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

Join More and the New America Foundation on February 4 for a discussion of the rise of women in politics. Attend in person, or watch the live stream. Click here for details.

Walk the halls of the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, and you’ll be surrounded by portraits of old white men. The former governors and other political and civic honchos are decked out in Civil War regalia or velvety black turn-of-the-century attire or business suits with a distinct Brooks Brothers cut. In the anteroom of the governor’s office, however, is an island in this sea of testosterone: the painting of a woman, Jeanne Shaheen, former New Hampshire governor and current U.S. senator. And sitting in the office adjacent to that portrait is Governor Maggie Hassan, who recently became the second woman, after Shaheen, to be elected to the top job in the state.

New Hampshirites are accustomed to being under the microscope of the political cognoscenti. Every four years, reporters swarm the place during the first-in-the--nation presidential primary. In late 2012, however, the state attracted notice for a different political milestone. Its two sitting senators were women (Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte). When, on the night of President Obama’s re-election, women also captured the governorship (Hassan) and both seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (Annie McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter), New Hampshire suddenly became the first state ever in which female politicians held every top office.

To get a sense of how glass shattering that is, consider the rest of the country. Twelve states (plus the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia and Guam) have no women in their congressional delegations. Of that group, four—Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont—have never sent a woman to the U.S. House or Senate. Only five states, including New Hampshire, have female governors. (As More went to press, New Jersey’s 2013 gubernatorial race included a woman candidate, though the incumbent, Chris Christie, was strongly favored to win.)

How did the Granite State buck the old-boy culture that still permeates so much of the country? It started when women elbowed their way into state office. Historically, women have made up about a third of the representatives in the New Hampshire legislature, one of the highest proportions in the country. This is in part because representatives serve essentially for free: Pay is just $100 a year, the lowest of any state. So breadwinners, who have tended to be male, may be unable to give up their day jobs (or may lack the flexibility to take time off).

But lousy compensation is just part of the story. Women’s ascendancy here also stems from the state’s political culture, a grassroots style of governance that is tailor-made for women. With just over a million residents, New Hampshire is a small place that has a tradition of high-octane political engagement. Voters expect to meet candidates in living rooms, coffee shops and town hall meetings—and a system that prizes person-to-person contact plays to women’s strengths and experience. Until very recently, most women who have plunged into politics here have done so as an extension of their community work.

Their visibility at the local level has paid off in higher-stakes contests. New Hampshire, though tiny, happens to have the largest state legislature in the nation, so at any given time some 100 women are serving as representatives, familiarizing residents with the idea of women as government officials.

That unique political alchemy was helpful, but it didn’t give New Hampshire’s matriarchy, as the press has dubbed the women, a seamless, easy ride to the top. Sometimes they needed to convince themselves of their fitness to serve before they could make their case to voters. Looking back on her own hesitancy, Hassan advises women contemplating a run to acknowledge their insecurities and concerns but also to remember that “everyone has [insecurities], and that doesn’t disqualify you from running for office...You shouldn’t make a decision based on what the perfect candidate should be like.”

Here, the five women at the wheel in New Hampshire share their experiences: why they ran, what worked, what didn’t and how they pushed past failure on their often surprising paths to power.

“What, me run?”

Hassan, 55, says she had no intention of putting her name on a ballot until she was recruited. This is true of many women officeholders: A study conducted by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found that female state legislators were almost twice as likely as their male counterparts to say they opted to run because someone else had suggested it.

Hassan was recruited by the Democratic members of an education advisory committee to which she had been appointed by then governor Jeanne Shaheen (see chart here) after distinguishing herself as an education advocate for her son, who has cerebral palsy. Advocacy is what “took me up to Concord,” Hassan likes to say. Still, when she was urged to run for a state senate seat that had opened up, her first instinct was to refuse. In a phone call to her husband, she ticked off the reasons. She had a full-time job as an attorney. Both of their kids were in school, and Ben, who cannot walk or talk and receives most of his nutrition through a feeding tube, required an enormous amount of care. Her husband countered that she should jump in anyway. Tom Hassan held a senior position at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the nation’s premier boarding schools (he is now the principal), but he assured her they could manage at home. “Honey, you’d be good at this,” he said. He also sounded a note of warning: “When is someone going to ask you to do this again?”

Shea-Porter, 61, now in Congress, was similarly reluctant. “Like every other woman, I did 40 roles simultaneously,” says the former social worker. “I didn’t plan to go into politics. Before I ran for Congress, I hadn’t run for dogcatcher.” But she grew up in a politically engaged family and notes, “I’m a direct descendant of General Stark,” the Revolutionary War hero whose words “Live free or die” became the state motto. “I can remember as a two-year-old holding signs, attending political rallies.” She volunteered on Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential primary campaign and then on John Kerry’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat President George W. Bush that fall. She also demonstrated against the Iraq War. Twice after Hurricane Katrina, Shea-Porter traveled to New Orleans, where she was once deputy director of a senior center, and was outraged by what she saw. “The federal government was missing,” she asserts. “We could do better. We had to do better.” The 2006 congressional midterm elections were coming up, and, as she recalls, “a Democratic committee member said, ‘Why don’t you run?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ That was my pat answer.” Even after she finally agreed, she almost changed her mind. She was about to sign up when doubt overcame her and she “got back into my car, drove halfway home, then thought, I’m going to do it, and drove back.”

