On a blustery winter afternoon, Leah Daughtry is sitting in Sheplers Western Wear, surrounded by a sea of cowboy boots—every color and style in her size—while an entourage of support staff and sales clerks schools the New York native in “boot etiquette.” You don’t wear boots without socks, they tell her. And that alligator pair, they say, yes, those would look touristy. Daughtry may be a boot novice, but she wastes no time waving away the pink boots. Pink, she says, is not her color.
A year ago, Daughtry, a self-described “black chick from Brooklyn,” might have waved away the very idea of wearing cowboy boots, and, for that matter, of living in Denver. Then, Daughtry was comfortably settled in Washington, D.C., doing double duty as the chief of staff for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and as pastor of the House of the Lord Church, a small Pentecostal congregation. And then, one winter day a year ago, DNC chairman and former Vermont governor Howard Dean bounded into Daughtry’s office and exclaimed, “I found us the perfect CEO” to run the Democratic Convention. She realized at that moment that she’d just been volunteered for the job.
Daughtry, 44, reluctantly accepted the role of convention CEO, in part, because of her faith. She may report to Dean, whom she calls “The Governor,” but she takes her cues from a higher power. “I stopped trying to preplan a lot of this years ago,” Daughtry says. “In the end, all people of faith have to make a decision: whether you want what you want, or whether you want what God wants you to have.” And, apparently, God wants Leah Daughtry to have a pair of chocolate-brown, rose-stitched Tony Lama cowboy boots—and the reins of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
When national media got wind that a Pentecostal minister was running the Democratic convention, the headlines—”Helping Democrats Find A Way To Reach The Religious;” “Pastor’s Mission To Bring ‘Values Voters’ Into Dems’ Flock”—practically wrote themselves. Reporters showed up at church en masse to get a look at the tiny black woman (Daughtry is just 5 feet 4 inches tall) with the huge voice, belting out the Lord’s words. After all, the media loves an anomaly, and a Democratic Party leader that also happens to be an evangelical pastor sure seems like an anomaly.
But perhaps the most striking thing about Daughtry is not that she’s both a Democrat and a Bible-thumping mouthpiece for her Lord and Savior. It’s that she doesn’t seem much like a calculating politician at all. Daughtry may be at the helm of what’s shaping up to be the most important political convention in a century—a convention that’s strategically placed in the West and is poised to nominate the party’s first-ever African-American or female candidate. But Daughtry’s job, beyond running the historic convention, is both simple and monumental: bringing people back to the Democrats because she truly believes that theirs is the party of faith and values.
Daughtry argues that the desire to do more than just talk about values—to act on them—is what separates her party from the GOP. “The values we say we have carry over into public office. There’s no dichotomy there,” Daughtry says, launching into a bit of Scripture. “‘Children are an inheritance from the Lord.’ If you accept this as true, then you must also accept that it’s your responsibility to take care of this inheritance, to take care of all children,” she insists. That means supporting education and children’s health insurance, Daughtry says, as well as making sure kids have healthy air, safe food, and safe communities. Respecting the elderly means making sure Social Security is solvent and that health care is available and affordable. Honoring veterans means making sure they receive proper medical treatment and compensation when they return home.
“There are millions of people like me, who are people of faith, people of values, who vote Democratic because we think that’s where our faith and values lead us…. I really think that I represent the best of our party,” she says, launching into the abbreviated Leah Daughtry biography: oldest daughter of a civil rights leader and preacher; product of urban public schools who made it to the Ivy League (Dartmouth); idealistic congressional intern who, at age 37, became an assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration and has spent the last six years as her party’s chief of staff. As she talks, the attitude creeps into her voice—Daughtry may not live in Brooklyn anymore, but it’s clear that part of her never left. “To be told that our party has no values and is not welcoming to people of faith is just insulting.”
Yet in 2004, the Democrats clearly lost the perceived “values war” to the Republicans: Eighty percent of voters who chose “moral values” as their top issue in that election pulled the lever for President George W. Bush. Daughtry knew it wasn’t because the Democratic Party didn’t have values; they just weren’t talking about them. So she made her case to former Governor Dean, and her famously secular boss told Daughtry to go reclaim the faithful.
Since Daughtry moved to Denver in October 2007, she has returned to Washington every other Thursday evening. After landing, she cabs or takes the metro directly to Bible study, which is run out of the basement of her old apartment building. The next day, she’s at the DNC offices for her famous Michael or Mama Corleone Fridays—for the former, Daughtry plays the heavy to wayward employees and gets the house in order; for the latter, she is the soothing, supportive mother figure.
For the next five months, however, Daughtry’s main gig will primarily consist of being the face of the Democrats in Denver, speaking to crowds, delivering the message. Her goal: to turn the Pepsi Center—and downtown—into a stage for the Democratic Party platform. Daughtry divides her time between the logistical organizing of the convention—all of the details of bringing in 35,000 visitors, such as issuing press credentials, organizing delegate housing—and traveling the state, talking to Coloradans about the approaching convention. She schmoozes at the governor’s mansion. She judges donkey contests. Daughtry has also made community service by her staff here in Denver a top priority, organizing monthly events such as serving breakfast at Urban Peak (with First Lady Ritter) and painting classrooms at Manual High School.
It’s work she loves—she is, after all, trying to shepherd the flock back to the Democrats—but Daughtry appears to be less comfortable being the voice of a political party than being the voice of God. Introducing Governor Bill Ritter at the DNC fall meeting, Daughtry looks self-conscious and sounds scripted. Ritter is “my governor.” She cheers for “our Colorado Rockies.” In robes at the pulpit, Daughtry roars. In pearls behind a podium, Daughtry, the un-politician, treads cautiously.
That is, until someone at the DNC fall meeting cracks a joke about the Colorado delegation and Daughtry’s Don Corleone comes out. “Uh-huuuuuuh….” Daughtry eyes a few of the audience members. “Your hotel rooms are now in peril,” she says, joking—and at the same time making clear to everyone in the room that she’s the boss.