New Hampshire in early February is cold. It snows a lot (twice in the week I was there, with more on its way as we left). And every four years it teems with presidential candidates, campaign staff and media. It’s not just easy to meet candidates in New Hampshire; it’s impossible to avoid them. Imagine sitting with friends in your hotel lobby, chatting companionably, only to look up and see Ted Cruz posing for a photo with the hotel manager.
Now that I’ve thoroughly traumatized you, let me add: New Hampshire in early February in a presidential election year is something everyone should experience at least once.
I drove up the Thursday before the primary with six guys from my union, in a rented van stuffed with luggage, a cooler full of beer, a bullhorn and a “Dump Trump” banner. The conversation ranged from financial regulation to climate change to prescription drug abuse to Little League to the Iraq war to bad bosses, with plenty of detours from one topic to the next, all of it knowledgeable, much of it profane, most of it very, very funny.
“Doesn’t that guy know the fuckin’ rules? We work just hard enough for you not to fire us, you pay us just enough that we don’t quit. How complicated is that?”
“Yeah, he went to manager school. When he talks to you, you can see him thinkin’, ‘Oh my God, what did they teach me to say? Where’s my manual?'”
This led to an extended riff on the curriculum of “manager school.” “Guy comes up, cryin’, says he’s gonna lose his house, he’s just not makin’ it on what you’re payin’. Whaddaya say to him?”
“‘Cheer up, buddy, things are gonna get better.’ Then walk away as fast as you can.”
“Change the subject! You gotta change the subject! Talk about sports! Talk about the weather!”
” Tell him, ‘Oh, jeez, I gotta take this call.’ Act real busy and disappear. Hope he forgets about it.”
“No, I got it, listen to this . . . ”
Connecticut flew by, then Massachusetts, and then we were exiting into Nashua, New Hampshire, where the Radisson hotel loomed like a castle above us.
How to catch a candidate
Candidates love to shake hands. They love to shake as many hands as possible, with as little real interaction as they can get away with. If you want to throw them off balance, envelop their extended hand in both of yours, look them in the eye, tell them your personal story (ending with a specific question) – and don’t let go.
That was one of the things we learned in a Friday morning training session led by two representatives of the American Friends Service Committee’s “Governing Under the Influence” project. Helpful suggestions for the dozens of candidate town halls being held in school cafeterias and gymnasiums all over the state that weekend included breaking up into multiple groups (if one of you doesn’t get called on, others might); raising your hand as soon as the floor is opened for questions (many attendees, being normal, untrained people, hang back at first); having a buddy make a video of the encounter; and practicing, practicing, practicing.
After we adjourned for the day, I ducked into my room to change clothes and read a bit (Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings), and so I wasn’t there when Ted Cruz wandered into the hotel lobby – but others from our group were. His hand was clasped in a gentle but firm, two-handed grip. He was asked specific questions prefaced with personal stories. He eventually made a brusque, impatient retreat.
I know all this because it was captured on video, just as we’d been taught.
An evening with Ted
I had my own date with Ted later that evening. A small group of us headed to Salem on snowy back roads, tickets to a town hall in our hands, lessons of the morning’s workshop in our heads. I rehearsed my question about the Affordable Care Act (“I’m an eight-year breast cancer survivor . . . “) and tried to come up with personal yet focused questions on other topics (gay marriage? carpet bombing? New York values? that annoying smirk?) while scanning the treetops for interesting birds. (Even though New Hampshire birds would not count toward my 200 bird challenge, I really wanted to see an evening grosbeak.)
We had overcompensated for the snow, and arrived in Salem an hour before the doors of the elementary school hosting the event were scheduled to open; a quick drive-by showed the parking lot to be mostly empty, and so we went off in search of sustenance. More specifically, we went off in search of donuts from a place called “Heav’nly Donuts” that had amassed rave reviews on Yelp. We pictured a quaint storefront with a counter and stools at which we could chat with suitably flinty locals as we ate our donuts. What we found instead was a snack bar inside a Mobile gas station. But the view from the parking lot – trees glistening beneath a bright, post-storm sky – was beautiful, the coffee was hot and the donuts were indeed pretty heav’nly.