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.”

Support also came in the form of her mother’s longtime friend and colleague, U.S. senator Jeanne Shaheen. “She appeared at events, giving [me] legitimacy along the way,” says Kuster. “That’s an important piece for all candidates but particularly women -candidates—to have validators.”

The only woman in the U.S. to have served as both senator and governor, Shaheen has experience in electoral politics that dates back to 1976, when she and her husband, Billy, were organizers in Jimmy Carter’s New Hampshire presidential primary bid.

Shaheen ran two statewide campaigns before she became the candidate herself in 1990. “I had a good network, and I saw a great opportunity in my district, where I thought the state senator was too conservative,” says Shaheen, 66. She remembers McLane, whom she calls “a big mentor,” introducing her to lawmakers and imparting advice she’d received about the best colors to wear for public appearances.

Susan McLane died five years before her daughter became a candidate; nonetheless, she ended up boosting Kuster’s first electoral foray. When Kuster was clearing out her parents’ house, she came across an immense 3-by-5-inch holiday-card file her mother had kept and updated for more than two decades. Annotated to mark newborn children, divorces and address changes, the cards contained the names of hundreds of supporters. Kuster sent off fund-raising appeals to everyone in the box who was still alive, and the checks started pouring in. “We called it fund raising from heaven,” she says.

Despite that apparently divine intervention, Kuster lost the race. Hassan lost her first race, too, as well as a state senate re-election campaign in 2010. Shaheen lost her first U.S. Senate bid, and Shea-Porter was ousted from her congressional seat in 2010 (she reclaimed it two years later). “Failure is part of this process,” Hassan says. She cites losing her state senate seat as an element in her successful 2012 run for governor, in part because it sensitized her to conservative strands in the New Hampshire electorate. Kuster pored over the returns from her failed 2010 bid, then two years later focused her efforts on the southern part of the state, where her support had lagged. She also took pride in how close her defeat had been to victory.

“I won the primary with 72 percent of the vote. That was so, ‘Wow, this is working,’ ”she says. Seven weeks later, in the general election, Kuster lost by 3,000 votes—the same margin as in her mother’s failed congressional bid. Yet Kuster didn’t see her loss as a rebuke. She’d come very close to ousting a man who had served in Congress for a dozen years—an accomplishment that showed a rematch was winnable.

Statistically, women are less likely than men to run again after losing a political race. Kuster points out that this suppresses their numbers in public office. “If you talk to people in Congress, most of them have lost elections,” she says. “The president lost a [congressional] election. You’ve got to not be set back by that but just consider that this is difficult to do and you need to hang in there.”

“Sometimes I liken campaigning to walking on lily pads, when you’re trying not to fall in the water,” she says. “Focus on the positive. Part of the work in politics is becoming known. When you come up short, you can’t conclude they don’t want you. You have to frame it as they don’t know you yet.”

Women's new path to power
While women of Hassan’s generation often came to politics after years of volunteering, today’s female candidates—especially the younger ones—are skipping that route in favor of the path men usually take: working for powerful political figures or nabbing prosecutor jobs in which they can put notorious criminals and wayward politicians behind bars. When Ayotte arrived for a job interview with newly elected New Hampshire governor Craig Benson in the fall of 2002, she’d achieved a level of national renown unusual for a 34-year-old. As chief of the homicide unit at the state attorney general’s office, she presided over a number of high-profile cases.

She was meeting Benson, a former tech CEO known for his intensity, because she was up for the job of legal counsel, one of the most senior positions on his staff. At the end of their talk, Ayotte said she would be thrilled to become the governor’s counsel. “But what I’d really like,” she added, “is to be your attorney general.”

Ayotte, 45, whoops when she recounts the story, recalling that the governor was visibly taken aback when she made the pitch to become one of the most powerful figures in New Hampshire. “But I also think he appreciated the chutzpah,” she adds. Her confidence that day arguably opened the door to her political career. Ayotte—the sole member of the New Hampshire five who has not been defeated at the ballot box—says she didn’t plot her life with an eye toward future elections. “I don’t think that every person wakes up when they are 18 and says, ‘I’m going to run for office,’ ” she says. “It’s just, you end up on a path, in a series of positions where you realize that being involved in the community or in public service is what is rewarding to you...That is how I ended up on the path I’m on.” Once she did identify public life as her m├ętier, Ayotte was directed and tenacious in realizing her goal, as her interview with Benson attests. “You can’t be hesitant to let people know what you’re interested in,” the senator says, adding that it’s advice she often gives to young women.

