Theo LeCompte never thought he’d stand on stage with a future president. But since the 2001 Engineering graduate left Penn, he’s moved from one political communications role to another, all the way up to Chief Operating Officer of the Democratic National Convention Committee. And this September, he found himself on the podium with President Barack Obama at the Charlotte, N.C. convention.
Chief Operating Officer
As DNCC COO, LeCompte spent 18 months developing a strategy to prepare the main convention venues — Time Warner Cable Arena and Bank of America Stadium — for the thousands of journalists and delegates that would congregate in the facilities every night.
“I think people sometimes think of the convention as any other rock-and-roll show in the arena where they set up in a day and break down,” LeCompte said. “There’s a lot more that goes into it.”
In the seven weeks leading up the convention, the DNCC spent $12 million on venue construction, which went towards everything from converting locker rooms into offices to building media sky suites for broadcasts.
From SPEC to Politics
LeCompte admits his path to politics was not planned.
“I never thought of it as something I would wind up doing as a career,” the systems engineering major said.
Raised in a Democratic household in Connecticut, LeCompte recalls considering politics only as a major hobby. He took just one politics-related class at Penn and wasn’t politically involved on campus.
In fact, it was his experiences on the Social Planning and Events Committee that segued him into the political work he does today.
In fall 1999, during his junior year, LeCompte organized Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Penn as that semester’s SPEC Connaissance speaker and got to greet Netanyahu on his private jet when he arrived at the airport.
Netanyahu had just finished his first term as Israel’s prime minister and this was his first trip to the United States as a private citizen.
“It was my first time participating in an event on campus that didn’t just resonate on campus with students but also with the country and world,” LeCompte said.
The Matthews event went so well his junior year that LeCompte went on to intern at Hardball the following summer.
“I absolutely think that having experience with high level leaders and influencers while I was in college gave me a certain confidence that allowed me to do well later in life,” LeCompte said.
LeCompte asserted that while the primaries now drive the nomination, modern political party conventions are still valuable events. “It is incredibly important for us as a party to get together and say, ‘This is our platform, this is who we are, this is what we stand for and this is the guy we want to be reelected.’”
In addition to securing the President a post-convention bump in multiple polls, the event was a success for the city as well, LeCompte said. The DNCC estimates that a total of 50,000 people flocked to Charlotte for the convention, including 15,000 media and 6,000 delegates.
Some of the most rewarding moments for LeCompte during the convention were getting to take his parents up on stage at Time Warner Arena and show them the product of his work, as well as standing on the podium while President Obama delivered his acceptance speech.
“It is pretty awesome to get a thank you from the President of the United States,” he said.
Prior to graduation, LeCompte had accepted a job in consulting. But when he lost his offer that summer because of the economic downturn, LeCompte traveled for a year and then, for the first time, considered working in politics.
Craig Minassian — a former Clinton press aide LeCompte had met junior year after helping set up a Clinton visit to Philadelphia — found LeCompte a job on Democrat Carl McCall’s unsuccessful 2002 campaign for governor of New York.
The job was advance work, which involved managing the logistics for McCall’s events around the state. “He really stood out as someone who both liked to and was really good at organizing large scale events,” Minassian recalled. “I thought it would be a pretty natural transition [from SPEC to] political events.”
In 2004, LeCompte went on to work on Kerry-Edward’s presidential campaign. As a member of the press advance team, LeCompte was responsible for setting up sleep, work and travel arrangements for the nearly 70 media members covering the campaign as they followed the candidates throughout the country.
“Coming from an engineering background, I found the nuts and bolts side of [advance work] interesting and appealing,” LeCompte said. “It wasn’t at all using anything that I had necessarily learned at Penn, but it was the same side of the brain setting up events like that.”
In politics, LeCompte reflected, job security is never certain. “You are at the whim of the next election. It requires a certain flexibility.”
Though leaving the political world may have offered a more stable career, LeCompte explained he “got caught up pretty quickly in the excitement of working for something [he] believed in.”
“It was not that case that he had graduated from Penn and had this amazing career laid out,” LeCompte’s college roommate and 2001 College graduate Cam Winton observed. “I think something that Theo did really well was just hustle, hustle, hustle.”
After the 2004 election cycle, LeCompte spent two years at the Center for American Progress think tank before being named the director of media operations for the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado.
“National political conventions are really only matched by a Super Bowl or an Olympics in terms of the press coverage you have and security arrangements,” LeCompte explained. “What was interesting about the Convention was taking everything I liked to do [on the advance team] and blowing it up on a larger scale.”
In 2008, Winton and another of LeCompte’s college roommate volunteered for LeCompte at the Denver Convention and got to see their friend in action.
“He’s dealing with high stakes stuff,” Winton, who was also LeCompte’s best man at his 2009 wedding, said. “You have to hit it 100 percent on the first try. Theo doesn’t get frazzled.”
Following the 2008 convention, LeCompte soon began working on President-elect Obama’s Inauguration on the National Mall as the deputy director of media logistics for the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
“There was this real energy and excitement around [Obama,]” LeCompte remembered. “There was a sense that it was truly historic, and it was very, very cool to be a part of that.”
In 2010, while LeCompte was doing independent communication consulting, Stephen Kerrigan — who had worked with him on the Inauguration — asked LeCompte to join the DNC’s Technical Advisory Group and help select the location of the 2012 convention.
“When I was hired as CEO, he was one of the first calls I made,” said Kerrigan, the DNCC Chief Executive Officer.
After Charlotte was selected as the convention city in February 2011, LeCompte began working as the COO.
“Some of the work he did was some of the most important done at the convention,” Kerrigan said, “He has a great ability to adjust to things on the fly.”
In Charlotte, LeCompte and the senior DNCC team faced a major disappointment when weather concerns forced them to move Obama’s nomination acceptance speech indoors, shrinking the venue size from 70,000 people to 20,000.
In 2008, the President had given his acceptance speech outdoors in front of an audience of more than 80,000 people, and the campaign had hoped to repeat the event in Charlotte.
“It was a tough call,” LeCompte acknowledged. “The most difficult part was the tens of thousands of folks that had tickets for the stadium who we sort of had we sort of had to say, ‘Hey, sorry, stay home and watch it on TV.’”
Now that the convention’s loose ends are mostly tied up, LeCompte said his next career steps somewhat depend on what happens on November 6.
“The work I do I do because I support the president and I support the party,” LeCompte said. “If we win I would love to have the opportunity to serve my country somewhere in the administration, but we’ve got to win first, so right now I’m focused on that.”
Though some polls showed the president was losing the momentum generated by the convention following the first presidential debate, LeCompte was happy with Obama’s performance in the second debate on Oct. 16.
“Seeing his fighting spirit reminded me once again why I love the work I do and am so proud to have his back in the best way that I can during this campaign,” he wrote in an email.
“You have to remind yourself that he is only 33 years old, but he is incredibly accomplished,” Kerrigan said.
“I’ve seen his career take off since he was a college kid,” Minassian said. “Even though he’s young, he’s incredibly mature in how he manages big projects, in some cases with people working with him who have been in the business a lot longer. That’s a real skill.”