It was no more than 40 minutes later that we swung back by the school, but it must have been a busy 40 minutes. The main parking lot was now full, and the overflow lot was filling up. We parked and headed into a small, crowded entryway, where Cruz-mania was in full swing. A frazzled volunteer demanded that we sign in; another offered us Cruz buttons; someone else handed me a flyer explaining how Ted Cruz would reignite the promise of America.
I wriggled through the crowd to where a small, racially-mixed group of young people were snickering at the flyer. It was good to know that my three companions and I were not the only sane people in a frothing mass of crazy.
A short while later, after the doors to the cafeteria/gymnasium opened and we poured through them and scrambled for advantageous positions in the rows of folding chairs squeezed between the stage up front and the scrum of cameras and reporters in the back, I was able to take a better measure of the attendees. Many waved Cruz signs, wore Cruz buttons and projected happily dazed excitement at the approaching arrival of their guy. The couple behind me discussed the significance of the “it’s a teardrop/no, it’s a flame” Cruz campaign logo (something I’d been wondering about, as well):
“I know what he’s doing with that symbol,” the man opined. “He couldn’t use a fish, see, because the lamestream media would be all over him. But he knows that we know what he’s saying. This is his way of showing he’s with us.”
“He’s smart, really smart,” the woman agreed.
But amidst the true believers, a substantial minority of the attendees were signless, buttonless and subdued. In addition to the four of us (now sitting several rows apart in groups of two, just as we’d been taught) and the group of young people I’d noticed on the way in, I strongly suspected several other audience members of being there to ask embarrassing questions. Even more appeared to be curious, information-seeking Good Citizens.
That included the lanky, 60ish man on my left, who passed the interminable pre-event lull chatting amiably with the European (British, I think) reporter on his left. I eavesdropped shamelessly, and eventually struck up a conversation with him myself. This was his 12th town hall event; his goal was to hear all the candidates from both parties in person. He gave me his rundown of the field:
Donald Trump? An entertainer.
Chris Christie? Just doesn’t have the temperament to be president. “I get so sick of these guys tearing down their opponents. It’s a job interview, for chrissake. Tell us what you can do.”
Marco Rubio? Very slick, very rehearsed. “But very family-oriented, and I like that. He brought his wife and kids with him.”
Hillary Clinton? Arrived 45 minutes late, then claimed to have time for only two questions. (He shook his head at that.)
Carly Fiorina? He was brutal to poor Carly. “Look, I used to work for HP, and her skill has always been as a motivational speaker. She has no qualifications to be president – none whatsoever. She’s fallen to the bottom of the barrel of candidates, and that’s right where she belongs.”
“The way I evaluate candidates,” he concluded, “is I have what I call my B.S. meter. I listen to them, and I see where they register on the B.S. meter. So far the only one who hasn’t set my meter off is John Kasich.” A pause. “And Bernie Sanders, of course. What you see is what you get with Bernie.”
I think that’s the moment when I fell in love with New Hampshire voters, in all their contradictory cussedness.
But there was no time for lovestruck mooning – it was time for pre-speech speeches! For introductions to introductions! Former Senator Bob Smith – famous for his virulent homophobia, and for once stabbing a plastic doll with scissors on the Senate floor to make some sort of point – was dusted off and trotted out of his Florida retirement. A pony-tailed Libertarian described the political odyssey that had led him to support Cruz for president, and led us in the pledge of allegiance. A local elected official burbled on about how she first learned about Senator Cruz when her very best friend, who happens to be a lesbian from Kentucky, gave her his book and, like, wow, who is this guy?
(A word of advice: if you are making opening remarks at a Ted Cruz town hall and want to be applauded like all the other opening speakers, do not mention your lesbian best friend.)
The main event was drawing closer, but first . . . videos! I remember rippling flags, the solemn tones of Brent Bozell (am I supposed to know who this guy is?), a heartfelt testimonial from Mrs. Clarence Thomas, and a not-at-all-calculated series of endorsements by former supporters of Ron and/or Rand Paul.
