Gee Haw! The Democratic National Convention Takes the Reins in Charlotte

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By Jim Morrill

Seventy-two hours. That’s the time from the opening gavel of September’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte until President Barack Obama waves goodbye to thousands of cheering supporters at Bank of America Stadium. The shortest convention in generations, it has been more than a year in the making. Dozens of operatives from Washington have been planning an event designed to cast the president in the best light. Scores of people from Charlotte, led by two Davidson grads, are working hard to make the city shine bright. They’ll all roll out a red, white, and blue carpet for more than 35,000 people, including 6,000 delegates and 15,000 reporters.

The economic benefit to Charlotte is expected to be more than $150 million. But the total impact won’t be measured just in dollars, but in opportunities.

In a leafy neighborhood miles from uptown, the Charlotte Community Health Clinic occupies a squat brick building off East Independence Boulevard. The clinic, in one of the city’s most diverse enclaves, provides health care to uninsured people from more than 60 countries.

On a sunny morning Dan Murrey ’87 is outside pushing a wheelbarrow filled with topsoil. Murrey—the executive director of the city’s convention host committee— is among a dozen T-shirt clad volunteers building a community garden next to the clinic. As TV cameras watch, Mayor Anthony Foxx ’93 coaxes a young tomato plant into fresh soil.

The project is a partnership between the clinic, Friendship Gardens, and the host committee. The aim is to help patients get a healthier diet. But it’s also part of a larger goal. It’s one of the so-called legacy projects that convention organizers hope will leave a lasting impact long after the last delegate leaves town.

“If the convention can help bring a focus on this issue, it can help us change the course for our children,” Murrey tells a knot of reporters. “We can show not only the world when they come to our convention, but we can show our community.”

Organizers are trying to leverage the three-day convention, which has already recruited thousands of volunteers, into lasting civic opportunities by harnessing the energy and exposure the event will bring. Opportunity for city boosters hankering for an international spotlight. Opportunity for people toting wheelbarrows of dirt.

“People in Charlotte care about their community,” says Torre Jessup, deputy executive director of external relations for the host committee. “We tend to come together and make things happen.”

The legacy program itself covers a range of initiatives in health and economic opportunities, among other things, all designed to widen the convention’s impact. Microsoft, for example, hosted a career day for around 100 high school kids. A public“Dialogue Series” moderated by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree has brought prominent speakers like U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan to Charlotte.

“When we got the convention in Charlotte a lot of people were a little skeptical that it was a political event and nothing more,” says Foxx. “What we said then was we wanted to make this convention an enduring moment in our community. What goes in the ground will be there for a long time.”

Any event that attracts a world spotlight can change a city’s image. Just ask Mike Dino. He ran the host committee for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

“The most surprising impact of the Denver convention was how quickly the success of this event elevated our city to an entirely different level from a national perspective,” Dino says. “The longest lasting impact has been the goodwill and enduring pride that our community continues to feel about the convention.”

Charlotte has always been a city of aspirations. Many have been realized. Majorleague sports: check. Banking powerhouse: check. Vibrant downtown: check. Worldclass city…not quite. The convention offers a chance to change that, or at least to lose that annoying “N.C.” after a Charlotte dateline.

A successful convention would raise the city’s profile, maybe persuade new companies to move in, bringing jobs and economic opportunities with them. More big events might come to the city. Atlanta, for example, hosted the Democratic convention in 1988. Eight years later it welcomed the summer Olympics. Now Denver wants a Winter Olympics.

Of course, there’s a lot that could go wrong. Protests could get out of control. The weather could become a literal damper, particularly for the president’s outdoor acceptance speech. Traffic, no matter how well-planned, could keep people from their jobs or visitors from their parties.

“These things are high risk and high reward,” says Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber. “We would much rather be Denver in ’08 than Chicago in ’68.”

It takes more than a village to put on a convention. It’s a world-class production that involves everybody from Secret Service officials to White House advisers to local party planners. The entire tab, including federal security dollars and money raised by local organizers, could top $120 million. For Charlotte, the payoff will come in national and worldwide attention.

“The reason you do any convention is twofold,” says Will Miller ’78, one of the city’s earliest convention organizers. “One is the immediate economic impact. The second is the exposure your city gets that you hope translates into future investment and job creation. That’s true whether it’s the Democratic convention or the NRA or Mary Kay.”

