The Black Woman Leading the DNC Explains Why It Will be Nothing Like the RNC7/21/2016
Next week the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia will look much different from what we've seen from the GOP in Cleveland. ...
And luckily, Secretary Clinton can lean on the well-oiled DNC infrastructure that's been put in place. This year's gathering is headed by Rev. Leah Daughtry, who returned to lead the convention after a successful tenure in 2008. As Chief Executive Officer, she's overseen planning for the Democratic gathering.
We sat down with Rev. Daughtry who explained that the DNC should be a celebration of the varied bodies, viewpoints, and life experiences that comprise the Big Tent party.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Leah Daughtry: This is less about ... I prefer to call it representation than diversity because our party is, as everybody knows, a big tent party. There are many groups of voters who make our party strong, who help us to win elections every cycle, who put our people into various offices that help us to advance the vision, the value, of the Democratic Party. I believe that those sets of voters ought to be represented in the party's infrastructure, behind the scenes, in front of the camera, in the way that we spend money and who we hire. This is about supporting and advancing the people who support and advance us.
KF: How do you make decisions about how to best reach so many groups?
LD: You mean in the convention or politically or-
KF: At the convention.
LD: First of all, it starts with what our message is and what our vision is and what the values are, and those emanate from the candidate, from who the nominee is. They set what the overall message of the convention is going to be. From that, we believe, because of who we are as a party and the diverse values and the diverse set of people who are inside of our tent, that the message that comes from our nominee tends to be overarching and obviously reflects that vision and those values. It's not difficult then to translate that into messages that resonate with a broad array of people. It is who we are as a party. When you talk about health care, the core values of the Democratic Party are about taking care of the least of these and about how you include and care for those who can't care for themselves.
Barney Frank has a great quote that says, "Government really is the things we decide to do together." That's really the party's values, how government plays a role in the everyday lives of people, particularly those who can't do or have fallen on hard times or are having a challenge in their lives. How do we as Americans, how do we as citizens, how do we as voters, how do we as Democrats, think about and care for those people who can't care for themselves for whatever reason? Even those who can care for themselves, how do we ensure that everybody has an equal chance, an equal shot, has the support that they need from community and from government to advance and to realize the promise of the American dream?
When you think about our message and our values, then it's very easy to think about how you message to people because you aren't crafting a message for black people or for women, the message already encompasses those values, encompasses the needs and the aspirations of African-American people, of women. Our values and our aspirations are like everybody else's. We want to succeed, we want to do better, we want our children to do better than we did. We want health care and we want housing and we want education and we want those things to be affordable and available and quality. That's not different from anybody else. Of course, for African-Americans, the overlay of race and the long history of racism causes us to see things through a different prism and for those resources to be available to us at varying levels, depending on the institutional systematic racism that exists in a particular institution.
When you come to Convention, what you'll see are those broad values and speakers who resonate with various communities, who represent the voters who vote for us. That's the way we reach people and hopefully they will see themselves on the convention stage. They will see their communities represented on the convention floor in the delegates who are there and the people who are speaking and the music that is played and the images that come across the screen.
KF: You mentioned the least of these. Anyone who's spent any time in Sunday School is going to recognize where that's from. How does faith inform your political work?
LD: I'm a pastor. I'm a 5th generation pastor. I've only been pastoring for 15 years ,and I say "only" because my dad's been pastoring for 60 years. Before I was a pastor, I was a pastor's kid and I'm a person of faith regardless of my title, regardless of my ordination. For me, my faith and my commitment to God and to the values that come from my holy text, which is the Bible, inform everything, every aspect of my life. Of course the politics, but who I'm friends with and how I move in the world and how I treat my neighbors and how I act in my community. For politics, I come to the Democratic Party because I think the party best represents the values that I find in my text.
