Dan Murrey Preps Charlotte for DNC

Dan Murrey, spine surgeon and one-term county commissioner, was handpicked for one of the city’s most important jobs: getting Charlotte ready for the Democratic National Convention. No pressure, doc



Murrey says the Democratic National Convention will be a chance to “tell Charlotte’s story.” And he’s in charge of the narrative.

Chris Edwards

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Last fall, near the end of a single two-year term, Dr. Dan Murrey ran for reelection as a Mecklenburg County commissioner—and lost. This did not exactly ruin his life. He was still an executive and spine surgeon at one of the Southeast’s leading orthopedic clinics. At forty-five, Murrey figured he might hold some public position again, but for now he was fine with settling back into private life.

Three months later, Charlotte officials learned the city would host the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Three months after that, Mayor Anthony Foxx called Murrey with an offer: want to head up the city’s host committee for the convention?

It’d be an extraordinarily hard and complex job. The Democratic Party has a committee to plan the actual convention, the speakers, the balloons and confetti, the seating of delegates. But the local host committee would be in charge of everything else: making sure hotels could handle the tens of thousands of guests, assembling a staff, arranging for volunteers, setting up a bid system for local vendors, constructing an official meeting space, providing security and transportation—and raising nearly $37 million, little by little, to pay for all of it.

The job’s importance would be more than just tactical, though. The host committee director would be responsible for constructing the face the Queen City presented to the nation in its most visible hour. Charlotte’s been itching for an opportunity like this, a chance to present itself on an international platform as a fully realized city, for decades. Now here it was, and the mayor was asking Dan Murrey to manage the production.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Murrey recalls in a conference room in an uptown skyscraper. It’s a scorching weekday morning in July, and Murrey is in the early stages of hiring staff; the fifth floor is virtually deserted. “But what was compelling was a love for the city and region, and a desire to make sure that we take full advantage of this opportunity. We’re going to be on a stage that’s brighter than we’ll ever be on again, I would wager.”

He accepted Foxx’s offer, of course, taking a leave of absence to run the Charlotte in 2012 Host Committee until after the convention next September. There’s a reason why Foxx chose Murrey, a fellow Davidson College alumnus. Over the years, Murrey has developed a reputation among colleagues, mentors, even political opponents, as a man who can synthesize complex issues and find solutions, but above all corral people with disparate agendas and clashing egos and nudge them to work toward a common goal—and do so with minimal fuss and self-promotion.

“Dan was always rather thoughtful, even about common things. His way of figuring things out was apparent, even early on.”

For all Murrey’s done—his rise from a Tennessee farm to two Harvard graduate degrees, to success as a health care administrator and surgeon, to winner (and loser) of public office—this might be the ultimate test of that ability. Because for a week next September, the national reputation of his adopted hometown will rest on that
trait, too.

Even as a child growing up on a farm in Pulaski, Tennessee, Murrey was unusually pensive and intellectually curious. His older brother, Marshall Murrey, now a family doctor in Boone, relates the Dan story the family still tells most, about how their parents, Harwell and Jane Murrey, had Dan’s hearing tested because he sometimes wouldn’t respond to them. His hearing was fine. “He said,” Marshall Murrey recalls, “that sometimes we weren’t saying anything that interested him.” His kid brother was five years old. “Dan was always rather thoughtful, even about common things,” he says. “His way of figuring things out was apparent, even early on.”
Dan Murrey earned a full merit scholarship to Davidson, where Marshall had gone. Though he majored in religion there, by the time he graduated in 1987, he’d developed an interest in the ethics of medicine, a meaningful field to the family; Harwell Murrey was a family doctor in Pulaski.
He enrolled that fall at Harvard Medical School, where after three years he’d come to understand there was far more to the practice of medicine than merely treating patients—that he needed a firm grip on the social and bureaucratic issues surrounding health care, too. So he enrolled in the public policy master’s program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he spent three semesters studying public health policy.

This is worth emphasizing: Dan Murrey, dissatisfied with the limitations of Harvard Medical School, decided to earn an additional Harvard graduate degree while still in med school. “I anticipated I would have some leadership role in whatever practice I ended up in,” Murrey says. “I didn’t pursue it with a vocation in mind. I pursued it out of intellectual interest more than anything else.”

Most of the students at the Kennedy School were seeking degrees in only public policy. They were interested in medicine in terms of government health administration, as an abstraction. Murrey knew better—knew deeper, really. “Dan was one of the first students I was bowled over by,” says Dr. Ronald David, who was Murrey’s faculty adviser at the Kennedy School. “Just impressive.” He displayed what David referred to as “a wonderful fluidity of thought” in tackling class problems his fellow students recoiled from, such as how governments and agencies might deliver health care to poor communities that still had high mortality rates despite access to doctors and clinics.

“The description that fits him best—and the top 5 percent of students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching—is that he has a hard head and a soft heart,” David says.
Murrey earned his dual degrees from Harvard in 1992, then served his orthopedic surgery residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. In 1997, he moved with his wife, musician and community volunteer Katie Oates, and young son, Sam, to Charlotte for a spine surgery fellowship at Carolinas Medical Center. (Sam is fifteen; the Murreys later had a daughter, Lucy, now twelve.)

His fellowship director was Dr. Craig Brigham, a surgeon and partner in Miller Orthopaedic Group, one of Charlotte’s oldest orthopedic clinics. Brigham was impressed right away. “Dan has exceptionally good surgical hand skills, and he’s also very smart, with great people skills,” Brigham says. “He’s the complete package.”

The two men also learned they shared views on managed care and medical administration, favoring “coordination of care rather than fragmentation,” Brigham says. After Murrey joined Charlotte Orthopedic Specialists, he and Brigham began discussing a merger, and when Miller Orthopaedic lost several doctors in 2004, the talks got serious. It took months of negotiations and ego stroking, but the two practices merged in 2005, forming OrthoCarolina.

Brigham says Murrey, who eventually became the practice’s CEO in 2008, was the key player in steering the two staffs toward merger. “This was a big deal,” Brigham says. “These were long-standing competitors, and there were some doctors with personal negative feelings toward others. Lots of people had to be persuaded and cajoled. I’ve heard it said in business, ‘There’s no such thing as mergers, just acquisitions.’ Well, this was a true merger.”

Even at forty, Murrey wasn’t necessarily thinking about extending his leadership in medicine to the public sphere. That changed in the fall of 2005, when voters defeated a $427 million bond package that would have paid for new construction and building improvements in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the first time in more than a decade. “That, to me, was a call to action,” Murrey says. He thought bond opponents’ fervent support for neighborhood schools and construction in the suburbs rather than the city would hurt the overall school system and lead to “an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots.” He applied to serve on former governor Jim Martin’s School Building Solutions Committee and was selected as an alternate.

The night before the committee’s second meeting, Martin called. A member had dropped out. Could Murrey attend a meeting the next morning?

“Well,” Murrey said, “I have to perform surgery tomorrow.”

“Well,” Martin replied, “I need you at this meeting.” Murrey rescheduled the operation.

In his service on the school committee and in his continuing practice at OrthoCarolina, Murrey began to notice something, a relative to his insight years before about medicine and public policy—that his patients’ health problems often weren’t, in the strictest sense, medical. They were the product of upbringing, diet, unemployment, access to groceries, all kinds of social and economic factors he couldn’t do anything about in the operating room.

He’d already acted on his interest in public education in Charlotte; now he started thinking about how local government could manage social services more thoroughly and efficiently. It happens that a particular public body oversees both.

 

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