Fortune magazine has profiled the city. Other publications have written about it too, not always in the best light. Some focused on the awkward relationship between organized labor, one of Democrats’ main constituencies, and a party convention in the nation’s least-unionized state. Others headlined the political impact of a scandalplagued state party in a key presidential battleground. Still others speculated about fundraising trouble.

The president’s political messaging is the job of the Democratic National Convention Committee. But it’s up to local organizers like Foxx and Murrey to make sure the Charlotte area looks good.

“The most important thing in [Murrey’s] job is making sure you realize the huge benefits this convention can have for Charlotte and this region,” convention CEO Steve Kerrigan told the Charlotte Observer.

Murrey is a surgeon on leave from his job as CEO of OrthoCarolina. Both he and the mayor have traveled the state, and even the country, telling their version of Charlotte’s story.

“This community is a great backdrop for the convention,” Foxx says, “because we have such a sense of resilience in Charlotte. Basically, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves economically.”

Morgan, of the Chamber, believes that story will pay dividends. Worldwide exposure for a city where foreign employers already have increased their footprint can only help. Denver, he says, touts companies that moved there after the convention. “We will be very disappointed if that is not one of the long-term legacies of this convention,” he says.

People like Mike Whitehead are doing their part.

One day last spring the Charlotte consultant was among business leaders who met atop the Duke Energy Center with convention boosters, including Duke CEO Jim Rogers, who co-chairs the host committee with Foxx. After Rogers asked for more fundraising help, Whitehead surprised even himself by standing up. He’d ask 100 friends for $1,000 each, he said. Not for Obama. For Charlotte.

“I just want people to realize that we all need to invest in this,” he says, “because we’re all going to get a return.”

The gold SUV rolled down I-77 from Davidson to Charlotte twice a week last spring, headed to Democratic convention headquarters. On the bumper: a Mitt Romney sticker. At the wheel: 21-year-old Billy Hackenson ’13.

Hackenson, Davidson’s student body president, is a Republican. He’s also a political junkie, ever since the days he toured the White House as a kid with his dad, a Secret Service agent. Last semester he was one of several Davidson students who interned for the host committee, working on the staffs of either local or national convention organizers.

For students like Hackenson, the convention has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see one of the touchstones of American politics from the inside. Never mind that the Democrats aren’t his party.

“If politics is something I want to go into, I thought it would be beneficial to see how ‘the other side’ thinks,” he says at a Charlotte coffee shop. “Working with someone who doesn’t think the same way challenges you.”

For four months Hackenson worked in the committee’s communications office, drafting press releases and cataloging news stories. Co-workers teased him about being a Republican. Some joked that they would convert him. He sat at a desk outside an office used by another Davidson student body president, Mayor Anthony Foxx.

For Hackenson and other students, internships dovetailed with interests and academics, if not always with ideology. Some interned while taking a Davidson course on political conventions. And they found convention headquarters an outstanding classroom.

“Initially I thought conventions had been all show, that for the most part you knew who the [candidate]is going to be,” Hackenson says. “Now I find that there are so many moving pieces in something like this that I never would have imagined.”

Eight flights up in the old Wachovia building at Democratic National Convention Committee headquarters, Cas Peters ’12 has gotten his own crash course in conventions.

A newly minted Davidson grad, he parlayed a pair of internships—last year in the mayor’s office and this year with the convention—into a full-time job on the credentials team. Now Peters helps keep track of credentials, the currency of every convention. Credentials for delegates. For VIPs. For major donors. He credits help along the way from Will Miller, his mentor in the Leadership Davidson program, and former college President Tom Ross ’72, among others.

“That’s what college should be, and that’s why Davidson is such a great place,” the 21-year-old Peters says in a conference room dotted with political memorabilia. “I am loving what I’m doing.”

Like Peters, Hackenson got an inside look he’ll remember for a lifetime.

“Having the internship for me was so incredible, because you learn civics from the ground level,” Hackenson says. “Being able to put what Professor Pat Sellers and our class were talking about in [political]communications with the daily work I was doing…made my overall understanding of politics all the better. You’re combining theory with practice.”

