News (USA)

Countdown underway toward open and inclusive Democratic Convention

CHARLOTTE — Walk into Steve Kerrigan’s office on the 13th floor of the old Wachovia Center in Uptown Charlotte and you’ll get a sense that this is a man on the move. He has no choice. The countdown clock mounted firmly across from his desk says it all. The 2012 Democratic National Convention used to be months away, but time is ticking.

Nine months after qnotes first spoke with Kerrigan, the openly gay CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, we sat down with him again on July 31, just 37 days from when President Barack Obama will take the stage at Bank of America Stadium to give his acceptance speech for a shot at another four years in the White House.

When that time comes, Kerrigan says, he’ll consider his job done — and what a job it has been.

Jimmie Cobb, JCdigital PHOTOGRAPHY works
DNCC CEO Steve Kerrigan talks inclusion, party platform and convention planning in his office in Uptown Charlotte.

Kerrigan has lived and worked in Charlotte since last June. It’s long enough, he says, to make Charlotte feel like home.

“I travel an awful lot for work and you get one of those ‘it’s nice to be back home’ feelings when you touch down at the airport and you’re driving back into Uptown which is where I live,” Kerrigan says.

Uptown is also where he works, managing over 150 staff members and working with partners like the local Charlotte in 2012 host committee and local police.

“There really isn’t a typical day,” Kerrigan says. “My days are really working with the staff both here in Charlotte, our team in Chicago with the campaign and our team in D.C. to make sure we fulfill the president’s vision in making this the most open and accessible convention ever.”

That vision calls for some special touches and Kerrigan says his planners are working to make this convention unique. It’s the first time convention organizers have placed limits on corporate, lobbyist and political action committee contributions. Kerrigan says the goal is to engage more Americans and the grassroots of the Democratic Party.

More convention activities will also be open to the public.

“This is the first convention ever where our number one focus has been to engage more Americans in convention planning and what we’re doing here,” he says. “It’s the first convention in history to open and close the convention with events that are open to the public that provide tens of thousands more Americans an opportunity to get involved and get engaged.”

The openness is a departure from past conventions. The 2008 convention in Denver was one of the first to use its presence in a state to actively organize voters and volunteers for a candidate’s campaign. Charlotte — the largest city in a battleground state the Obama campaign hopes to keep in their column — will be no different.

“In the past, we hadn’t really used conventions for organizing tools and for engaging Americans,” Kerrigan says. “You can’t just put a convention in a state and expect to impact the election in that state just by physically being there. It’s how you use the convention and how you engage them.”

Kerrigan is quick to point out just how much his party’s convention will differ from his political opponents’ gathering in Tampa, Fla., one week prior to the DNC.

“Our friends down further south … chose to put their convention in a battleground state as well and instead have chosen to do the exact same convention they do every four years — closed-door sessions, political elite [and] attendees, nothing open to the public,” he says.

Party of Inclusion

The DNC will differ from the Republican National Convention in other ways as well. Members of the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee have included proposed language for a marriage equality plank. The exact wording isn’t known, but should be finalized in a second meeting in Detroit next week.

Some pundits have said the plank could cause rifts. Debates on marriage equality and anti-gay state constitutional amendments have ripped through communities across the nation for a decade. In North Carolina, the LGBT community is still feeling the sting after voters decided to adopt  their own anti-gay amendment in May.

Movement leaders on convention committees say this year’s convention will highlight progressive and LGBT caucuses like never before. As for division or controversy? Kerrigan and others think it won’t be in issue.

“In this party, I don’t think that it will be divisive,” Kerrigan says of the new marriage plank. “Certainly, it’s something I support. The president supports it. It’s another step for this party to really prove that it is the party of equality and inclusiveness and, frankly, civil rights.”

Obama announced his position on full marriage equality for same-sex couples one day after North Carolina’s amendment vote. Kerrigan says that election was the first time he voted outside of of his native Boston.

“The next day, I was touring the Time Warner Cable Arena when the president came out in support of marriage equality,” he says. “I think those moments, as hard as that Tuesday, May 8 vote was, those moments when the leader of a country, the leader of a party and a people stand up and says, ‘Enough, this is about equality and everyone should have the right to marry the person they love’ — that’s a moment that I think, this year, will always go down in history as a significant moment.”

In an election season where other presidential candidates and conservative leaders took the opposite position, Kerrigan says the president’s position draws distinct contrasts.