Finally, Cruz came out from the wings, to applause and waving signs. He looked smaller than he does on television but just as smarmy, as he launched into his well-practiced remarks. He’s slick, you’ve got to give him that. The words flowed without apparent effort or thought, from laugh lines (“Our opponents on the Democrat side are a wild-eyed socialist and . . . Bernie Sanders”) to personal stories (the tale of his drug-addicted half sister, which he would repeat, verbatim – down to the catches in his voice – in the Republican debate the next night) to long passages of scripture.
The more belligerent his statements – on Obamacare, on federal agencies, on terrorism – the louder the applause from the sign-waving true believers. I noticed that after applauding politely at the start, the Good Citizen to my left sat on his hands all through Cruz’s remarks.
Finally it was time for questions. My hand shot up. So did the hand – and the entire body – of the man directly in front of me.
And so it went for the rest of the question and answer period. I would raise my hand, and he, with steadily-increasing agitation, would jump up and wave his. I knew after two or three iterations of this that I wouldn’t be called on, and I wasn’t. (Someone else asked a health care question, but needless to say, it lacked the punch I planned to give mine.) Instead of holding forth with the media as Sympathetic Cancer Patient, I ceded Questioner of the Night honors to the guy in the back who confronted Cruz on drug policy.
My friends and I – who no longer had to pretend not to know one another – headed back to Nashua for dinner. As we left, I heard the drug question guy telling a swarm of cameras and microphones, “Ted Cruz completely lost my vote tonight.” I had to concede that he was a much better spokesperson than I would have been. He made it sound as though he’d actually been planning to vote for Cruz.
Superheroes for the super-rich
Sure, I was a little disappointed by my failure to ask a question (or see an evening grosbeak), but Friday’s town hall wasn’t the only event that weekend, and Ted Cruz wasn’t the only obnoxious candidate: there would be plenty of other trouble-making opportunities. Combine a bin of costumes left over from other occasions with a quickly drafted and printed leaflet, and “Superheroes for the super-rich” was born.
That’s how Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman and Captain America came to descend on an elementary school in Hudson on Sunday, just as the earliest arrivals were trickling in to a Marco Rubio town hall. We carried signs (“It’s a bird . . . it’s a plane . . . it’s your health care flying away”). We explained to puzzled voters that we were there to support Marco Rubio because he, too, was a superhero for the super-rich – but, then, so were all the Republican candidates, really. We handily dismissed a clipboard-toting flunky sent out to get rid of us (“this is a private event,” he intoned, sounding unconvinced himself).
Then we stood around, realizing that we’d forgotten to come up with chants for the occasion.
But we quickly rallied:
“1, 2, 3, 4 – pay them less and work ’em more.
5, 6, 7, 8 – being rich is super-great.”
“Everywhere we go-oo, people wanna kno-ow/who we aa-are, so we tell them:
we are the super-rich/the mighty, mighty super-rich . . .
cuttin’ our own taxes/and stickin’ it to you-uu.”
“We don’t need no middle class/Marco Rubio’s got our backs!”
And so on.
We got some puzzled looks; some smiles; many stony-faced, walk-by-fasts . . . and one angry confrontation with none other than the agitated guy who’d sat in front of me at Friday’s Cruz event.
A kindly blogger tutored us in how to take better smartphone videos (hold the phone in landscape mode, rather than portrait? who knew!) and yelled at us when, in our excitement, we forgot. (“Were you not paying attention? Did you not hear a word I just said?”)
Meanwhile, the local union guys I’d driven up with were dying to deploy their “Dump Trump” banner, and so they did, staging their own mini-demonstration at the entrance to the school’s long drive. If it was a bit incongruous, well, February in New Hampshire in a presidential election year is full of incongruities.
Finally, the gleaming Rubio bus pulled into the drive, past the “Dump Trump” banner, around the front circle (we froze, not sure which direction we should go), and then to the back entrance. We clambered over the snow to beat it there. Batman stationed himself (or was it herself?) directly by the loading dock door, locked eyes with Rubio, and yelled, “We love you, Marco! You’re a superhero for the super-rich, too!”
The spell was broken when Rubio was hustled inside – but it was magical while it lasted.
