The run-up to a political convention unfolds a bit like the plot of a teen movie, but instead of a high school crush on the line, it’s the presidency.
In that movie, Marcia Lee Kelly, CEO of the 2020 Republican National Convention, would be the President’s pal, loyal to a fault and willing to make the impossible at least somewhat possible to ensure that he gets what he wants.
Kelly tells Fortune she hasn’t lived with her husband for nearly six years and regularly sleeps on her office couch in order to serve at the will of President Donald Trump.
Her job for the past 14 months has been to create a fete so grandiose that it propels Trump straight into the White House for another four years. She has another 180 or so days to get the job done.
To accomplish her mission, says Kelly, she has had to take an event mired in the long-standing politics of career Republicans and drain the swamp, so to speak. Kelly sees herself as a businessperson first, political entity second.
Her office, however, tells a different story.
This is Trump country
Located a few stories above the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, the liminal space leading to Kelly’s desk is covered with a rug replicating Trump’s official seal. Even before crossing that threshold, one must pass a giant portrait of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, along with three gold-framed photos of Trump, Pence, and Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel.
The rest of the office space is chock-full of Trump swag. In one room, a gold-framed presidential tweet sits proudly on a shelf. “I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke,” it reads.
Kelly has made it clear: This is Trump country.
While Democrats fret over what very well may be a brokered convention this July, Republicans already have their nominee ready to go for their convention in August. It’s not politics they need to think about, it’s pageantry.
The task of pleasing a President who prioritizes showmanship is not an easy one, and Trump is relying on Kelly, his 4-foot-11 first-generation Korean-American power broker, to make sure that this year’s Republican National Convention is to his liking.
This August, Trump will swoop into the banking city to accept his nomination amid a swarm of media, lots of pomp, some circumstance, and a fair share of partying. He’ll expect the four-day event to be big and loud. This is, after all, his one shot at designing and defining a convention that will set the tone for the next four years of the Republican Party. Ultimately, it will define his legacy and impact on the dynamics of the RNC.
Trump receives regular updates on logistics like lighting, logos, and podium design, but he mostly leans on Kelly to act as his surrogate and negotiate the blowback that comes from the more traditional end of the Republican Party.
“All day I’m at odds with people who want to pull things back,” says Kelly. The President’s vision for the convention “reflects the changing look of the Republican Party,” she adds, and that can be hard for long-entrenched Republican operatives to accept.
Kelly has a history of acting as the President’s aesthetic and logistical ombudsman. At the White House, she was in charge of decorating the Oval Office (she’s the woman behind the gold curtains) as well as Trump’s private residence.
She previously stood proxy for him while working as what she calls the “gatekeeper for perceived power” in his administration. Anyone who wanted his or her office in the West Wing or near the Oval Office had to go through her first. At one point, there was a line so long to see her that she was gifted a deli counter “take a number” machine.
It was there that Kelly developed one of her greatest skills: saying no to rich and powerful people in a way that’s perceived as a mutual win.
“I held all the assets,” she says. “I held the budget, the real estate, who got what badge, and who ended up getting West Wing parking. It was about closeness and power.”
Kelly remains close to the Trump family, regularly consulting with Eric, Donald Jr., and Lara, whom she refers to as the “New York City Trumpers.”
She’s also finalizing the paperwork to take on a role as an unpaid senior adviser to Melania Trump.
Loyalty above all else
Like the President, Kelly grew up in New York City, has ties to Rudy Giuliani (she planned large-scale events for him while he was mayor), and is used to dealing with the big personalities who work in commercial real estate: She spent years working at the whim of families like the Speyers of Tishman Speyer.
In short, she speaks fluent Trumpese.
And she uses that language to lead a staff of loyal employees who readily sing her praises as she shows Fortune around her offices in a high-energy—Kelly is very high-energy—meet and greet. She says that, much like Trump, she values loyalty above all else. If you’re loyal to her, she’s yours for life.
As we walk into the office of Johnny Oringdulph, a retired Navy commander and current chief of logistics, he says that he’s prepared to follow Kelly “to hell.” Oringdulph left his post as senior consultant at the White House Military Office, where he had worked for 15 years, when Kelly asked him to join her.
Kelly says her career has prepared her to understand the dynamics of men like Trump and Giuliani.
