What The Woman Responsible For The Democratic Convention Wants You To Know

Photo: Joseph Gidjunis.
The Rev. Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention.
The Rev. Leah Daughtry sees two options for tackling obstacles and injustices in life: "You can complain about something, or you can do something about it."

For Daughtry, a pastor, political operative, and former senior administration official, the choice is and always has been clear: do something.

And as chief executive officer of the upcoming Democratic National Convention, there's a lot that needs doing.

It's the second time Daughtry has been tasked with overseeing the planning and execution of her party's presidential year convention — the other was in 2008, when President Barack Obama became the first African-American nominee for president.

Now, eight years later, it looks like Daughtry is once again presiding over a historic gathering, as Hillary Clinton appears poised to become the first woman to win a major party's nomination when delegates cast their votes in Philadelphia this July.

Daughtry spoke with Refinery29 about the upcoming DNC, her own path to political activism, and why it's so crucial that women vote this fall.

What does the CEO of the DNC do?
"What I say is I am responsible for all aspects of the planning and execution of the quadrennial nominating convention…"

So that’s not a tough job at all...
"[Laughs] No, just a few details here and there. That means everything from hotel contracts to bus routes to the laying of cable, the design of a stage, and the planning of a program — all of that falls within my jurisdiction."

Don’t let your voice be silenced by not voting. Because that is really what it amounts to.

The Rev. Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention
You’ve said you want this to be the most diverse and forward-looking convention that we’ve had in recent history. What are you doing to achieve that, and why is that such an important goal to you?
"We pride ourselves as Democrats on being the big tent party, which means we have room for everyone. When we talk about diversity, we mean diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, but it’s also diversity in terms of ideas, opinions, geography, background, family composition — all of that is part of diversity. We think, not only are we stronger as a party but we are stronger as a nation when we celebrate differences, when we celebrate diversity and recognize that we all bring something to the table…When you get a wide array of people in the room, what you learn is you don’t have to be just like me to be just like me — we have a certain set of values, the things that connect us as human beings.

"As Democrats, there are certain things we care about. We care about our neighborhoods and our kids, and we think that government has a role to play in ensuring that people have the tools they need to be successful and that governments ought to be in the business of supporting as opposed to restricting access for people to have the capital that they need and the opportunities they need to be successful and to realize the American dream. We want to have delegates from every walk of life. Of course, we’ll have every state in the union, but able-bodied and disabled, straight and gay, transgender, Black and white and brown and Native American and Asian Pacific and Native Hawaiians, all of that — all of the 57 states and territories that come to our convention. When you turn on our convention, you can see America on our convention floor, because we are so diverse and because we make it a point to be diverse."
Are you seeing and feeling big differences in the political environment and how voters are reacting to this election compared to 2008?
"Yes and no. On the no side, it’s very similar to 2008 in many respects. For me, 'It’s déjà vu all over again,' to quote Yogi Berra. A long primary contest, hard-fought, passionate supporters on both sides and, in both races, a seemingly unknown candidate invigorating millions of voters. That was the story in '08 and it’s the story again in 2016. Different outcomes, it would appear, but the same sort of dynamic.

"What’s different, I think among the electorate, and something I think we’ve got to pay attention to is, on the Republican side, Mr. Trump, and on the Democratic side, Mr. Sanders, seem to have highlighted for us swaths of the electorate who feel that their voices have been discounted and who feel unheard. For both parties and for the nation, we have to pay attention when these numbers of people feel that their voice doesn’t count and feel the system is not supporting their goals and their dreams. The Sanders supporters and the Trump supporters take a different approach to how they are expressing their displeasure, but I think they tapped into something that we as Americans need to pay attention to.

