It is less than two months to the Democratic National Convention, and Leah Daughtry has a problem. The woman Democratic Party leaders selected to run the biggest political show of the season still isn’t certain who the candidate will be.
The balloon-filled, confetti-strewn nomination of the party’s 2016 candidate for president, set for four days in July in Philadelphia, remains uncertain: It could still star either Hillary Clinton or her surprisingly vibrant, almost 75-year-old challenger from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Moreover, there is no guarantee that when one of them is finally selected, a party splintered by a wrenching primary battle can come together to cheer on its nominee.
Daughtry, 53, who was in the final stretch of her second stint as CEO of the Democratic National Convention, had been in this position before. As the CEO of the 2008 convention she experienced a contentious campaign that also stretched to the end of the primary calendar. And by the looks of her resume, Daughtry was an ideal choice again this time. A peacemaker by temperament, Daughtry has a long history of work and a deep well of trust with both candidates. Then-party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz declared herself “thrilled” when Daughtry agreed to take the post. “She will bring so much expertise and enthusiasm,” Wasserman Schultz noted.
The responsibilities of the convention CEO are hard enough in a normal political year. The planning involves adherence to arcane and formal regulations that undergird the political process: The establishment of the party’s platform and its rules, the gathering of each state’s delegation, the voting and, eventually, the official nomination of a presidential ticket. And then there are the dizzying logistics. Daughtry and her team had to design and construct what was essentially a city within a city. She had to arrange lodging for 50,000 attendees, create a bus system to transport them from 95 different hotels, oversee a veritable army to provide security and, most importantly, produce an enormous staged event that would embody all the pageantry needed to launch the party’s formal general election campaign for president with enthusiasm from rank-and-file party members.
To do this Daughtry was provided a $60 million budget, most of which came from corporate, union and individual donors who gave to a Democratic Party fund or to a host committee led by the Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney. By May she had built a staff of 90, which grew to 130 by July.
In a typical election year, the myriad decisions required for a convention—from planks in the platform to the assignment of each hotel suite—are guided smoothly into place by the staff of a presumptive nominee. Eight weeks out, with two possible candidates, Daughtry’s job was markedly more challenging than anticipated. As her team began briefing her on the latest contract negotiations and staff expansions, Sen. Sanders was still launching broadsides at the party, complaining about the convention plans. In one letter to Wasserman Schultz sent in early May, Sanders argued the DNC was tilting the entire event in favor of Clinton, in this instance by choosing only three of the more than 40 names he submitted to fill the convention’s standing committees.
“There are already over 9 million voters who…have indicated that they want to go beyond establishment politics and establishment economics—and want to transform our country with bold initiatives,” Sanders wrote. “I will not allow them to be silenced at the Democratic National Convention.”
Daughtry makes reference to the dispute as she gathers her deputies in a sparsely furnished conference room in a downtown Philadelphia office building. “Right now we’re trying to get the platform committee locked in,” she informs them. “I’m the intermediary between Clinton and Sanders. So that’s fun.”
It’s not that Daughtry isn’t nervous this spring day about the many scenarios that could sink the convention into chaos, but she is philosophical: “We prefer to have a nominee in March, so you have a while to coalesce and think and come up with general election plans,” she tells DAM. “But that hasn’t been the case.”
Instead, she resolves to maintain her cool and to prepare for a whole host of possibilities—just as in 2008, when Clinton and Barack Obama fought into June.
“All I can say is, ‘Here I am, back again,’ ” Daughtry says, rolling her eyes.
“I am happy to be required to be neutral,” she says of a divide the party has yet to fully heal, even with the convention behind it.
Daughtry is fond of telling people she represents the fifth consecutive generation of pastors in her family. Raised in Brooklyn, she is the oldest of four children of the activists the Rev. Herbert and the Rev. Karen Daughtry. Her father was involved in the struggle for school integration and helped organize a 1977 boycott of Brooklyn businesses aimed at opening up more jobs and services for blacks.
The family moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, but it was her parents’ connection to a New York politician that led Leah to consider Dartmouth. Carl McCall ’58 was the New York commissioner of human rights when Leah’s father approached him for advice. “He said to me, ‘My daughter is graduating from high school and would I talk with her about college,’ ” McCall recalls. “I didn’t even know he had a daughter.”
Leah’s initial reaction to McCall’s suggestion that she apply to Dartmouth was adamant: “I said, ‘That’s the one in New Hampshire? No! I’m not going up there. There couldn’t possibly be any black people,’ ” she recalls. Then McCall invited her to an event at the Ford Foundation’s New York City headquarters meant to introduce black students to Dartmouth. “When you got there, as far as the eye could see, there were stacks of black alumni,” she says. “They talked about their careers and what they did and they all introduced themselves. And I said, ‘Okay, maybe I should look at this.’ ” At her father’s urging, Daughtry agreed to travel to Hanover to see the campus. It was early January. “It was freezing cold. It had just snowed. To most people, it might have seemed miserable,” she says. “I just loved it. I said, ‘This is where I belong. This is the place for me.’ ”
True to her upbringing, Daughtry was interested in religion and politics. Under the guidance of English professor Bill Cook, she did an independent study on call-and-response music traditions in the African American church. McCall remembers that she helped start Dartmouth’s first gospel choir, which he considers a symbolic milestone of acceptance for black students. And she grew more engaged in liberal politics at a time when Ronald Reagan’s conservatism was taking hold in some quarters on campus. “All these guys you now see on Fox News were on campus with me doing stuff with The Review,” she recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t come to Dartmouth for this.’ ”
Daughtry not only majored in government, she spent her senior year working on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. (Her father served as a special advisor.) It was on that campaign that Daughtry first met Bernie Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, who was one of the only establishment politicians in New England to endorse Jackson for president. “It was a big deal for those of us working on that campaign,” Daughtry acknowledges.