“I’m thrilled to have that president come here to accept our party’s nomination for a second term because his brand of leadership and his brand of courage in standing up and saying what others might not say in an election year is really what makes me proud to be a Democrat and proud to work for the president,” he says.

A Welcoming City

The May amendment vote attracted national attention. When it passed, LGBT activists across the country began to call for boycotts of the state. Some asked DNC organizers to pull out of Charlotte.

Those calls urged a response from openly gay Chapel Hill, N.C., Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, an at-large convention delegate for the state, who said talk of boycotts should be set aside.

“End this talk of boycott,” Kleinschmidt wrote at The Huffington Post, drawing attention to progressive areas of the state where the amendment failed, his town and Charlotte included. “Visit North Carolina, and help us have the conversations necessary to move this state forward. None of us can do this alone.”

The notion that North Carolina is unfriendly to LGBT people doesn’t reflect reality. When LGBT delegates and guests show up in Charlotte, Kerrigan says they will have nothing to fear.

“It’s an incredibly warm place,” Kerrigan says. “The hospitality is great. I’ve really enjoyed every aspect of it.”

Kerrigan also notes the local LGBT community’s active role in helping bring the convention to their city.

“From the very beginning during the bid, the community was very involved with pushing for the bid,” he says.

The local community has also stepped up during the planning process. Several openly gay locals either work for the Charlotte in 2012 host committee or are planning welcome events and other activities for convention guests.

“I think the delegates and guests will find it as I did which is very warm and welcoming and diverse,” Kerrigan says. “The LGBT community here is just as diverse as every other aspect of community life here. And, so I think that is what will be really surprising to people but wonderful as well.”

Security and Protests

Despite promises of openness and accessibility, convention organizing has attracted criticism from some who plan on coming to Charlotte to demonstrate during the event.

Charlotte City Council adopted a new “extraordinary event” ordinance in January. It gives City Manager Curt Walton unilateral control over tightening security procedures and banning certain items that could be used as weapons or carrying backpacks or using scarves and masks with the “intent” to conceal weapons or identities.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has objected to the ordinance’s vague wording and has urged law enforcement to rely on their traditional policing standards of probable cause and reasonable suspicion.

The ordinance has been used in some local events already and city leaders have announced they will declare the DNC one of their “extraordinary” events.

Kerrigan says he’s “very confident” that law enforcement agencies will be able to balance security needs with the rights of demonstrators, which some have estimated could rival the 35,000 or more delegates, guests and media expected to visit the city.

“The security plan is something that has been being developed for over a year now by a lot of great and hardworking folks in public safety, both the federal Secret Service [the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department] and others,” he says.

The plans, he says, will ensure that demonstrators and convention attendees have a safe and secure experience while giving people the ability to speak out and protest.

“That’s really what a Democratic convention should be about is that folks should have the opportunity to come here and express their views whether they are supportive of our party or not,” Kerrigan says. “This is the Democratic Party and this is a part of the Democratic process in our country.”

Some security plans for Tampa have already been released, but organizers in Charlotte have yet to announce details. Kerrigan says information will be released soon.

“It will be done in a way that will allow everybody who needs to to do appropriate planning for themselves and to make sure they can get in and around,” he says. “Our goal has been from the very beginning to create as little disruption on the average, everyday Charlottean’s life and we think we’ll be able to do that with these plans.”

Get Involved

Kerrigan hopes the DNC will provide local citizens and members of the LGBT community opportunities to get involved. He encourages people to follow the convention on Twitter and other digital platforms. One of 13 caucus and council meetings open to the public will be an LGBT caucus held during the first two days of the event. The local host committee’s “Carolina Fest” on Labor Day offers more opportunities for engagement.

“I would encourage folks … to get involved in Carolina Fest and work with our host committee partners to get involved with that and show folks the great opportunities we have here in Charlotte and to attend the caucus meetings and really become a part of the process and a part of this convention,” Kerrigan says.

Community members also have the chance to sign up at to volunteer and receive community credentials to attend Obama’s speech on Sept. 6.

“There are lots of opportunities for the entire community to get involved in what we’re doing here in Charlotte,” Kerrigan says.

When they do, they’ll be fulfilling what Kerrigan says has been the convention’s most important focus since planning began: “Engaging Americans and Americans coming together toward the single purpose of moving our country in the right direction.”

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