February 16, 2004

Notes From New Hampshire

By: Judah Pollack

A young man who roller-bladed cross-country last summer to protest the war in Iraq walked into the New Hampshire campaign headquarters of Dennis Kucinich carrying a small, soft briefcase.

A bottle of Echinacea sat on a fold-out table beside a cup of green tea with brown rice. A picture of an Iraqi woman holding her beatific son rested against the window below children’s cut-out snowflakes.

The young man looked about the empty room, confused, until a campaign worker in red pigtails and rainbow-colored wicked-witch-of-the-west tights entered.

“I’m here to help set up the phones,” the young man said. “Oh, great,” said the woman. “Only Jack’s not here and he’s the one who knows what to do with the phones. I’m Meg.”

The young man’s name was Aureus Humboldt. To clarify, he spelled his first name, then repeated his last name, to which he and Meg said in concert, “As in Humboldt County.”

There is a lot to be said for visiting campaign headquarters. Well, maybe not that much, but my working theory is that they reflect the candidate as much, if not a lot more, than other information that’s been passed off as especially telling, for instance, the candidates’ favorite songs or books or TV shows. In many cases, their campaign headquarters are even more telling than their speeches.

So, welcome to my personal tour of the temporary offices of presidential ambition, New Hampshire’s most famous campgrounds at the height of primary season. What you’ll see is also an impending ghost town. In fact, by the time you read this, New Hampshire will no longer be the place to be and most of the people described herein will be gone.

With all the notice Howard Dean’s campaign has received, it is easy to forget the humble beginnings of the doctor’s once quixotic quest. With the sudden surge of John Kerry, it is easy to forget how pathetic the four-term senator’s candidacy seemed around Christmas. But reminders of all the campaigns’ origins and various stages exist in their headquarters, housed in buildings scattered throughout the Lazarus mill town of Manchester.

Dean’s headquarters are more servants’ quarters than manor house. It’s on the wrong side of the Merrimack River, a low-slung brick building situated behind a grand, four story, renovated mill building. The stately mill building houses John Kerry’s headquarters.

In order to find the Dean spot, one must cross the redundantly named Bridge Street Bridge and then make an immediate U-turn. A rather apt move, some would say, for a onetime centrist governor running as a lefty rebel. But before actually crossing the bridge again, you pull off to the right, where a small DeanForAmerica sign rests atop an abandoned shed. Careful when entering or your car will end up hanging from the side of a ramp leading down to a defunct loading dock.

In the parking lot are license plates from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and, of late, Washington D.C. Inside are the revitalized discontents of the Democratic party: students like Lindsay Hanson who are “still smarting over the 2000 election,” escapees like press secretary Matthew Gardner who left the existential numbness of his law firm to “feel more alive on the Dean campaign,” politicos who have secretly nursed their idealism like Karen Hicks, the New Hampshire grassroots guru, and the gay community organizer Wendy Howell, who has taken to attending pot lucks to uncover the local gay vote.

Dean’s headquarters are an open, no frills space, as though, even with all the money raised, the rallying cry is still, “We shall live on bread alone.” Rows of computers are manned by fresh-faced true believers. In the bathroom is a Howard Dean-signed picture of a toilet and the book Where There’s Smoke, There’s Salmon, a collection of Jewish proverbs.

With prominence comes the need to account for visitors. A yellow laminated card on a plastic string is supposed to be given to you when you enter, but the girl who is supposed to mind the front desk, though it’s more of a table, is rarely at her post. In the spirit of shared responsibility, any number of workers and volunteers will come up and ask if they can help you. More often than not, you can still just walk in. Like nothing.

Though the Dean headquarters can be described as “Misfits of the world, unite!” the thing about all these people is they are incredibly genuine. They are the kind of people who say “please” and “thank you,” bring a bottle of wine to dinner, and who not only call their volunteers to ask them to show up at a house meeting when they hear the press is coming, but call them back to say “never mind” when the WMUR-TV van is called away because of a local bar fight.

The official Dean For America sweatshirt is in sharp contrast to the Kerry fleece pullover.