With Rubio, his entourage and the press inside the school, there was nothing much for us to do outside. We posed for a group photo by the Rubio campaign bus, and just as we were breaking up, the cry went out: “Bob [not his real name] is trolling the BBC!”
There was “Bob,” the van driver and general leader of the merry crew I’d come up with, a microphone thrust in front of his face, nonsense pouring from his mouth. “Yeah, I like Rubio because he’s a progressive Republican. I know he says a lot of stuff to appeal to the Right, but that’s just because he has to to win this election.”
(It turns out we weren’t the only folks in town with mischief on our minds. When we got back to our cars, we discovered that they – and every other car in the lot – had been leafleted with a reproduction of the front page of that morning’s Boston Herald, depicting a robotic-looking Rubio next to the headline, “CHOKE!” Rumor had it the Christie campaign was responsible.)
Bob and the guys weren’t done with Rubio, either. Unbeknownst to anyone else, they made a new banner (“No experience? No record? No worries! Rubio 2016”) and smuggled it in to an event the next day. They unfurled it, started shouting, and were quickly surrounded by a phalanx of Rubio volunteers and shoved out of the room. The possibility of criminal charges was raised, then dropped (by a happy turn of fate, an attorney had come along with the group and ran interference with the cops).
However, they are now banned from the campus of Nashua Community College for life.
Getting out the vote for Bernie
After all the preliminary high jinks, election day itself was a bit of an anti-climax. I had volunteered to do get-out-the-vote work for Bernie Sanders, and so I headed out to the town of Milford with a commercial-fisherman-turned-machinist-turned-union-rep (hereafter known as “Joe”) and a Latina union member from Connecticut (hereafter known as “Lola”), who confessed she’d never done this before and was a little nervous.
Instead of the typical campaign storefront, GOTV operations were being run out of a private home. A birdfeeder was set up outside (based on my admittedly limited sample, Sanders’ supporters are good friends to the birds), which I of course scanned for grosbeaks. Inside: light, books, African, Asian and Native American art, beach stones holding candles, jars of sea glass . . . and a pleasant woman, white hair escaping from two messy buns on either side of her head, plying us with blueberry-banana bread.
Assigned a “turf” and given a stack of door-hangers, Joe drove us from address to address while Lola and I took turns knocking. Her nervousness melted away (the fact that hardly anyone was home may have helped). By lunchtime, she was flashing us a “thumbs up” as she swaggered back from a successful conversation.
And that, I thought, is one of the truly great things about being in a union – the way members transform themselves into people who are more confident, more able, more hopeful than they ever imagined they could be.
Hope and its opposite
Wednesday morning, the 2016 New Hampshire primary was history, and it was time to drive home. The guys had picked up an additional passenger – the attorney who’d saved their asses at the Rubio event (and should probably accompany them everywhere from now on). Bob was in fine form, calling in to right wing radio shows and arguing with the hosts until they hung up on him.
The rest of us napped.
If I were asked to name just one image from the week that sums it all up, it wouldn’t be any of the things I’ve written about here. It would be the hopeful, glowing faces of the fast food workers fighting for $15 an hour as they jumped up and down and chanted, “I believe that we will win” outside the Republican debate at Saint Anselm College.
All of us – fast food workers, union members, environmentalists, peaceniks – were penned together with partisans of the various Republican candidates in a designated “Free Speech Area” well away from the actual debate venue. It made for some awkward encounters as we jostled for space. A middle-aged white guy holding a “TrusTed” sign started yelling at the “Fight for $15” activists: “$15 an hour for flipping burgers? Are you fucking kidding me? You guys really think you deserve $15 an hour?”
Although it’s hard to “read” class when everyone is bundled up in parkas, the guy read working class to me. He probably makes $15 an hour himself, I thought, maybe a little less, maybe a little more. With crappy benefits. And after decades of getting squeezed and belittled and blamed and threatened, he can’t imagine anything different.
What’s the opposite of hope? Is it despair? Passivity? Fear? Hate? All of the above?
The great political divide, it seems to me, is between those who truly believe that we can win (or who truly want to believe that we can win, and choose to act accordingly) and those whose hope has curdled.
I guess that means the great political challenge is to persuade people who are reconciled to losing that they can win, too.