"With Trump, I think the things he says are completely outrageous and racist and sexist and misogynist, and yet millions of people voted for him. We’ve got to pay attention to that. Who are these people that think that is okay? Do they really think this is okay, or is it that he’s giving voice to something that they are feeling and haven’t been able to say? I don’t want to live in a country where we ignore that people feel that way."
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
Clinton is expected to make history as the first female nominee of a major political party.
Should Hillary Clinton officially become the nominee for the party, what would that mean for you, as a woman in politics, and what message would it send as a message for young women about what they could achieve?
"The best way for me to explain it is to tell you about my 2008 experience. I am child-free, but I have three nephews; at that point I had two. The night that Obama was elected, I was in Chicago at the park waiting for him to give his speech and I was working; I wasn’t paying that much attention, but my oldest nephew texted me. And he said, 'Auntie Leah, now I feel like I can do anything.' We’re not a wealthy family, but we had done everything we could as a family to make sure…every opportunity was possible. We paid for travel, we paid for drum lessons, we paid for this, that, and the other. We thought we could send him into the world ready to achieve. But it wasn’t until he saw Barack Obama on that stage as the next president of the United States that he felt in his spirit that he could really be everything he wanted to be. If Hillary wins, it will be the same for young girls, that they can say a woman can do anything.

"My one nephew who wasn’t born yet [in 2008], he doesn't know anything that isn’t a Black president. For him, there is no ceiling. That’s all he’s known. And that’s my wish for the girls who will get to see Hillary Clinton become president and who will be born during her presidency. They will grow up not knowing that there were ever limits. That it is all possible, the world is truly open for them. In that sense, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton become the most powerful symbols of possibility that young people — and us old people, too — could possibly have that yes, somebody gave it through.

With Trump, I think the things he says are completely outrageous and racist and sexist and misogynist, and yet millions of people voted for him. We’ve got to pay attention to that.

The Rev. Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention
"I was in South Africa about five years ago with President [Bill] Clinton, and we were on the playing field playing soccer with these kids, and this little boy Diego, he was about 8 years old, says to me, 'They say the president is coming!' I said, 'Well, not Obama, but the former president.' And he said, 'But I don’t see him.' And I said, 'He’s right over there,' and he said, 'Where?' And I pointed and said, 'The guy with the gray hair,' and he looked at me and said, 'A white man can be president?' In his world, he’d seen Nelson Mandela, and Thabo Mbeki, and Barack Obama. He was stunned at the notion that a white man can be president. I said, 'Yes darling, a white man can be president — we’ve had 43 of them.'"

Our joint ABC News/Refinery29 Vote Your Values poll of millennial women found that 78% of women 18 to 35 believe this election is going to have an impact on their lives. What’s at stake in your mind?
"Let’s start with what I think is one of the biggest, and that’s the Supreme Court. We know they are split right now, 4-4. President Obama has a nominee who’s been pending. But the next president of the United States will likely select four justices. With cases around affirmative action, around women’s health care, around desegregation of voting rights, sitting before the court, there is no doubt that who those justices are will impact our everyday lives.

"It is Roe v. Wade that made women able to make their own healthcare decisions — imagine if that’s overturned by the Supreme Court; not the president, but the Supreme Court that the [next] president has selected. That has a monumental impact in the way that women think about their lives and their bodies and their future. And I don’t think we can risk that, I certainly don’t want to risk that…Things like Obamacare, the prospect of that being overturned in the [next] presidency and the continuation of the policies that Obama has put into effect, that’s certainly at stake, as well.

We pride ourselves as Democrats on being the big tent party, which means we have room for everyone.

The Rev. Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention
"And as you look at the down-ballot races — the Senate, the House, and all 50 states — who gets into office [matters, too]. The reason President Obama’s nominee is languishing is the Republicans in the Senate refuse to even give the person a hearing. Who’s in the Senate, who’s in the House, affects the legislation that impacts every area of our life and every level of our life. The zoning that allows you to live where you live, the days the trash gets picked up, who’s secure in your neighborhood, what the public schools are in your area, whether there can be a bar on your block — all of these are decisions that someone is making. What’s at stake in this election are the very mundane things for us, like, can I walk down the block and get a coffee, or, does that restaurant serve alcohol, to the really big things in our life, around healthcare choices and funding for small businesses."

