Leah Daughtry is preparing to pray.
Hands clasped, elbows on the table, the Pentecostal minister leans toward the conference phone and speaks. “We’ve confirmed all the readings except the Buddhist person,” she says.
Daughtry is planning the interfaith celebration of song and prayer that will kick off the Democratic National Convention. Still needed are a Muslim, a Jew, a Catholic and a white evangelical to close. Then another wrinkle: Staffers say the Buddhist may have to yield to a congresswoman angling for a spot onstage. “More women is never a bad thing,” Daughtry allows, quickly moving on.
As a fifth-generation minister and veteran political planner, Daughtry seems perfectly suited for the administrative and ecumenical task posed by the gathering and its Noah’s Ark of speakers. But her work goes far beyond that one event and even her duties as chief executive of the Denver convention, which opens Sunday.
Daughtry, who keeps an altar at home and devotes a predawn hour a day to prayer and Bible study, is on a mission to narrow the “God gap” between Democrats and Republicans by winning over religious voters who have flocked to the GOP over the last 20 years.
“There are millions of Americans across this country for whom faith is important,” says Daughtry, who leads an unprecedented party effort targeting the devout. “And whether they vote on the basis of their faith, or whether they vote about issues that are somehow connected to their faith, we should be reaching out to them.”
That doesn’t mean changing the party’s values, she adds, but moving past issues like abortion and showing that people of faith are not only welcome inside the Democratic Party but wanted.
“There are shades and gradations of what it means to be a Democrat,” Daughtry says in her modestly appointed convention office. “We’re not all Los Angeles, New York, Birkenstock-wearing Democrats.”
Over the last generation, religious voters have become the bedrock of the GOP, with surveys showing the more a person attends services, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. President Bush worked hard to woo the faithful, and in 2004 won the support of nearly 8 in 10 white evangelicals, accounting for a third of all his votes.
But that support may be slipping. A Pew Research Center poll found Bush’s approval among young evangelicals falling from 87% early in his term to 42% in August 2007. A June survey by Calvin College, a Christian school in Michigan, found that for the first time since President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, a larger percentage of mainline Protestants called themselves Democrats than Republicans.
That may reflect unhappiness with Bush and the GOP amid a weak economy and an unpopular war. But there is also a growing chorus of religious leaders urging worshipers to weigh matters such as poverty, healthcare and environmentalism when they vote.
“The top issues are no longer just abortion and gay marriage,” said campaign strategist Eric Sapp, who works with Democrats on faith outreach. “That creates opportunity.”
Enter Daughtry, 44, a self-described “black chick from Brooklyn,” who was born into politics and the Pentecostal faith. Her father, the Rev. Herb Daughtry, is a longtime civil rights activist. Her earliest memory is walking down a flight of stairs from the family apartment to services, then down another level to dinner with congregants. “It was seamless,” she says.
Daughtry found her professional calling in her senior year at Dartmouth, where she ran the campus campaign for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid. Jackson, a family friend, did her a favor; Daughtry knew nothing about political organizing. “He allowed me to experiment on him,” she says.
After graduating, Daughtry headed to Capitol Hill. She moved to the Labor Department under President Clinton, and in 2002 became chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee. Last year she took charge in Denver, her fourth convention. The city has struggled to raise money, but Daughtry -- unflappable and diplomatic, as her juggling of the Sunday lineup suggests -- has kept planning on track.
“Very focused. Very talented,” said Steve Farber, a Denver lawyer who helped land the convention. “She gets the job done.”
Faith has been a constant in Daughtry’s life. She sang in the choir at her church, ran its affairs and worked in the kitchen. But she felt God wanted more.
“I don’t have any more hours in a day,” she remembers despairing, but lost the argument. “God doesn’t allow me to be bossy with him,” she says with a deep laugh.
Daughtry began her pastorate in October 2003, though she hates “being on display” and dreads every time she stands up to speak. Her frequent, guileless invocations of God and prayer is rare in politics, and rarer still among Democrats. But Daughtry says churches, mosques and synagogues are filled with worshipers who might vote Democratic if only candidates discussed their beliefs and how they informed their politics.
Disappointed after the 2004 election -- and armed with data showing the correlation between faith and voting -- Daughtry launched Faith in Action, an effort to turn the devout into Democrats. There were doubts inside the party.
“People thought, ‘Gee, is this Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell?’ ” party Chairman Howard Dean says.
But Daughtry was not interested in “beating people over the head with moral issues” or dictating political theology from Washington.
Instead, Daughtry and her interdenominational staff of six have held countless meetings with religious leaders across the country, listening to their concerns and working to move the discussion beyond contentious social issues. That means appealing to Orthodox Jews -- with their large families -- by talking about government-funded healthcare for children, or courting Muslims with a promise to fight discrimination and post-Sept. 11 profiling.
A big test will come this fall. Likely party standard-bearer Barack Obama has courted religious voters like no Democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter. A week after the primaries ended, the Illinois senator met privately with a group of conservative religious leaders, winning positive reviews.
“We want people of faith to know that Barack Obama is a viable option and a candidate who’s not ashamed to stand up and talk about his values,” says Joshua DuBois, the campaign’s director of religious affairs, whose staff has conducted more than 200 “faith town halls” for religious leaders and their followers.
Obama probably can’t erase the God gap, even if he seems more comfortable discussing his Christianity than the last two Democratic nominees or, for that matter, his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. A recent Pew poll found Obama trailing McCain among white evangelicals, mainline Protestants and non-Hispanic Catholics. But McCain’s support was below Bush’s levels, and even small gains by Obama -- winning, say, just 1 in 3 white evangelicals -- could significantly reshape the electoral map, says Allen Hertzke, a University of Oklahoma expert on religion and politics.
“Democrats have developed a keen awareness of the problem and they’re seriously engaged in trying to narrow the gap,” Hertzke says. “That in itself is a significant change from 2000 and 2004.”
But Daughtry is looking past November. “Obviously, you want to win elections,” she says. But more important “is the extent to which we allow people of faith to be a vibrant, active part of the party. Because that is a longer-term benefit with greater implications . . . than what one election may or may not yield.”