The Democrats’ Last Woman Standing: New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan

New Hampshire gubernatorial hopeful Maggie Hassan is that rarest of politicians, writes Allison Yarrow: the same person in the car as she is in front of voters.

Jim Cole

“Smoke more, study less.”

That, Democrat Maggie Hassan tells a room of about 80 University of New Hampshire college students, is what their Republican-led legislature would have them do if she loses her neck-and-neck governor’s race with Ovide Lamontagne, pointing to a recent $50 million cut in public funds to the university system—and a cigarette tax cut that cost the state $20 million in revenue. Hassan promises the students she’ll raise the cigarette tax, freeze tuition, and restore the slashed university funds, while casting her opponent, a lawyer and perennial candidate, as an extremist who’s out of line with the ethos of the Live Free or Die State.

A polished, well-connected former state Senate majority leader who was ousted in the great Tea Party wave of 2010, Hassan would be the nation’s only Democratic female governor, and the only female governor who supports abortion rights. (Democrats Christine Gregoire in Washington and Bev Perdue in North Carolina are stepping down at the end of the year, and Republicans Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma, and Jan Brewer in Arizona are all anti-abortion.)

In a classroom on UNH’s main campus in Durham, a quintessential New England college with fall colors and leaves underfoot outside, Hassan calls on the mostly female students, some in pajamas, others in skirts, to ask themselves a question before many of them cast their first-ever ballots on Tuesday:

Do politicians “follow an ideology or are they listening to the people they want to govern?”

The students, a handful of them Democratic activists, nod appreciatively at what the president might call a “teachable moment.” Maggie Hassan is running on education, because that’s what you do in a state like New Hampshire with an unemployment rate well beneath the national average, and when your opponent wants school districts to decide for themselves whether or not to teach creationism.

A pair of grade-schoolers—the daughter of a UNH professor and her friend—are getting an early taste of politics, as they see Hassan stump in one of the nation’s most competitive gubernatorial contests, in a quintessential swing state. The final polls show Hassan ahead by a nose in a state that’s leaning toward Obama, but where Romney—who owns property in Wolfeboro and announced his candidacy at a farm in Stratham whose barn still shows his campaign logo—has deep roots.

Grade-schooler Sam gets up to ask Hassan what she could do to improve the taste and quality of school cafeteria food, but forgets to state his name, which has been pre-written on a notecard he’s holding. His friend, a girl with black braids, nabs his card and thrusts it forward at the politician, jabbing the letters with her finger—S-A-M.

Later, as we traverse the coast on the way to Portsmouth for a round of shaking voters’ hands, Hassan laughs at the moment. “Classic girl and boy,” she says, noting the girl’s urgency to get a task exactly right, and the boy’s relief that it’s just done.

Hassan is the kind of political candidate whom a flack can gladly saddle with a reporter for seven hours—through forums, handshaking and vote-courting, lipstick application and shoe changes, speech edits and even the state Democratic Party’s fundraising dinner. That’s because Hassan, during my day with her and according to her loyal staff, is that rarest of politicians: largely the same person in the car as she is in front of voters on the trail.

That quality is perhaps native to New Hampshire, a compact state where a car can take you from mountains to ocean in under an hour. The members of its 400-person state house—the country’s second-largest elected body after the U.S. House of Representatives—are paid $100-a-year for their service, and it seems like practically everyone in the state has served, or has a friend, family member, or neighbor who has.

That level of participation “brings a lot of women to the table in a way that’s harder in other states,” says Hassan. Voters are on a first-name basis with candidates because of it. In Portsmouth, a seaport and popular summer destination, a couple of supporters shout out: ”Congrats, Maggie!”

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Even as the race has tightened in its closing week and both sides have sharpened their attacks, Hassan still refers to her opponent as Ovide (Oh-vid). Everyone does.

Lamontagne and state Republicans have attacked Hassan’s assumed privilege—she’s a lawyer whose husband Tom is the headmaster at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy (alumni include President Franklin Pierce, Mark Zuckerberg, and John Irving), and they live on the campus.The Republican Governor’s Association launched an ad, paid for by the Live Free PAC, noting that the couple pay no property taxes on her home in Exeter, a tender spot for a state that collects no income or sales tax but where residents complain the property taxes are astronomical.

