A decade ago, Kelly Ward sat around a dining room table in Tucson, Ariz., with a trio of powerful Democratic women and Gabrielle Giffords, plotting the young state legislator’s next steps. It didn’t matter that the ink was hardly dry on Ward’s college diploma — her energy quickly made her an invaluable asset.
“She doesn’t sit still; she vibrates,” veteran Democratic activist Pam Sutherland said, describing the new Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director’s contagious energy. Sutherland hosted the Giffords meeting back in 2003.
That energy will come in handy for Ward, 32, as she balances caring for her toddler, running a $180 million organization and planning her party’s takeover of the House of Representatives. It helps that she has never let her youth stop her from stretching her comfort zone.
The Las Vegas native insists that she grew up in a very normal family that emphasized equality and fairness over politics. She was raised by her mother, an elementary school teacher whom Ward now affectionately categorizes as a “drop-off voter,” her cab-driving stepfather and her father, a physician’s assistant who lived just minutes away.
In high school, Ward started to catch the political bug from Kirk Wallace’s 10th-grade history class and Maret LoGuidice’s 12th-grade government class, but she also got her first taste of fundraising when she desperately wanted to go on a weeklong trip to the nation’s capital, an outing her family just couldn’t afford.
“I tried it, it was really hard and I was terrible at it,” Ward said, laughing about the difficulty she faced in coming up with the $1,200 for the trip. “I learned that it’s important to know people with money ... and I didn’t.”
Ward chose the University of Arizona for college because it was both close enough to and far enough away from home — and it was the only college she’d ever been to, having visited as a flutist with her high school band. Ward immediately got involved with social justice groups, helped revive the school’s Young Democrats organization and started to comprehend the importance of electoral politics.
“It really matters who is in office,” Ward said. “It’s the most efficient and high-impact way to make a difference.”
After graduating in 2002, Ward turned down the opportunity to manage Giffords’ state Senate race because she needed a paying job. Ward ended up working as the field director for state Sen. Elaine Richardson’s losing campaign against Pima County Supervisor Raúl M. Grijalva in the 7th District primary before finishing the cycle with the state party.
She went to work for newly elected Gov. Janet Napolitano and, before too long, was involved in the governor’s regular early morning meetings with about a dozen senior advisers, even though she was just 22. “There she was at the table — articulate and not reticent at all about speaking her mind,” Napolitano, now secretary of Homeland Security, told CQ Roll Call.
In the spare time she didn’t have, Ward also co-founded Arizona List, a local version of EMILY’S List, along with Sutherland. As one example of their work, the duo and then-EMILY’s List regional representative Ann Liston worked with Giffords to lay the foundation for what would be the legislator’s election to Congress three years later.
“She quickly became a serious strategist in a short amount of time,” said Liston, who watched Ward work with candidates who abided by Arizona’s strict campaign finance laws to build the more robust fundraising operations they would need to run for higher office later.
While Ward stockpiled campaign experience, her time in the Napolitano administration got her more interested in governing and public policy. But higher education was “so not my world,” Ward joked, and she discovered Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government through a Google search.
Harvard was attractive to her, in part, because she could finish her degree and get back to Arizona in time for Napolitano’s re-election campaign. But the governor’s advisers paired the up-and-coming Ward with Harry E. Mitchell’s burgeoning congressional race in 2006. For three months she traveled 2,600 miles one way, from Cambridge, Mass., to Tempe, Ariz., to finish her master’s degree and manage Mitchell’s victory over GOP Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
“She sold me on what needed to be done,” said Mitchell, who was a first-time congressional candidate then.
Ward planned to stay in Arizona, and she was working as the executive director of the Project for Arizona’s Future, a 501(c)(4) focused on advocacy in the state, until she ran into social entrepreneurs Alan Khazei and Vanessa Kirsch at a Harvard reception.
According to Khazei, his wife is the “chief talent scout” of the family and immediately connected with Ward. They recruited her to return to the East Coast to direct America Forward, the new policy arm of Kirsch’s venture philanthropy firm, New Profit Inc.
“It was everything I wanted; a campaign and high-impact problem-solving” said Ward, who wrote her final Harvard paper on government working with nonprofit groups to solve major social problems. Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign embraced America Forward’s concept, which laid the foundation for what would be become the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, and Ward moved to Washington, D.C., as the legislation was being discussed.
After Kennedy died in August 2009, Khazei decided to run in the special election to fill his seat, and he knew he wanted Ward to run his campaign. “One of the things I love about her is her incredible positive energy,” Khazei said. “But she also has an incredible justice nerve. She really wants to change the world and make a difference.”
So Ward moved to Boston for a 100-day sprint to the December primary. The first-time candidate finished third with 13 percent, behind Attorney General Martha Coakley and Rep. Michael E. Capuano, but he earned the Boston Globe’s endorsement.
Ward became a free agent right about the time the 2010 cycle started to spiral out of control for Democrats, and the DCCC hired her for a newly created incumbent retention position. She quickly earned members’ trust and made herself invaluable to their campaign teams.
Even though that cycle was a disaster for Democrats across the board, Ward proved her competence and was promoted to political director for the 2012 cycle. She became close to Chairman Steve Israel of New York and helped the party gain back some of the seats lost in 2010.
While netting 17 seats next year is a priority for Ward, she’s also juggling her role as a mother, in which daily success is measured by whether she can get showered before her daughter wakes up in the morning. She can make it from her house to the nanny share to her office in 12 minutes, because much of her life is contained within the half-dozen blocks between Democratic National Committee headquarters and Nationals Park.
“You have to be organized. You can’t just sit here and linger,” said Ward, who works from her makeshift standing desk and is always armed with a large bottle of water.
“She can balance her life and operate at the top of her game,” said Liston, who is now a media consultant. “To the next generation of women behind her, Kelly shows that it’s all possible.”