Down-ballot races do matter a lot — you look at issues like abortion, these restrictions are being fought on the state level. That’s where it’s happening.
"Look at North Carolina and the transgender bathroom issue — those are local and state officials making decisions. When you get to the presidential year and you have senators and Congress members up for election, it’s not only about the top of the ticket. Think how different North Carolina might be if you had Democratic legislators in office. Or think about Flint, MI, and all of the challenges we’ve had with police brutality and police abuse of power. What difference would it make if the elected district attorney there were African-American? If the community voted its strength and went to the polls, what difference would it make to the lives of the people of Flint?"
Photo: Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images.
Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention.
While a high percentage of women we polled think this election will impact their lives, fewer than 6 in 10 said they are definitely going to vote. That was disappointing for us to see.
"It’s a challenge that every generation goes through as they are coming of age. You’ve got to decide how to be consistent in your own life. It is a contradiction to say you care about issues and then not vote on the issues you say you care about. It is hypocritical to say, 'I think public school children should have better meals and playgrounds,' but then when it’s time to express an opinion on the issue and to choose the people who are going to make your dreams come true, to sit it out. You’re letting whatever happens happen. And you have no voice in the game.

"We as women aren’t silent on any issue. Don’t let your voice be silenced by not voting. Because that is really what it amounts to. Choosing not to vote is choosing to be silent. And choosing to be unheard. I don’t have any friends who ever have no opinion. We’re women. We are expressive. We know what we think, we know what we want, we know how we feel. Go after it. Don’t allow what you perceive as the system to trick you into not voicing or exercising your voice or your vote. It’s too important."

We as women aren’t silent on any issue. Don’t let your voice be silenced by not voting.

The Rev. Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention
You started working on campaigns in your senior year of college. What motivated you to take this path and make politics and civic engagement such a big part of your life?
"I grew up in a very activist household. My father is a pastor. Part of how we understood our responsibility as Christians in the world is that we were required to be engaged in the community around us. That was God’s intent for us, to be neighbors in the truest sense of the word, which is to care for our sisters and brothers as we would for ourselves.

"For us, that meant political activity. One of the best ways to impact the everydayness of lives was through the political process. When I got to college, Rev. Jesse Jackson was running for president and I signed onto his campaign. He’s a family friend, and we were engaged in his decision to run for president. I was at college in New Hampshire and I was a senior — there wasn’t a whole lot I could do because I was preparing to graduate — but all of my spare time was spent helping Rev. Jackson’s campaign do its work in small towns in New Hampshire."

Decide to be engaged. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Don’t be a benchwarmer — get involved in the game of life, the game of politics, at whatever level makes sense for you.

The Rev. Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention
You’ve since worked in different administration posts, and now twice as CEO of the convention. What advice do you have for women who want to create change in a similar way?
"I would say to them, 'Never underestimate your ability to make a difference. You don’t have to be a congressman or a senator or a judge to make a difference. You can make a difference every day at every level. Figure out the issue that you care about or the neighborhood that you care about or the policy that you care about and dive in. Learn as much as you can, become an expert, and get to work. There’s no lack of work, and nobody stands in the way of the hard workers. In politics, everybody loves a hard worker.' My father loves to say, 'When a student is ready, a teacher will appear.'…When you’re ready, teachers will present themselves, mentors will present themselves. Learn as much as you can, even if it means you go to a meeting and you don’t say anything. Sit and listen, soak it up.

"Decide to be engaged. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Don’t be a benchwarmer — get involved in the game of life, the game of politics, at whatever level makes sense for you. Some of us will run for office. Run, run hard and we will help you, but for some of us, that’s not our thing. I don’t want to run for office; I’m a good background player. That’s my gift to the party, but I had to learn it. I spent a lot of time making coffee, sending faxes, and clearing the Xerox machine, sitting on the wall in the meeting and listening to things and thinking, That was dumb, I’ve got a better idea. But I learned… The most important thing is, be willing to do the work, be willing to put the time in. Particularly in politics, and for women especially, you cannot move ahead if you haven’t done the work. We as women don’t have the luxury that men have of seeming to just step out from nowhere and suddenly rise. We have to work harder. It’s not fair, but it’s true."

I heard you love Beyoncé. Any chance she’ll be joining us in Philadelphia?
"I believe she’s in Sweden on the Formation tour, but we're going to see what we can do to get her to fly over for the night or so. We’ll see!"

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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