Hassan’s father, Robert Wood, was an academic and thought leader who advised both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and Hassan says she was raised with an ethos of education and service that eventually led her to run for office.

“I wouldn’t have done it because I had a law practice and kids and Tom had a busy career. He said ‘we’ll make it work.’ That’s how it happened,” she said.

Hassan is also mother to two children—Meg is a freshman at Brown University, her mother’s alma mater, and Ben, 24, has cerebral palsy and lives full-time at home. He is wheelchair-bound, and cannot speak or move his fingers. She says parenting him is “like parenting any kid, in really high relief. The highs are really, really high and the lows are pretty low.” She pushed to have him educated in traditional environments (he graduated from Exeter), and say that work also helped sway her toward running for office. At UNH, Hassan tells the college students that she knew Ben could understand his peers and environment when a teacher called to tell her that he laughed in class when other students gave wrong answers.

Lamontagne, a lawyer who’s launched several unsuccessful bids for office, has run as a fiscal conservative, pledging to grow the private sector, shrink government, and institute “free market” healthcare reform. He’s also a social conservative, who opposes same-sex marriage (which Hassan helped make state law while in the state Senate in 2009) and legal abortion. In a radio ad airing now aimed at women, he tells voters that he has a wife and two daughters, whose “concerns are very real to him.”

“In the last century we’ve made great progress in women’s rights and we have gotten stronger with every decade, so I don’t understand why there is so much determination to unravel that,” says Hassan.

Canvassing in Portsmouth, Hassan approaches quaint tables of coffee-sippers with the ice-breaker: “Can you stand a visit from a politician?”

Her version of asking for votes is “will you consider me?” because she feels asking more directly is an “invasion of privacy.” Her staff praise Maggie, as they too call her, for her even personality. She “handles emotions differently,” said communications director Marc Goldberg, who is on loan from Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony G. Brown for the campaign.

In Portsmouth, a down-ballot ticket-mate, county attorney candidate Joe Plaia, joined Maggie as she mingled with voters. A former Marine and state prosecutor, he wears a pressed suit and hangs back from the tables of people Hassan greets, waiting tentatively to be introduced, which Hassan does, right before she moves on, leaving Plaia to try and ride her charm wave. His way is more soft-spoken and shy. She’s teaching without noticing, and he’s learning from a political veteran as he executes his first campaign.

Plaia is there again later in the day for the party’s Jefferson Jackson dinner. Nearly all of the 475 attendees were white—as is almost 95 percent of the state—and most were men over 50. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, again reflecting the state’s small-scale culture.

“Our founders understood that we were going to be different and better and a leader because they understood the essence of a strong and vibrant society was respecting individual freedoms and liberties,” she said in her speech there—delivered while she stood atop a crate in order to clear the podium—aimed at reclaiming the mantle of American individualism from the Tea Party.

The room was filled with boisterous interjections of support from the front table where she was seated, along with her longtime mentor Jeanne Shaheen (who first appointed Hassan to advise a state education and finance commission in 1999, and who easily bested Lamontagne when he ran against her for governor in 1996) and former state party chair Kathleen Sullivan, who first convinced Hassan to run for office.

But outside the cozy confines of the Democratic dinner, Hassan has had to make the sale. In Portsmouth, John Weeden, a 53-year-old owner of a mobile-home park, tells Hassan that he’ll “consider her,” but five minutes later tells me he won’t, since he’s “with Mitt.”

Asked if he shared her commitment to funding education, like public kindergarten, which she says Lamontagne has dodged, Weeden, who says he prefers Republicans because of “my beliefs as a Christian,” winced.

“Everybody wants to be a doctor and a lawyer and not everybody can be a doctor and a lawyer,” he said. “Somebody’s got to grab a shovel and shovel gravel.”

Asked how to win such voters, Hassan says lowering the bar isn’t the answer.

“In today’s world, machines pick up gravel and they’re run by computers. That’s the essence of what we’re going to need to be able to do. We’ve never made progress in this country or in this state by lowering expectations. We’ve always made progress by understanding what the next great challenge is.”