Since 1992, Steve Kerrigan has been at every Democratic National Convention save one: the 2008 confab in Denver, when Kerrigan, who was leading the surrogate scheduling and coordination effort, was anchored back at campaign headquarters in Chicago. Four years earlier, he helmed the host committee in Boston, helping that year’s convention win over a skeptical and cantankerous local public.
It was a natural fit for the Massachusetts native, who started working for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy as an 18-year-old and spent the next 14 years with him. Friends and former colleagues describe a reliable hand who earned the senator’s trust. “He’s someone that over the years, the extended Kennedy family has learned to rely on when they needed help,” says Jim Manley, another longtime Kennedy aide.
After Kerrigan’s 2008 stint with the Obama campaign, he took over convention planning at the Democratic National Committee and finally won the convention’s CEO spot in April 2011. Manley calls him “the quintessential staffer, just really good at what he does.… He’s good at problem-solving. He knows how to run a good meeting, he knows how to work with different coalitions to get toward an end. He knows politics, and he’s just real good at logistics.”
Kerrigan, who turns 41 this month, has Kennedy yarns to spare. He runs marathons to raise money for a nonprofit that supports the families of fallen service members. He talked with National Journal about the challenges of putting on the biggest show in politics. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ A lot of reports have raised concerns about fundraising for the convention. How worried were you, and how do you look at it now?
Kerrigan Anybody who does a job like this is concerned until the last bill is paid. We knew from the very beginning that how we pay for this convention was going to be very different. It was focused on engaging more Americans and bringing more people into this process. But we knew always that we would be in the position where we are today, which is [able] to put on the best convention possible for the president of the United States.
NJ Was there a turning point, when you breathed a sigh of relief and decided that you were going to hit your quotas?
Kerrigan No, I wouldn’t say there was any sort of turning point. We had the resources always to get the job done. Every fundraising effort has different moments when things happened. There was no one turning point; it was just pretty consistent throughout the process.
NJ After Denver, what sort of pressure is there to put on a different type of convention?
Kerrigan We’re trying to make it inclusive and to get as many people involved as possible. From the very beginning, the way we announced the convention, with an e-mail from the first lady, and the way we went about seeking people’s advice, that was the biggest piece of input we got. We’re bookending our convention weeks with events that allow more Americans to be a part of it. We asked ourselves, “How do we get everyday Americans to be part of this really special week, not just here in Charlotte but across the country?”
Too often, conventions were really, in the past, about party elites and powerful people and speeches and balloon drops and really backroom, shady stuff.
And this is really about Americans coming together with the idea of making the whole thing for everybody. We have the most diverse group of delegates in history; we have twice as many delegates coming as they had in Tampa. [Kerrigan figures the Democrats will have roughly 6,000 delegates and alternates in North Carolina, compared with his estimate of 3,000 in Florida for the GOP.] There’ll be live stream to smartphones, digital media. We’ve sought people’s engagement and invited them to stand up and be heard.
NJ What lessons did you learn from Denver?
Kerrigan What we learned in Denver in 2008 was that, even though there was a short period of time between when Senator Obama became the nominee in June and the convention in August, they were able to look at it as an organizing tool. And we’re looking to replicate that, with digital media and open-to-the-public caucuses that will take place at the convention center. The president’s instruction to
us when we were looking for a host city was to choose one that could impact an election, then plan a convention that could engage more Americans. That was one of the lessons we learned from Denver.
NJ With the shifting political climate in North Carolina, there’s been some trepidation about whether it was the right place for Democrats to go. Should the committee have chosen another spot?
Kerrigan Charlotte is a world-class city that is ready to host a world-class convention. It was the right city to choose in 2011; it’s the right city to be in right now.
NJ What kind of surprises are we expecting this week?
Kerrigan We’ll see. Whenever 35,000 people gather together, there’ll be some surprises.
This article appears in the September 1, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.