Orange County native is tapped to coordinate what could be a wild Republican National Convention

Marcia Lee Kelly is the first woman and first Asian American to serve as director of operations for the Republican National Convention.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

There are tough jobs, and then there’s Marcia Lee Kelly’s job: organizing the Republican National Convention in Cleveland at a time of growing national unrest and an outspoken, often unpredictable presidential candidate named Donald Trump.

Like the GOP nominee himself, the event that kicks off Monday has the potential to go off script at any moment.

But Kelly, director of operations, betrays no special worry about the convention that’s expected to draw 2,470 delegates, more than 50,000 guests and about 15,000 members of the media, including a large international press corps. Various groups — from right-wing activists to left-wing anarchists — also have vowed to show up in a city still raw from the 2014 fatal police shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy with a pellet gun.


“We live in a volatile, somewhat dangerous world right now and we’re determined to make sure our guests and the city of Cleveland are safe,” said Kelly, 46. “You worry about what you can control. I write everything down. We start meetings on time. I always have an agenda. Always have next steps. It’s weird but the more intense things get, the calmer I get.”

About a year ago, Kelly moved from her home in Laguna Niguel to an apartment in Cleveland to start her new role. The youngest of five children of Korean immigrants, she is the first woman and first Asian American to take that mantle.

She leads a team of 25 people, juggling a master production schedule, 45 pages long for an event tagged with a $27-million budget for infrastructure. She is helping to supervise vendors, volunteers, credentialing, programming, security and venue logistics for the gathering — dubbed a “National Special Security Event.” It requires blueprints for all manner of protection — as well as monitoring airspace, transportation and pedestrian safety and trash collection.

Whitney Nichols, the RNC’s deputy director of operations, said Kelly is made for the task.

“She does not stop. Her brain runs in a way I’ve never seen before. She holds on to minute details while still seeing the 10,000-foot view,” Nichols said. “Somehow, she does it all with humor. Marcia keeps everybody laughing.”

When she moved to Cleveland, Kelly joined every museum in town. She left behind “good Asian food,” California sunsets and movie dates with her husband, a manager for Black Brand Motorcycle Clothing, and moments with Vader, Gigi and Mia — a Doberman, miniature pinscher and domestic short-haired cat.

During the 2008 and 2012 Republican national conventions in St. Paul, Minn., and Tampa, Fla., respectively, Kelly worked as a consultant for strategic planning and staffing. It was her precision and execution that won her an offer to come to Cleveland in June 2015. These days, she and her crew survive on a concession-stand diet, loaded with Peanut M&Ms, sugar and caffeine. “We’re lucky if we see a vegetable once a month,” Nichols said.


“I’ve given up the really cute shoes,” Kelly said, chuckling at her choice of comfort gear. “It’s goodbye, Jimmy Choos. Hello, Danskos.”

At earlier conventions, one central spot was designated for hosting delegations and presenting the party’s platform and the nominations for president and vice president. This time, six venues complete the layout for four days of intense politicking, shopping and dining — including the Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers toasted last month’s NBA Finals.

Ryan Price, who tackled Kelly’s current job at the 2012 Republican convention, described her as “a drill sergeant, but a very likable drill sergeant.”

Price, now the director of caucus operations, said Kelly’s management style results in “things getting done … correctly. To see what’s happening onstage and on TV, you could not imagine the attention given to each requirement behind the scenes.”

“Convention organizing means building an entire city on top of an existing city. It is just massive, massive work” and a “delicate dance,” says Nu Wexler, director of public policy communications at Twitter who has worked or volunteered at every Democratic National Convention since 2000. In Cleveland, he’ll be a participant looking out for one element.

“Donald Trump has talked before about bringing showbiz to conventions,” he said. “We shall see.”


The Secret Service is the top agency in charge of security, and agents will be posted throughout the arena, where guns in this open-carry state are prohibited. Local police are responsible for the outer perimeter.

There’s an event template that organizers like Kelly rely on, ensuring that each convention learns from the one before. And though observers will debate the message that Trump delivers to voters under the arena spotlight, the woman raised in New Jersey and New York avoids public discussions about politics.

She has worked on high-profile events in the past, including a post-Sept. 11 service with Oprah Winfrey and former President Bill Clinton. Kelly also served as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s director of special events, organizing New York Yankees ticker tape parades. And before the RNC, she managed fundraising and development for Trinity Law School in Santa Ana.

But this year’s convention might turn out to be a most memorable posting — with all the churn of possibilities inside and outside of the convention floor. Kelly said that she feels the responsibility of being the first woman and Asian American to direct the event.

“The weight is pretty heavy,” she said. “I hope to show I can do it as well as the boys — if not better.”


And what’s next after the lights dim?

“I have no idea,” she said. “Job search?”

Twitter: @newsterrier


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