“They know exactly what they want—they will tell you to your face,” she says. “They sound aggressive, but to me, I find it refreshing.” Later, she clarifies: “I know [the President’s] style: Give me [bullet points], and let me know what you need decisions made on,” she says. “And then be able to have thick skin.”
Kelly claims that her ability to charm Trump comes from knowing how to utilize his time and attention in the correct way. “I’m no-nonsense when I go into meetings with the President,” she says. “I get more meetings with him by keeping things at an executive level. I go in, and I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re giving me half an hour with the President? Mazel tov, let’s do 10 minutes.”
During a walk-through at the Spectrum Center, where the nomination will take place, her staff tell Fortune they aren’t sure if she shares a design sensibility with the President or if she was just able to perfectly mimic his own. Either way, they say she pays attention to detail. She’s been known to stop meetings to ask if someone is wearing cashmere, and sometimes sardonically asks coworkers if they bought their clothing at Kohl’s.
She cares about visuals.
“It’s news, but it’s also entertainment, and the President expects it to look a certain way. He understands lighting and showmanship,” says Max Everett, the convention’s vice president and chief information officer. Kelly “is a producer with a focus on live events. Prior CEOs knew politics and not production, which isn’t what this President needs.”
Producing a convention
Political conventions, held every four years regardless of incumbency, are essentially the equivalent of mounting the Olympic Games with only public funding and a mostly volunteer staff. Charlotte’s Republican National Convention, which takes place over four days in late August (just after Tokyo’s Summer Olympics wrap), will play host to about 50,000 visitors, 15,000 members of the media, 2,500 delegates, and 3,200 events. The RNC hopes to raise about $70 million to fund it and attract 8,000 volunteers to ensure it all runs smoothly.
The goals are lofty; the last Republican National Convention, in Cleveland—which took place in a politically dangerous climate for Republicans (Hillary Clinton was polling as the clear winner) after a long, hotly contested primary—aimed to raise just $64 million. The committee was eventually able to bring in enough money with the help of a few big donors, but struggled to meet deadlines.
Eight years ago, when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) held its convention in Charlotte, it fell about $10 million short of its fundraising goals, but Republicans abide by different rules. While Democrats banned corporate money and limited personal donations to $100,000, the RNC has no such regulations. Working out of a city with the second-most banking assets in the country doesn’t hurt either.
“We have an advantage in our structure,” said John Lassiter, CEO of Charlotte’s host committee to the press. “We’re not making the decision the DNC did initially to only take individual gifts. We will be taking both individual and corporate funding. Our initial sense is there’s a lot of support for what we’re going to do.”
Kelly says the convention is expected to drive about $188 million in economic development into the city, but that she’s setting expectations low for how much influence that has on Charlotte in 2020. The convention is being run as a business in the city, not as a campaign operation, she tells Fortune. Besides, she says, large urban centers tend to swing Democratic anyway. Mecklenburg County, which holds the city of Charlotte, voted overwhelmingly in Hillary Clinton’s favor in 2016.
Last July, the Charlotte City Council voted, nine to two, to condemn Trump’s “racist and xenophobic social media posts and comments” and “all hate speech, bigotry, racism, and discrimination wherever it may occur, especially in the highest levels of government.” The move came after a crowd shouted chants of “Send her back” about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) at a campaign rally in nearby Greenville, N.C.
There was discussion at the time of ending the RNC contract and stopping the convention in its tracks, but city attorney Patrick Baker said that would be impossible. “I don’t believe you will be able to walk away from this contract even if you were willing to pay the financial penalties,” he told the council. “I don’t believe you would be allowed to walk away.”
Kelly insists again that this is all business, not political, and that she works closely with Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles.
Swinging a swing state
North Carolina, a swing state, is an important one for Republicans. Trump won in 2016 there by 173,315 votes, or 3.67 points, an atypically wide margin. This time around, Trump is polling tightly with at least five of his potential Democratic contenders in the state, which his congressional ally Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has called a “must-win” to ensure 2020 success.
Kelly is doing her best to make that happen for the President. Going into her fourth convention, she says she knows what to do and how to make it work. Even if she wanted to take it easy, she notes, she can’t.
“If I did stop, I wouldn’t know what to do,” she says with a resigned sigh. She catches herself and reverts back to her typical smile.
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