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CEO of 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia starts piecing it together

When the Rev. Leah Daughtry wants to relax, she takes out a Springbok jigsaw puzzle, pours a couple thousand tiny pieces out of the box and gets to work.

The Rev. Leah Daughtry, a fan of puzzles, has begun work organizing the 2016 Democratic National Convention. She and her staff opened their Philadelphia office last week.
The Rev. Leah Daughtry, a fan of puzzles, has begun work organizing the 2016 Democratic National Convention. She and her staff opened their Philadelphia office last week.Read moreMIchael Bryant/Staff Photographer

When the Rev. Leah Daughtry wants to relax, she takes out a Springbok jigsaw puzzle, pours a couple thousand tiny pieces out of the box and gets to work.

"I won't tell you how many puzzles I have," she said. "I have lots."

So it's only natural that she describes her job, chief executive officer of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, as fitting together a puzzle - a giant, three-dimensional, multivariate one that would send most people screaming from the room.

Daughtry and her staff, who opened their Philadelphia office last week, will build a temporary city within a city: Conventionville, population about 50,000.

The new city will have more than 200 miles of electric cable packed inside the Wells Fargo Arena and an adjoining media village for up to 15,000 journalists; its own regional transit line, with 500 buses to shuttle delegates and guests; and its own housing - at least 15,000 hotel rooms.

The job of assembling all this and overseeing a budget expected to exceed $50 million demands an excruciating level of attention to detail, not to mention diplomatic and political skill.

Daughtry must deal with businesses that want convention contracts, and to negotiate with the TV networks and news organizations over space and access. She needs to know the wants, needs, and quirks of the state chairs and other egos in the national Democratic Party firmament.

"I don't know whether she followed the path to the job of convention CEO, or the job found her," said political consultant Minyon Moore, a longtime friend who was an adviser in the Clinton White House and has worked in senior positions in several presidential campaigns.

Daughtry has been chief of staff at the Democratic National Committee, launched the party's outreach to people of faith, was an undersecretary at the Department of Labor, and was CEO of the 2008 Denver convention, which nominated President Obama.

"I was amazed she agreed to do it a second time," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, national party chairman from 2005 to 2009. "It's a brutal job. Every imaginable interest group is tugging at your sleeve."

For Philadelphia, July's convention will be the second since 2000, when the GOP gathered here.

Daughtry, 52, grew up in Brooklyn steeped in political and civil-rights activism. She's the eldest child of the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Church, whose ministry mixes the all-in fervor of Pentecostal Christianity with doses of black liberation theology.

Leah Daughtry followed in the family tradition. She is an ordained Pentecostal minister with a small congregation in Southwest Washington, a member of the fifth generation of pastors in her family.

"There was always a march, a rally or a boycott," Daughtry said. Her first sit-in came at age 7, at New York City Hall, over funding for day care.

Democratic politicians were always visiting the church, and Daughtry glued herself to the televised Watergate hearings after school. She admired Rep. Barbara Jordan, the sonorous-voiced African American from Texas on the House Judiciary Committee.

"I was excited there was this woman amid all these men, asking these questions, and she had that perfect English," Daughtry said. "Very precise. Lawyerly. You knew she was not someone to be trifled with. Just from her manner and the way she would sit, leaning forward on the table. I said, 'Who is that, Daddy?' "

Daughtry never wanted to run for office, though - she doesn't like the stage, and would rather make things happen behind the scenes. She said it took her a long time (and much prayer) to be certain she was called to be a pastor, a very public role.

"Planning a convention is a very linear, methodical process," Daughtry said. "You are building a house. You've got to dig a foundation, lay a foundation, pour cement and one thing goes on top of the other. . . . There's no mystery. To me it just comes instinctively."

With religion, there's plenty of mystery, and that's OK with Daughtry.

"This is not all there is, and there is a logic and a sense to all of this, that I cannot see," she said. "But for me, I'm going to trust that God has all the pieces, and it's all working as the Scripture says."

After graduating from Dartmouth College, Daughtry went to work for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign. She's been working in Democratic politics in one role or another ever since.

When Dean took over as DNC chairman in early 2005, Daughtry, who had been working as chief of staff to Dean's predecessor, showed him a poll she had commissioned of "values voters" to analyze John Kerry's defeat in 2004. It found that nearly half the voters in eight battleground states "place as much or more weight" on their religious faith than issues.

Dean was convinced that the Democrats, with the image of a secular party, had to change, and he appointed Daughtry to launch a faith initiative. He also retained her as chief of staff. It wasn't just the faith poll; a task force he had sent in to evaluate DNC personnel before taking over found near-universal raves for Daughtry as a manager, Dean said.

She also is probably the only top political operative to have a "swear jar" on her desk. Cuss in Daughtry's office and you have to pay 25 cents, a tradition she said she will continue at the convention's offices in Center City.

"On occasion, I had to pony up," Dean said. "It does cut back on the bad words used in her presence. Leah doesn't go for carrying on. She doesn't do drama."

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who was DNC chairman from 2001 to 2005, elevated Daughtry from director of operations to chief of staff. He said that, in both positions, she was an integral part of helping get the party out of debt, creating a massive voter database to guide field operations, and building a new headquarters.

"We literally started from scratch," McAuliffe said. "She got it done. She didn't come back to me for instructions. She's like a soldier going through that wall."

While she may be a powerful political insider, as an African American she is no stranger to prejudice. She relates an encounter with a cabbie who refused to take her to Brooklyn but took a white woman there, instead.

She believes it's her duty to help people who are outside. At the DNC, Daughtry convinced Dean to establish paid internships, which resulted in a more racially and economically diverse pool than normal.

In Philadelphia, she has set a goal that 35 percent of convention contracts go to businesses owned by minorities.

The lesson was imprinted by Jackson, on her first campaign.

"One of the things he said to us was, 'You've got to swing people through,' " Daughtry said. "You have a responsibility get somebody else through. . . . When you get a foot inside, then you try to get a leg inside and you try to open the door wider."