That experience helped her build lasting friendships with Sanders allies that would eventually prove valuable decades later, as the party’s 2016 convention approached.
With many planning sessions such as one held in Philadelphia in May behind her, Daughtry traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with reporters at the National Press Club in early June about the convention that was now just weeks away.
One of the most troubling concerns she had just a month earlier had been resolved: Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination, saving Daughtry from what she had considered the “worst possible scenario,” the one she had so feared in May: a brokered convention, where no candidate gets a majority of votes on the first ballot.
“That could have meant more standing committee meetings, which means space, which means time, which means recording votes, which means corralling delegates, which means transporting them at different times than we had planned to transport them, which adds to our bus system. It might have [dramatically impacted] the nightly session. Instead of starting the gavel at 5 p.m., we might have needed to start at 3 p.m.—or 10 a.m. The logistics would have been exponentially more difficult.”
With that problem resolved, her main challenge in the immediate run-up to the convention was to stage an event that encouraged the party to heal. Even as Daughtry stood before the gathering of reporters in June, however, there was no certainty the pro-Sanders faction of the party was ready for peace. Sanders had yet to endorse Clinton—and it wasn’t clear he ever would—even as he began slowly to make clear he would join an effort to defeat the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
Instead, reporters wanted Daughtry to describe how she might handle massive protests from those still opposing Clinton’s nomination. “We welcome a diversity of opinion,” Daughtry responded. “There are always protesters. There are always people with signs. I’ve been one of those.”
Daughtry’s deep ties to the machinery of both Democratic campaigns would surely help. After college she served in a variety of roles with the party, including as the chief of staff to the party chairman. She campaigned alongside Sanders in 1984 and then served in a senior position in Bill Clinton’s U.S. Department of Labor.
“I am happy to be required to be neutral,” she says of a divide the party has yet to fully heal, even with the convention behind it. “I have friends on both sides. I have history on both sides.”
She also has the constitution to walk a line between the two sides. At a June cocktail party in downtown Philadelphia she moved around the cordoned-off hall in the Museum of American Jewish History with ease and warmth, chatting up longtime Clinton donors and those whose loyalties remained tilted to Sanders. “I am here as a woman of faith,” she told the gathering. “It is that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that I come to you with today.” Her manner was that of the church pastor addressing a congregation. “We are here to learn from, to grow with and to love each other,” she said.
That ministerial exterior, however, shrouds a woman who keeps index cards with lists of work to do.
“She’s very organized, very disciplined,” McCall says. “Nothing is more chaotic and undisciplined than a political operation. She understands how politics work, how you make it better.”
Perhaps the best use of her church training came in the final days of planning before the convention got underway. That is when thousands of participants—union bosses, mega-donors, governors, members of Congress—all started lobbying for the small supply of luxury hotel suites, limousines, reception invitations and arena floor seats. There simply wasn’t enough space in union-labor hotels to accommodate all the requests.
“I grew up in the black church, and there is no place that has more sensitivity to personalities, egos and positions than in a black church,” she says. “I actually studied [internal church politics] at Dartmouth.”
She explains that in a community where very few people hold positions of power, the church becomes the place where being an usher may give a person a sense of affirmation, of worth. “You understand that for the head usher, this is the place where one day a week she is in charge of something,” Daughtry says. “Because the rest of the week at her job she is a home healthcare attendant or a janitor. She has no status, or she feels she has no status, and has no one affirming her. She comes to church, she puts on that uniform and she’s in charge of where you sit. She’s going to tell you where you sit and that is her moment for the week.”
Navigating such sensitive issues on Sunday at church is a lot trickier than juggling floor credentials at a political convention, she says with a laugh. “That has nothing on a church convocation with a bunch of bishops, and you’ve got to remember who was ordained before whom and whose jurisdiction ranks over whose—because the seating matters there. That’s [real] politics.”
Just days ahead of the convention, Daughtry thought she had everything lined up for a smooth nominating process. She had personally overseen negotiations on the party platform in Orlando, shuttling between a room of Sanders supporters and a room of Clinton supporters, hammering out a unified plan. “We got a document that I don’t think either of them considered perfect, but that is the art of compromise,” she told DAM.
As enraged Sanders supporters threatened to disrupt the convention in the wake of hacked DNC emails, Daughtry urged calm, but also demanded both sides settle on a response—and fast. That ultimately included the decision by Wasserman Schultz to step down. Daughtry says she didn’t dwell on it: “I told them, ‘Let’s move on ’cause I’ve got a show to run.’ ”
By the convention’s second day, with Sanders stepping in to nominate Clinton, Daughtry’s plan was back on track. As Clinton prepared to accept her party’s nomination, Daughtry calmly took her seat on the riser, just to the left of the podium. “Ultimately the party comes together,” she says. “We always do. It’s just that some years it takes longer than others.”
Matthew Mosk is an investigative reporter for ABC News, based in Washington, D.C. A regular contributor to DAM, he lives in Annapolis, Maryland.