Bay State Democratic operatives will be working hard in Philadelphia this week, aiming for a flawless prime-time political show as the party nominates Hillary Clinton for president.
Stephen Kerrigan, CEO of the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and lieutenant governor candidate in 2014, said the Bay State is a reservoir of behind-the-scenes political talent.
“Massachusetts exports two great things: Cranberries and political hacks,” Kerrigan said in a phone interview last week. “And I count myself among them, so maybe say ‘operatives’ instead of ‘political hacks.’ ”
The writers room, where speeches are drafted, rewritten, fact-checked and “shaved” for time, is run by Jeff Nussbaum, who is from Weston, along with Kenneth Baer, according to Sen. Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who worked in the DNC writer’s room four years ago.
“You’re orchestrating and producing a live television show,” Lesser said. He said even high-level elected officials lack experience giving speeches in front of such a massive audience, and the timing of each speech leading up to the main attraction is carefully tracked to ensure the convention stays on time.
Once a presidential candidate emerges as the presumptive nominee, as Clinton did this spring, the convention defers to that victorious campaign on big decisions, Kerrigan said.
Charles Baker III, a Massachusetts Democrat and co-founder of Dewey Square Group, is the Clinton campaign’s chief administrative officer, and Lesser said Baker — not to be confused with the state’s Republican governor — is coordinating operations at the convention for Clinton.
Andrew Binns, who Kerrigan said is from Dorchester and was chief information officer four years ago at the Charlotte, North Carolina, convention, has been named chief innovation officer for the convention in Philadelphia.
A former staffer to the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy who attended his first convention more than 20 years ago, Kerrigan said technological advancements are the biggest change on the operations side from convention to convention.
“The app store had launched a week before the Denver convention” when President Barack Obama was first nominated, Kerrigan said. He said this year’s DNC app will probably have a broader reach than the more “utilitarian” app the party had four years ago, which was designed for attendees.
Other staffers from Massachusetts — anonymous and invisible to the millions who will tune in to coverage of the event — work in “podium operations,” which includes a variety of backstage responsibilities to keep the program running smoothly, and “speaker tracking” (tending to the needs of the officials who will take the stage), Kerrigan said.
Kerrigan, who will be helping Clinton’s “whip” operation as liaison from the campaign to delegates, watched the Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination Thursday night, with an eye for the craft.
“It’s very typical for Donald Trump and very different for conventions,” Kerrigan said.
Planners need to “maximize” their time on television as the networks follow rules that require equal time for each party’s convention, Kerrigan said. He expects “enhanced coverage” of the Democratic National Convention because of events running long in Cleveland where Republicans met this week.
This year puts Democrats in a position unique for the party in the modern era with a sitting president and vice president, neither of whom is running for the office. Kerrigan said the number of top officials who will need speaking time this year will create a time-crunch, and he wondered whether coveted slots, such as convention chair and “keynote” speaker, will be filled at all.
The president, vice president, first lady and the nominee’s spouse, himself a former president known for lengthy addresses, are all slated to speak.
“You have a lot more pressure on prime time than we’ve ever had before,” said Kerrigan.
At the RNC, House Speaker Paul Ryan was the chairman of the convention. Kerrigan said it is possible that Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, could chair the convention, too.
“There’s no requirement that you have a chair or a keynote speech,” Kerrigan said. He said, “It keeps us from having another principal.”
Obama had the keynote address in 2004 and Bill Clinton had it in 1988. In 2012, the keynote went to Julian Castro, who was then mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and is now Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
“It used to be like that was the place that the big up-and-comer would speak from,” Kerrigan said.
The CEO of this year’s convention is Rev. Leah Daughtry, who was CEO of the DNC in 2008.
Kerrigan said the longtime producer of the convention is Ricky Kirshner, who has also produced the Tony Awards and the Super Bowl halftime show.
While those in the writers room draft and check the speeches officials give on the floor, some go off script. In 2012, then-Congressman Barney Frank dispatched with his prepared remarks.
“I have the problem we all have when we speak here: There are a lot of issues to talk about, so the question is which ones do you pick,” Frank said on the convention stage.
“It was not what had been prepared,” said Kerrigan, who allowed that “sometimes off the cuff can be better.”
Former President Bill Clinton also strayed far from his written text and allotted time four years ago, issuing a lengthy criticism of Republican positions. Kerrigan recalled that convention staff received Clinton’s speech about 20 minutes before he went on stage.
“Everyone was kinda sweating bullets about that,” Lesser recalled. “Everyone calmed down when we saw how great it was.”
Various unexpected news stories emerged from Cleveland, giving the RNC a spontaneous feel conducive to live television. Melania Trump, the candidate’s wife, read plagiarized portions of a speech First Lady Michelle Obama gave eight years ago. Runner-up U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was booed by the convention audience after declining to endorse Trump and urging voters instead to “vote your conscience.”
“The moment it begins to the moment it ends there’s potential for there to be a problem,” Kerrigan said. “It’s how you react to them and how you respond.”
Lesser, who was special assistant to Obama’s former senior advisor David Axelrod before running for Senate, declined to identify any speech he worked on that gave him particular pride.
“The first rule of a speechwriter is that the words aren’t yours,” Lesser said.