Putting Faith In A ‘Black Chick From Brooklyn’

It sounds like the start of a Woody Allen joke: an evangelical, a Catholic, a Jew and a Muslim are sitting around a table talking politics. Only there's no punch line, since none of the people gathered—staffers for the Democratic Party's new Faith in Action Initiative—find their mission funny. Twice a week, the group of seven gets together at headquarters in Washington, D.C., and tries to figure out how to lure religious voters away from the Republicans. At the head of the table sits the group's charismatic, irrepressible leader, 44-year-old Leah Daughtry, a Pentecostal pastor and one-woman hurricane of a political operative who, when she isn't speaking English in slow, soothing tones, can sometimes be found speaking in tongues.

Daughtry is unknown outside Washington, but within the world of Democratic politics, the "black chick from Brooklyn," as she calls herself, is a powerful player. In her job as chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee—No. 2 to Chairman Howard Dean—she runs the party's day-to-day national strategy. Daughtry is also in charge of planning the Democratic convention next summer in Denver. But as she sees it, that's nowhere near as daunting a challenge as her efforts to shake Democrats free of their image as a faith-averse party whose candidates care about "values voters" only in an election year. "We're not talking about changing the party's platform," she tells NEWSWEEK. " But there's a way that we can explain ourselves and present ourselves that will resonate better."

The party has tried preaching to religious voters in the past, encouraging Democratic candidates to talk about their personal faith; to adopt the GOP's language of "values" and "morals," and to quote from the Bible. But talking about faith can get the Democrats only so far—especially among conservative Christians, who will not vote for candidates who favor abortion and gay rights, no matter how often they go to church. Knowing this, Daughtry has set more-modest goals. "We want to maintain the groups we've traditionally held—African-American churches and mainline Protestants," she says. But they're also reaching out to religious voters she calls "persuadables," more-liberal Catholic parishes that may be less stringent about abortion and a younger generation of evangelicals who say their faith teaches them that global warming and poverty are as important as trying to stop abortions and gay marriage.

Daughtry is working hard to get their attention. "This is the first time there's been a … smart and timely outreach to people of faith," says Matt Dorf, the team's Jewish rep, who spends time courting young Orthodox Jews by reassuring them Democrats are in favor of renewing the State Children's Health Insurance Program. (Many Orthodox have large families.) The party's Muslim outreach staffer travels to Michigan, a swing state with a big Arab population, and listens to complaints about post-9/11 discrimination. She tries to convince them that life would be different under a Democrat. The workers also clock time in churches, synagogues and mosques talking to their fellow worshipers. "We talk about how our faith makes us Democrats," says Dorf.

None of this is new to Daughtry, who grew up in a household that valued politics and religion in equal measure. Her father is the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, whose Brooklyn, N.Y., church was a center of civil-rights activism. Her parents worked long hours; Leah was left in charge of her three younger siblings. The rules of the household were strict—no makeup, no parties, no music except for gospel—and their parents had high expectations. Daughtry skipped a grade in school, got a degree in politics from Dartmouth and immediately headed for Washington to work for New York Rep. Edolphus Towns, an old friend of her father's. In 1997, another family friend, the then Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, hired Daughtry as her chief of staff. Daughtry got a reputation as a motherly figure. But she was also a disciplinarian. Herman says she once called a meeting to scold the staff for going over budget. "When I walked into the conference room, everyone had these expressions on their faces, like children who'd had their hands spanked," she says. "I had come prepared to lay down the hammer, but Leah had already done it."

On Sundays, Daughtry presides over a 30-member Pentecostal congregation in Washington. (At times, she says, her faith is so strong she speaks in tongues, which she calls "a gift given by the Holy Spirit.") She doesn't expect to lead a mass exodus of evangelicals away from the GOP. But she does see an opening. For the first time since 2003, Democrats have narrowed the "God Gap." According to an August Pew poll, 15 percent of people described the Democrats as "unfriendly to religion," down from 20 percent last year. "It's the Democrats who have better on-the-ground faith outreach in the early states," says Jim Wallis, a left-leaning evangelical leader.

Not everyone in the party thinks that's a good thing. Daughtry says she hears from Democrats who complain the party shouldn't be pandering to religious voters. "There are those who have a fear we are all going to start reading Scripture and singing hymns at the top of every meeting," she says. "I'm all for the separation of church and state … [But] Democrats are people of faith. This is not a foreign notion." It's a message she'd like a few million Republicans to hear—and take to heart.

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