Ayotte did get the legal-counsel job, and just a year and a half later she was taking the oath as the state’s first female attorney general while seven months pregnant with her first child. As AG, she defended a law requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. She also successfully sought the death penalty in the killing of a police officer. Her track record positioned her to become the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2010 when Judd Gregg—the man who in 1980 beat Annie Kuster’s mother in the GOP primary—retired. Gregg personally recruited her to run for his seat.

This was another break with the past: Historically, male senators haven’t identified women as their potential replacements, notes Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth. “Women had to be the insurgents,” she says. “They didn’t have the establishment figure clearing the way for them.” Jessica Grounds, executive director of the group Running Start—which aims to increase the number of young women in elective office—says the differences between New Hampshire’s governor, Hassan, and its junior senator, Ayotte, dovetail with a generational split she’s seen in her work. “Sometimes older women can be initially hesitant to make their candidacies,” says Grounds. “The younger ones tend to be more directed in making it happen.”

Gregg wasn’t the only high-profile person who got behind Ayotte’s campaign: In the midst of a very competitive GOP primary contest, Sarah Palin endorsed Ayotte, dubbing her “one tough Granite grizzly.”

Ayotte won the GOP showdown only narrowly, but she took the general election handily, making her the only female member of the incoming 2010 Senate class and, at 42, the third youngest of the freshmen. Since arriving in the Senate, she has become a prominent face for the GOP, in large part because she stands out in the Republican Senate caucus, which is mostly male and much older than she.

On the day of her swearing-in ceremony, Ayotte was reminded of the unusual figure she cut in her new place of work. When she slipped into the Senate chamber and sat at the desk she would soon officially be assigned to, a guard marched toward her. The desks, he told her sternly, were for senators only. “Really?” Ayotte remembers saying to him. “Because that is my name [on the placard]. And I worked pretty hard to get here.”

They all did, she says now of her fellow female New Hampshirites in the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion. “It didn’t fall into our laps.”

There is, of course, an ideological chasm between Ayotte’s record and the positions of a former antiwar protester like Shea-Porter. It seems to be the case, however, that even in today’s hyperpartisan climate, women are unusually successful at finding common ground, particularly around issues that affect women and children. Studies of state legislators have found that female lawmakers are more consensus oriented and collaborative than their male counterparts.

“During my time in the New Hampshire state senate, we went from four or five women serving to more than one third of the body being women,” says Shaheen. “That changed the dynamic. It was enough for us to be a critical mass. And I see it in the U.S. Senate. The Republican and Democratic female senators meet four times a year. I think that was instrumental in getting all the women senators together on the Violence Against Women Act. Kelly knew the importance of it because of her experience as a prosecutor and as AG. I think it’s notable we got [conservative Republican] Senator [Deb] Fisher of Nebraska.”

Women have also crossed party lines to tackle the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military. Ayotte teamed up with Senator Patty Murray (Democrat, Washington) to sponsor legislation that would provide victims with a special military lawyer when they report instances of abuse, and also prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees both during and for one month after basic training. Kuster recently signed on as a cosponsor of legislation that would enhance whistle-blower protections for service members who come forward with sexual-assault claims. She met the Republican sponsor, fellow first-year member Jackie Walorski of Indiana, when they were posing for a group photo of female congressional representatives. After trading compliments on their suits, the two struck up a conversation. “Right off the bat we identified this issue as something we wanted to work together on,” says Kuster.

Perhaps as important as the legislation these women are promoting is their very presence in high office. It doesn’t just help voters become more accustomed to women exercising power; it can also expand what girls and women envision for themselves.

“In 2006, I was the first woman to go to Congress from New Hampshire,” says Shea-Porter. “Now, six years later, the whole delegation is female.” A supporter phoned her after election night to share her granddaughter’s response to seeing images of the newly elected Hassan, Shea-Porter and Kuster on TV. “Look, Mommy!” she shouted. “All girls!”

Each of the power five is up for re-election in 2014 except Ayotte, whose term ends in 2016. Her Democratic challenger will probably be a woman: The conventional wisdom in New Hampshire is that if Hassan wins a second two-year term in 2014, she will emerge as Ayotte’s challenger in the 2016 Senate race. If Hassan defies prognostications and sits out the Senate contest, the thinking is that Kuster, now a Democrat in Congress, could be a contender. A woman-versus-woman matchup would again highlight how different the state looks from most of the country. “In New Hampshire,” says Dartmouth professor Fowler, “women are the major players.” In other words, women are the establishment now.   

Alexandra Starr has written for the New York Times magazine, Slate and others. She is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Join More and the New America Foundation on February 4 for a discussion of the rise of women in politics. Attend in person, or watch the live stream. Click here for details.

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First Published Thu, 2013-10-31 10:01

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