Darren Peters is the Founder and Managing Partner of Peter Damon Group (PDG) who we are proud to count among our Season Sponsors. Darren sat down with John Murton to talk about a book he is writing, his first campaign experience, the lessons he has learned over a long career in politics, and how he became involved with Chamber Dance Project. This interview has been edited for clarity.
John Murton: Darren, thanks for taking the time to talk today! I wondered if we might start with you telling us something about the book you’re writing?
Darren Peters: I’m writing a bit about different aspects of my life and how I’ve continued to move forward even though there are things that happened that could be potential setbacks. For example, there’s one chapter called “Facing Your Fears” and it talks about how, because of some airline tragedies that I was familiar with, I developed a fear of flying when I was younger. But it didn’t keep me from taking a job travelling with Hilary Clinton some years later, which meant I was flying with her two, three times a day, every day. The chapter is about a focus on positive things as a means to keep going through those different, negative, aspects of life.
JM: So, did you conquer your fear?
DP: Not yet – I still have a fear of flying! I just got back from New Orleans last week, I’m going to Phoenix in a couple of days, then I’m going to Las Vegas next week. I don’t let it keep me from going, but while I’m on that flight I’m…you know…it’s rough!
JM: So, your journey starts out in Arkansas. What was the path that led you to working with the Clintons?
DP: I was in law school when Bill Clinton announced that he was running for president, at the end of the first term of my first year, and I thought this could be an opportunity. He’s running for President, his headquarters are in Little Rock, I’m at University of Arkansas in Little Rock. Maybe I could take a leave and get involved.
JM: Had you been involved in the campaigns for governor?
DP: No, but my major in college was political science, and I always had this desire to learn about campaigns and politics. After that first term studying, I tried to get engaged with the campaign. I was fortunate enough to meet the wife of one of Clinton’s friends and colleagues and she told me “oh, you should go and find my husband and see if he’ll bring you on to the campaign.” I didn’t know this guy, but I kept going back to the campaign. I never saw him – he was never around because he was always busy at meetings or whatever. Well, one day I called him and he said “so you’re the guy my wife’s been talking about? Well we don’t really have a lot of money, so I don’t know if I can bring you on…” and I said “Mr Willis, you don’t have to pay me, I want to get experience, if there’s an opportunity to do anything to get some experience I’m there.” And he said something like “now see that’s impressive young man, because most of these people are trying to get paid, and if you’re willing to do that then I’m going to find something, get you involved” and he did. He sent me out on some of these primary campaigns – Georgia, Florida, all over.
JM: Are there any things that you look back on from those early campaigns that are lessons that have stayed with you through life?
DP: One thing I think, being as old as I am, I know that a lot of the people I met on the campaign trail – over twenty-something years ago now – went on to do numerous things – they’re members of congress, working at the White House. I think a lot of people, when they’re developing relationships, look for that quick reward from it, but I’ve learned that the reward can come over a long period of time, if it ever comes at all. To me, it’s all about being able to create friendships that are long lasting.
JM: I was reading about the magazine Power Play that you founded and wondered if you could tell me how you went about founding that?
DP: In 1996 during that campaign, I was fortunate enough to be selected for this group called American Council of Young Political Leaders. They took four Republicans, four Democrats, and they took them to a foreign country to meet young leaders from that country with the idea that as you’re coming up years later you might have a relationship with future leaders. So, I went on a trip with a state senator from Nevada; he was a black state senator, and he had a business magazine for the state of Nevada filled with black businesses and business owners. I thought, “oh man, that’s kind of neat” so immediately I thought I wanted to do something like this for Arkansas. I wrote up the concept of a magazine called Power Play to highlight positive things that black folks were doing in Arkansas. And then it sat on the shelf for eight years. I started it, then got caught up in other things, and just kind of forgot about it. Then one day I was in Arkansas, looking through some old files when I found it again and thought, “it’s time to do this!”
JM: As Power Play grew from an Arkansas magazine to a DC magazine, what sort of broader goals were you looking at serving with it?
DP: What I was trying to do was create a magazine that wasn’t just for black people, but really to project the diversity within our race to all people. We’re not all Democrats or Republicans, we’re not all straight or gay, we’re not all Baptists or Catholics, we don’t all eat fried foods – we eat healthy foods! It was showing all those different aspects of us. I think it was helpful for the black reader, but it was also helpful to the non-black reader to be able to see that what you normally get, or what the normal perception of African Americans might be, are not really true.
JM: I wondered if you could tell us how you met Diane, and how your relationship with her has grown over the years?
DP: Well, we shared an office when I first arrived here. The room we were in had three tables – she had one and I had the other two for me and my assistant. I was there all the time, and she would come in periodically. We started just saying “hi” and sharing niceties, but then we got talking about what our organizations were trying to do. She was growing, I was growing, and as things started to pick up there was some big annual event and I spoke to my assistant and said, “we should do something to help here.” And from that point it just kind of grew – we started talking, and I learned about an area that I knew nothing about!
JM: Do you have any background in the arts?
DP: You know, you can like something even if you don’t know a whole lot about it! I always had an interest in the arts whether it was dance or whatever, and it just kind of intrigued me. I’m always trying to grow and learn.
JM: You joined us for the Evening of Dance on Film at the Kennedy Center last year. I was wondering what your impressions were of what you saw – what did it say to you?
DP: I don’t know if I can put it into words. It’s like with music: I can’t really describe what it does to me, but when you hear something you like you know it!
JM: What kind of music do you like – what moves you?
DP: Well I don’t know what my colleagues in my office would say – I tend to play music here from time to time – but it can be different depending on the day. I like contemporary jazz – particularly in my car – but in the morning I need something to pump me up, so I try and get some 80s sounds, R&B, New Edition.
JM: And so, for you it’s about that mood that you’re trying to get to?
DP: Not always! You know I listen to music when I work out sometimes, and I think, “I’m probably listening to the wrong type of music” because you would think you want something to pump you up, but I’m listening to some soft, neo Soul.
JM: Could you tell us a little about what work you and Peter Damon Group are doing at the moment?
DP: Our firm does a number of things: federal lobbying clients – energy sector, healthcare sector – we do a lot of that kind of work. We’re in eight different states too. But we also do event management – right now we’re handling the production and logistics for the African American Mayors Association conference. We also do digital marketing – kind of all over the place.
JM: I’d like to imagine that you’re going to back in time to meet that young law school student volunteering for his first campaign: what bit of advice would you give him after all these years, and all the experience you’ve picked up along the way?
DP: I would say “don’t take things so seriously.” You need to be open and flexible to various opportunities. And work hard and build relationships. The best thing about my experience has been the relationships I’ve built over time, and the way that feeds the reputation that I’ve developed. You know, me coming from Arkansas to D.C. – you get exposed to people who are so cosmopolitan, they’ve been all over the place, they’ve rubbed elbows with Nelson Mandela and great celebrities and politicians. It’s easy to feel a little intimidated, but I think the thing that has kept me going is trying not to get too focused on all of that. There have been times when I’ve got caught up in the bright lights, but I try not to let that phase me. Every day that I worked at the White House I thought it was a privilege – I never lost that. You have to understand who you are and stay true to that.
Header photo: Darren learning the Charleston with Apprentice Dancer Jiamond Watson at our Gatsby Garden Party. Photo credit: Rassi Borneo/TimeLine Media