotel rooms. We put together - I think it's 500 buses. We create our own transportation system. And so you're really kind of building a small city.

DAVIES: Minyon Moore is an old friends and former Clinton White House adviser. She says Daughtry, who has an affection for solving jigsaw puzzles, has the right kind of mind for the task.

MINYON MOORE: You know, I've always said she has a tremendous gift for being able to organize the unorganized. And that's really what a convention is in many ways. It's a big disorganization that you have to bring together.

DAVIES: Daughtry's already working to bring order to the next convention, here meeting with media technicians at a recent walk-through of the arena in Philadelphia.

DAUGHTRY: The podium placement will be on the side here, approximately where I was standing earlier. So we will face that way.

DAVIES: Daughtry is 52, and she keeps all those details straight without digital tools - lots of post-its and paper lists. She says you can get a lot done months ahead of time, but there's always the unexpected, like the moment in 2008 when the Obama campaign decided they wanted to move the last night of the convention from the Pepsi Center arena to Invesco Field, the football stadium.

DAUGHTRY: Although it was a challenge we relished, there weren't enough magnetometers in the state of Colorado or in the three surrounding states to protect both the Pepsi Center and Invesco. So we had to strike everything at Pepsi, dismantle all the security, all the magnetometers, and ship it all over to Invesco.

DAVIES: That happened overnight on a fleet of golf carts. Apart from technical issues, running a convention presents plenty of political challenges. Howard Dean was DNC chairman in 2008 and Daughtry was his chief of staff. He says the party's full of big egos, people who expect prime speaking slots, special seats for friends and other perks. Daughtry, he says, can dominate a room full of powerful people without ever raising her voice.

HOWARD DEAN: She just looks and says, I've known you for a very long time, haven't I? And she just stares them right in the face and then she just tells the truth.

DAVIES: Dean says he thinks Daughtry's quiet sense of authority is rooted in her faith. She comes from a long line of Pentecostal ministers, and her father was active in the civil rights movement.

DEAN: I think she saw how religion and living in the world could be combined. She believes that without works, faith is dead.

DAVIES: Daughtry has her own congregation in Washington where she still preaches on Sundays. She says she believes her faith gives her a strength of spirit and maybe, yes, a certain stillness that's effective in those meetings. One more thing, her office has a swear box with a coin slot for those who can't mind their language.

DAUGHTRY: Twice-five cents per cuss word. If it's in The Bible, you don't have to pay. But anything - any cuss words that's not in The Bible is 25 cents.

DAVIES: By the time the convention arrives in July, the box should be bulging with coins. Howard Dean says when Daughtry is stressed, she'll make a contribution or two herself. For NPR News, I'm Dave Davies in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.