Every big event needs a director. Think of the Oscars, the Beijing Olympics, the Super Bowl: in each case there was a guy, or girl, timing the fireworks, cueing the music, lining up the athletes or yanking starlets' heads out of toilets for their big moment. For the Democratic National Convention in Denver that guy is Matt Nugen, an unlikely, happy-go-lucky 36-year-old who is responsible for making Barack Obama's coronation go off without a hitch.
"I don't think any one can prepare for this role," says Nugen, who has foregone a personal life in favor of 16-hour works days since he was dispatched to Denver in June soon after Obama cinched the nomination. "It's a lot of long hours, seven days a week, but, you know what? You're so busy you don't realize how crazy it is and it's just getting crazier, so..." and here Nugen trails off and there's a long pause as if he's counting down the list of all the things he has to get done.
The assignment was a daunting one for Nugen, who signed on to Obama's campaign in February 2007 as political director the guy in charge of schmoozing and cajoling the superdelegates to endorse the Illinois senator. By the time Nugen arrived in Denver the convention was already severely behind schedule a symptom of a primary season no one expected to last until June and was more than $10 million underfunded. Soon after, word came down that he would not only need to build the stage and venue at the Pepsi Center but he'd need to build a second stage without adding any additional staff at Invesco Field so Obama could deliver his acceptance speech before a crowd of 71,000. "Everyone said, 'Look we're going to do this, we think it is the right thing to open up this convention to the people of Colorado and to the people of the country and to give them the opportunity to participate,'" Nugen says. "People were a little overwhelmed at first but I think as we evolved as a team together and started planning this out we definitely realized that we could pull this off."
In order to work on political campaigns, Nugen deferred a master's degree in business administration at the University of Missouri in his hometown of St. Louis. He puts a lot stock in team building. Despite the compressed schedule, on the first Saturday of July he took his top nine aides white water rafting on the lower Eagle River in the mountains above Denver. "It was fun watching teammates getting tossed into the river, especially after they bragged how great they would be," says Nugen, who was "white knuckled" but stayed on the boat, earning bragging rights for the next two months.
In line with Obama's "no drama" edict, Nugen is one of the most even keeled political operatives you'll ever meet. He's not a yeller and can sometimes seem mellow to the point where people think he's not paying attention. "Most people throw very, very sharp elbows to get a seat at the table and that's not Matt's style," says Brad Queisser, who met Nugen working at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 1998 and is now a vice president at mCapitol Management. "He's quiet so people underestimate him. Underestimating him could be the biggest mistake that people can make."
Nugen has experience working on conventions, serving as deputy chief operating officer for the 2000 convention in Los Angeles and lending a hand in Boston in 2004 from his perch as deputy national field director at the DNC, a post he assumed after working on Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman's failed bid. Nugen rose through the ranks at the DNC, ultimately becoming director of the chairman's office. He turned down a job helping to run the convention from the DNC side to work for the Obama campaign.
Nugen also has spent years working with the actual delegates not just 852 superdelegates but those obscure folks who are elected to represent their districts at the convention. "One of the things is having been on the Obama staff during the primaries doing politics he knows who needs what, who needs to be stroked more, who needs little extra care there," says Jamal Simmons, a strategist who managed regional press for Al Gore in 2000 and met Nugen at that year's convention. "He knows that all delegates are equal but some delegates are more equal than others."
Those delegates are all arriving now and the show is on the road. The man behind the curtain isn't too worried. "You can't plan for every option or any problem that might come up," Nugen says. "But we have a really crack team, a very talented team with years of convention experience. They've left no detail unturned."
Ever the mellow guy, there is only one point where Nugen tenses up during our conversation and that's when I ask about news reports saying the Clintons planned to raise money at the convention to help pay off her debt. "I'm not going to get into details of those conversations," Nugen says.
Two guests Nugen is excited about seeing are his parents, who will make their first visit to a convention ever. Such a hectic life hasn't left a lot of time for a personal life. To Nugen, a good time is grabbing a beer after a later night at work with colleagues. He hopes to take a vacation in November and, maybe, find a girlfriend. Still, he's hoping to yet again defer that business degree and work in the next administration if Obama wins. In the meantime, he plans on returning to Chicago once the convention is over, though he hasn't had the time to figure out in what capacity. "Believe me," he says, "I'll have plenty of work to do between the end of next week and winning in November."