With its soaring ceilings and light pouring through the windows, Kerry’s headquarters seems like a Fifth Avenue penthouse compared with Dean’s outer borough loft. When you walk in, you are separated from the staffers by a long four-foot wall to your left. No one is in front to meet you. More often than not, you are ignored. When someone does acknowledge you, it is to lazily ask what you want. If you begin to walk in, furtive glances are exchanged before you are intercepted and asked what you think you’re doing.

The staffers look like a group of model congress alumni who ran away to find the real thing. Collars pop out of crew-neck sweaters on the Dead Poets Society young men who can most often be heard discussing which professor is the best for international relations. They know the same professors because they all went to the same four schools. The young women smile at you like popular girls tolerating nerds.

These are the young people who signed up at the outset with the candidate who had the best shot at the nomination.

Heading back across the Bridge Street Bridge to Elm Street, a large sign marks the headquarters for Joe Lieberman. Of all the headquarters, Lieberman’s is the most visible. Taking up two floors, the statewide office is on the second with the Manchester field office on the first in a back room. That leaves a large, off-the-street, empty room as the meeting place for the public. With a former Philadelphia banker manning the phone, a lone unemployed volunteer asking where the chocolate bars are, and signs reading “I like mustard and relish but I love Hadassah,” the room feels more like purgatory than the point of entry for a serious presidential campaign.

Staffers suffer from denial. I know this sounds overly harsh and personal, but it’s true. In my presence, deputy press secretary Marion Steinfels asks aloud if Lieberman’s Judaism is not the same thing as President Kennedy’s Catholicism. It sounds like a complicated way of suggesting Lieberman is about to tap into a Kennedyesque popularity, despite people’s poll-tested indifference. Someone else, a little rudely it might be said, replies to Steinfels that there is a difference between being Catholic and not believing in Jesus at all. She answers back, “Not really.”

Before it closed, Dick Gephardt’s headquarters occupied the third floor of an office building on Elm Street. The place was filled with lawyers and CPAs. Sleigh bells rang when you opened the door, like at a five and dime. A very old and forgotten five and dime.

But even when the campaign was in full swing, with press secretary Kathy Roeder chiming, “I think it’s a Gephardt-Dean race,” the office was pretty quiet. Unmanned signs lied on the floor, asking President Bush where the jobs are. One wanted to ask back where the workers are – as in campaign workers, all but a few of whom had moved to Iowa to exploit Gephardt’s bruited advantage there.

In the other direction on Elm Street, on the third floor of an office building, is John Edwards’s headquarters. Staffers are split up among many offices. You are met by a head leaning around a doorframe as you come up the stairs. The people are friendly and relaxed. There are fewer student volunteers around and more political operatives, people strategizing over their computers, lifting their heads to see who’s walking by. They don’t look particularly concerned. If you were choosing a candidate according to the pleasant work environment of his campaign office, this would be your choice. This is also the second-best-looking campaign.

The best-looking campaign is Clark’s. His people work out of another mill building with high ceilings and square wooden pillars (as opposed to the round pillars at Dean’s place). A large train, made of construction paper, hangs on the entrance wall with pictures of campaign staff and supporters taped on. Someone is always manning the desk, but if you know where you’re going, they wave you back with a smile. There is a large open space on one side and a series of interconnected offices on the other. The doors are always open. One encounters a nice balance of D.C. operatives and Arkansas natives excited at another favorite son’s ascent.

Back at the Dean headquarters, a man who goes by the name Miss Tony – the first open cross dresser to be elected to public office in New Hampshire – is touting his work for Democratic candidates stretching back to McGovern in 1968. Basking in the afterglow of his times with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Miss Tony wears his Bush 2000 Inauguration jacket with irony. Then there’s the poor Dean staffer who’s having a hard time on the phone with her father because she doesn’t know where the campaign will send her after New Hampshire. “No Dad, I’m not being irresponsible. No one knows where they’re being sent.”

People keep coming throughout January, so many that volunteers are put up in local housing. On the Kerry bus, a young staffer looks out the window as we drive along the small downtown drag of nearby Derry for the third time. The bus is circling so Kerry can finish his phone call.

“Where are we?” the staffer asks. “We’re two blocks from where you’re staying with me,” says a woman who has volunteered to house staffers.

“Oh,” says the staffer. “I didn’t realize there was a town here.”

Judah Pollack lives in Manchester and writes for the Hippo Press.