New Hampshire Sends a Backer to Congress

Published on Wednesday, November 15, 2006 by the Boston Globe

A Win from the Blue

Unknown tapped a Democratic tide in N.H.

by Rick Klein

WASHINGTON - The last time Carol Shea-Porter had been in the same room as President Bush, she said, her T-shirt's message -- "Turn your back on Bush" -- won her a push out the door from a Bush supporter as she left an airplane hangar in Portsmouth.

When Shea-Porter saw Bush again Monday night at the White House, she shook his hand as the next House member from New Hampshire's First District. The conversation was cordial, Shea-Porter said, but that doesn't mean she's forgotten the message of change that sent her to the nation's capital.

"Our obligation is to take what we heard and to speak it loudly in Washington," Shea-Porter, a Democrat, said yesterday in an interview in the courtyard of the Rayburn House Office Building, where she is undergoing orientation for newly elected members of Congress.

Shea-Porter is one of the very few people in the age of big-money campaigns who can watch "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and truly see herself. She's of a political breed that many believed was extinct: the angry citizen who decides to run for Congress -- and wins.

No other newly elected representative came from as far off the national radar screen as Shea-Porter, a 53-year-old community activist who never before ran for public office. She defeated Representative Jeb Bradley last week in a race that shattered the myths of what it takes to win a congressional seat.

She had no slick ads or Washington consultants. Her campaign was run by a medieval scholar who worked alongside a nutritionist, an accident investigator, and a pair of court reporters. The Democratic establishment brushed her off as unelectable. She was outspent 5 to 1.

Yet Shea-Porter won with a grass-roots, fiery message centered on opposition to the Iraq war and the president's agenda. She spoke to crowds of as few as three, encouraged her neighbors to spread the word, dogged her opponent at town hall meetings. And she won a congressional race that few thought winnable until close to Election Day.

"We could hear the rumbling on the ground, and that's why we never, never thought we could lose," Shea-Porter said. "It's easier if you get to run those big ads or whatever. But we worked relentlessly, relentlessly, night after night after night."

Her victory will make her New Hampshire's first female US representative -- and the most liberal member of Congress the state has had in recent years. Now, Shea-Porter will have to turn her formidable campaign skills into running a congressional office. She'll have to work with a Democratic establishment that includes many who didn't know her name just a week ago.

Indeed, there are strict limits on what any individual member can do to move the grinding machinery of the House. As a freshman, Shea-Porter will get low priority in choosing her committee assignments, a factor likely to determine which issues she can help mold.

"I'm curious to see how she'll do, because party politics is a lot of the job in Washington," said Jim Craig , the state House Democratic leader whom Shea-Porter defeated in the primary. "She's not beholden to anyone, and that's good in a sense, but it might cause problems for her."

The average House seat cost roughly $1 million to win this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Shea-Porter spent just $123,000 through mid-October -- the most recent data available -- which is the least of all 435 men and women who will make up the 110th Congress's House of Representatives.

Shea-Porter this week is experiencing insider's power for the first time, and is wide-eyed about much of what she's seeing. She called it "surreal" to be at the White House for a reception, and expressed wonderment at sitting just feet from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert during an orientation session.

Roaming the corridors of the Capitol complex with her campaign manager and friend, Sue Mayer , she marveled at the fact that the air-conditioning is blasting even in November -- indicative of a broken energy policy, she said.

After running a campaign on a shoestring, she's juggling two cellphones and has a BlackBerry she hasn't yet figured out how to use. She's fielding calls from 2008 Democratic presidential hopefuls -- an advantage of representing New Hampshire -- and is reviewing "more résumés than there are people in New Hampshire" from job-seekers.

Born in New York and raised in New Hampshire, Shea-Porter lived much of her adult life in suburban Washington, D.C., a mother of two teaching government at a community college and to retired federal employees. She and her husband, Gene, moved back to New Hampshire just three years ago, and she quickly got involved with retired General Wesley Clark's 2004 presidential campaign, where she met Mayer.

After Bush won reelection, she began tracking Bradley at town hall meetings to confront him about his support for the Bush agenda and the Iraq war. After volunteering on the Gulf Coast to help Hurricane Katrina victims, she decided to do everything she could to change the government. That meant running against Bradley, a two-term incumbent who had won by large margins.

Shea-Porter and Mayer were told they needed to raise money -- perhaps as much as $1 million -- but they never really tried. Instead, Mayer said, she used her master's degree studies in medieval history to spread Shea-Porter's message by word of mouth, learning lessons from centuries-old rebellions that turned on word of mouth and "spread like wildfire."

They mixed in modern touches, including the Internet-based organizing mastered by a crop of enthusiastic Granite Staters who cut their political teeth volunteering in 2004 presidential campaigns.

Mayer and Shea-Porter credit Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" with introducing them to the power of enlisting local trend-setters in spreading the word without an advertising budget: They would tell anyone they met that if they liked the campaign's message, they should 10 tell voters about it. Before long, they broke through in some local media outlets -- just enough to keep the momentum going.

"If you are spreading a message that resonates with people, you don't really need all this electronic stuff to make it go," Mayer said. "We were trail-breakers."

In the primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee directed its resources to Craig, considering him the best bet to beat Bradley. Shea-Porter won by 20 points even though she was outspent 10 to 1.

Even after the primary upset, she got little respect from party honchos. The day after the election, when Howard Dean wanted to tell reporters about Shea-Porter's unlikely victory, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee couldn't summon her name.

"Carol Shea -- it's a hyphenated last name. Anybody remember?" Dean said. "Carol Shea -- what's the, anybody know what I'm talking about? The First District of New Hampshire?"

Now, as Shea-Porter prepares to begin the weekly commute to Washington, she realizes that she has to learn to channel her grass-roots energy into a very ossified political process. She has plenty of doubters, starting with Bradley, who in his concession speech seemed to be already girding for a rematch: "Sometimes the pendulum swings one way and then it swings back. We'll look forward to when it swings back."

Shea-Porter wants US troops out of Iraq within six months, a balanced budget, and universal healthcare provided through Medicare. She acknowledged that those goals will be difficult to achieve, but said she's committed to working with members of both parties to at least make progress.

"It's not a disgrace to miss the goal as long as you're working on it. What's disgraceful is not to even start," she said. "People voted for change, they voted for an agenda -- and you can hear it -- but they also voted for civility."

Dean's blanking notwithstanding, Democrats are beginning to learn Shea-Porter's name. The morning after the election, the DCCC called with its first offer of financial support.

"They asked us if we wanted them to pay our debt, and we told them we didn't have any," Shea-Porter said. "But it was nice of them to offer."

Copyright 2006 Boston Globe