Students in Associate Professor Susan Roberts’s political science class were working on the convention before Charlotte even won the bid to host it.

That’s because Will Miller was, too.

Miller had become the host committee’s acting executive director in July 2010. For months, he helped prepare the ground and build the city’s case, even hiring a pair of Washington consultants. That fall, he turned to Roberts’s American Government class for help.

At the time, Charlotte was a finalist for the convention, with Cleveland and St. Louis. But Miller saw St. Louis as Charlotte’s main rival. So he asked Roberts and her class to compare the cities.

“You always want to know your opponent, right?” Miller recalls. “We approached this just like a political campaign.”

Roberts’s class cast a wide net. Students compiled demographic and economic data, as well as election outcomes into a tale of the tape. The exact impact of their work is unclear. But a few weeks after the students finished, Charlotte won the convention. For Roberts, that was just the beginning.

Sitting in her office on the second floor of Chambers, she’s a barely contained bundle of energy and enthusiasm. Having a national political convention in the backyard is a political scientist’s dream. As co-chair of Davidson’s convention coordinating committee, she helped bring major speakers to campus last spring. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political messaging from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, analyzed the art of political ads. Tom Jensen of Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling trumpeted North Carolina’s new status as a “purple” swing state.

Roberts recruited me to teach a course on conventions. It looked at the history of political conventions and the evolution of the presidential nominating process, still a work in progress after more than 200 years. Students heard from Murrey, Foxx, and Kerrigan.

“Conventions,” says Roberts, “are not covered in American political science literature.”

Despite its 8:15 a.m. start time, the conventions class attracted political science majors, students from other disciplines, and political junkies. The Republican presidential primary offered a constant backdrop.

“I wanted a reason to become politically aware and involved, and having the DN C in Charlotte and the convention class was an awesome opportunity for me to start learning about the presidential election process,” says Rosie Strawn ’13, an anthropology major.

The election year allowed other Davidson faculty to contribute to the national discussion. Josh Putnam, a visiting assistant professor of political science and author of a blog called FHQ, is an expert on the arcane calculus of delegate selection. He was often quoted in media such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. This summer he co-taught a conventions course at Davidson with a professor from UNC Charlotte.

Roberts and colleagues elsewhere on campus are planning other events to coordinate with the convention next semester. The President’s Office is working with Siemens, a global electronics powerhouse, to organize a major panel focusing on energy. Mayor Foxx, along with other national leaders, will participate.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for our involvement and for our students to see some hands-on political science,” Roberts says. “Our approach has been a non-partisan approach to a partisan event.”

Four years ago, Madeleine Albright’s National Democratic Institute brought 500 leaders from more than 100 countries to the Democratic convention in Denver. Before nightly convention sessions, its International Leaders Forum (ILF) sponsored high-profile panels on a range of global and American political issues. When Albright came to Charlotte a few months ago, she talked about her plans to bring around 350 foreign leaders to see “the face of America.” During the convention they’ll take part in community discussions about national and international issues.

“Charlotte is a globalizing city that has more and more interests abroad and wants to have more interactions with (international) leaders,” she told a group of Charlotte Observer editors and reporters. “This is the New South. This is a great city. And I think we want to use the convention as a way of really showing a face of America that they need to know.”

The Charlotte Chamber plans teachable moments of its own. It has been asked to take the foreign dignitaries on bus tours of Charlotte. Morgan, the chamber president, hopes discussions lead to new businesses, maybe even consulates, in the Queen City.

The Obama campaign hopes September’s convention can move the needle in a state he narrowly carried in 2008. For them, the convention is not only a three-day platform, but an organizing tool that could be a difference-maker in a close race. They plan to engage voters not just on TV and through social media but in person. Thousands are expected at a Labor Day “CarolinaFest,” and even more will later attend Obama’s acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium.

But for most Charlotteans, the convention will be about opportunity. In businesses. In academics. In teachable moments.

Outside the Charlotte Community Health Clinic, surrounded by convention volunteers, Mayor Anthony Foxx talked to reporters about the garden they had just built and what he hoped will be the legacies of September.

“When people, after this convention, ask what did this convention mean? There’s going to be this garden here,” he said. “To me, that’s going to tell the story.”

Jim Morrill covers politics for the Charlotte Observer.

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