The New Founding Mothers of New Hampshire

It only took two centuries: five women who made political history by winning all of their state’s top slots reveal the intimate, often surprising details of their varying paths to power

by Alexandra Starr
new hampshire state leadership image
From left to right: Senator Kelly Ayotte, Representative Carol Shea-Porter, Governor Maggie Hassan, Representative Annie McLane Kuster, Senator Jeanne Shaheen
Photograph: Illustration by Daniel Adel

Besting the boys' club
Even though Shea-Porter finally resolved to go through with her bold bid for Congress, her party’s state and national leaders had a different standard bearer in mind: the statehouse minority leader, Jim Craig. But Shea-Porter pressed ahead. She convened a group of women who’d volunteered with her on the Kerry and Clark campaigns. There was no money to have signs or buttons printed, so Shea-Porter and her supporters made them by hand. “A pot of coffee, a plate of cookies, invite your neighbors and I’ll show up,” is how she describes her grassroots campaign. Her 19-year-old daughter, then a journalism student in college, served as press secretary. Defying all the political prognosticators, Shea-Porter, who spent a scant $20,000 on her primary bid—“I set up the account for $100,” she says—snagged the Democratic nomination, then defeated the GOP incumbent in what was probably the biggest political upset of that year. “We outworked the competition,” she says.

Shea-Porter’s successful novice bid for a national seat notwithstanding, Hassan was happy to have debuted on a smaller stage. There is a whiff of self-description in the governor’s theory of why running for a more local office can be a prerequisite for female politicians considering big-ticket offices. “If I were to generalize a little bit,” she says, “I think most women like to figure out if they are good at something on a smaller scale before they try it out statewide.”

Of the five women, Kuster, 57, is the one most steeped in public life. Her father was the mayor of Concord and ran unsuccessfully for governor—a position held by her maternal great-grandfather in the early 1900s. The political career of her mother, Susan McLane, spanned a quarter century (in both the New Hampshire house and senate), beginning when Kuster was 12.

“My mom was one of the founders of the Women’s Campaign Fund and the National Women’s Political Caucus, which encourages women to run for office,” says Kuster. “She felt strongly that the process would work better, be less contentious and more collaborative [if women were elected] and that it was important to bring to the table women’s voices and life experience, such as parenting and taking care of their own parents. Being in the workplace and being involved in the community. All of that was important to her.” Kuster helped out in her mother’s political career, most memorably serving as driver during her mother’s failed 1980 congressional bid. Kuster’s son did the same job when she first ran, in 2010.

When her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Kuster collaborated with her on a book, The Last Dance: Facing Alzheimer’s with Love & Laughter. But she didn’t consider running for office herself until later in life, after a long career as a community activist, attorney and health care advocate. “I was always the person holding the signs, not [the one] giving the speeches,” she says. She was involved with Al Gore’s presidential campaign, then Kerry’s. But when U.S. representative Paul Hodes decided to run for the Senate in 2010, leaving an open House seat “practically for the first time in my lifetime,” Kuster got to thinking. “My children were grown. My parents had passed on. I had a window of opportunity.”

But Kuster became a candidate only after she’d gauged how much support she could count on from the people she’d met in her civic work and law practice over the years. “It wasn’t like I was telling them, ‘I am the one,’ ” she says. “Maybe that’s a woman thing. Anyway, when I saw I had sufficient grassroots support, I was able to jump in.”

First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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