Look, for me, the text is holy writ, so there is no political party that matches up exactly, but you got to vote. Jesus is not on the ballot, so you have to figure out the candidate that best represents that, closely aligns with the values of your faith, and for me, that becomes the Democratic party. Even outside of electoral politics, what my faith does is it informs the way that I act in the world in a political manner, small people political, so how I treat my neighbor, how I interact with school children who live on my block, how I interact with the school that's down the block from me in Brooklyn, what is my agency in the world around me. That's informed by my faith, so that means that everyone is my brother, everyone is my sister.
My friend named Obery Hendricks who wrote a book called The Politics of Jesus likes to say, "You treat the people's needs as holy." If I do that, then I understand that food, shelter, water, education, the need to learn, the need to grow, to have an environment that nourishes you and allows you to flourish, is part of the people's needs and those have to be treated as sacred and holy. I am impelled and compelled to ensure an environment and to work for, fight for, pray for an environment that allows people to flourish and become the full measure of who God intended them to be.
LD: It's everything. I don't know what it's like not to be a Black woman, so-
KF: Me neither.
LD: Exactly. I always find when people say, "How does it feel to be a Black woman at Dartmouth?", it's like, I know what it's like to be Leah at Dartmouth and Leah is a Black woman. I think that America, because of its long history of racism and all that we've gone through as a country, makes me more acutely aware, and perhaps sensitive's not the right word, but attuned to when I'm being treated differently. When you walk into the room and you're the only woman or you're the only Black person, you say, "Okay. Really?" I notice that in a way that perhaps my Caucasian brothers and sisters do not.
I also think, on the flip side, I am keenly aware that sometimes I am the only woman. I'm not one of these people to say, "I don't represent Black people." I know I do. I know when I walk into a room that I do bring people with me. As Maya said, "I come as one, I stand as 10,000." I know when I walk into a room, I'm not the only one, and I'm there to represent a community, my family, my church, Brooklyn, all the things that make me. I am keenly and consciously aware that if I screw up, that makes it harder for the next person, that makes it harder for the next woman, that makes it harder for the next black woman, and so I carry that with me all the time.
I don't go alone and I can't pretend or imagine or act as if I am here, in this role, by myself for myself. I'm there for all the other little Black girls and Black boys who come behind me, who will walk in the path that I have treaded, and I can either leave an easy path and I can leave an example where people say, "Yes it's possible. It can be done", or I can make their way hard by failing. That makes it more difficult for them, the door closes on them a little more, and they have to work harder to get through. It's those two things that hold attention, the slights and, even today, the slights and the ignorances that show when people don't ... Whoever's been living under a rock and they don't expect me when I walk in the door and they're still looking for the white woman or they're looking for the white guy. You experience all of that, but at the same time I'm here for all of the women and I have been allowed to walk into this space because of the work of the ancestors, because of the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan, and Alexis Herman. I'm aware of that. It encourages me and inspires me, but it also keeps me on my toes.
KF: You have been CEO of the DNC before, in 2008. In 2016 what's different from 2008?
LD: What's different? I know more. I understand the rhythm of the convention from the CEO's perspective a little better, so I'm not nearly as stressed as I was in 2008. For me, it's an interesting juxtaposition. In 2008, we had a similar primary process that went long. You had a candidate who was known quantity versus a candidate who was seen as an outsider who was thought to be bringing new people into the party. It's the same all over again. Deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say. This cycle. For me, it's sort of like, "Okay. I did this already." I think in that sense I'm uniquely positioned for this job because I understand what it is to manage a convention with a long primary. We hadn't had that in 2004, John Kerry was the nominee in March. 2000 it was Al Gore, we knew who that was. '96 it was Bill Clinton. We haven't had a long primary in a long time, so the fact that I did it in 2008 when we were similarly situated gives me a bit of a leg up, I think, in how to manage this time when we have a hot contest happening at this same time.
KF: That we do.
LD: It's interesting to watch it unfold all over again almost in the exact same way, except flipped a little bit, with Clinton and Sanders versus Clinton and Obama.