The Governor's Laid-Back Birthday
A charming symbol of New Hampshire
Illustration by peter noonan
They sang happy birthday. They ate cake and ice cream. It was the governor’s birthday. The celebration wasn’t an intimate affair among the state’s elite. Nor was her birthday turned into a political fundraiser, as many politicians do. All donations at this event benefited a local homeless shelter.
When Gov. Maggie Hassan celebrated her 56th birthday in late February, the event was so hokey it came off as a charming symbol of the state’s core essence, circa 2014. There were performances by choral groups from Phillips Exeter Academy and children’s chorus from Sandpipers Seacoast. Parents snapped photos on smart phones.
But by the time Hassan took the stage at the Exeter Town Hall, surrounded by 175 neighbors from town, it was a moment for reflection. When Hassan and her husband Tom moved to Exeter in 1989, they may have thought they would make a go of it in this town. But they were still early in their careers and didn’t have kids yet. Like two-thirds of the state’s residents, neither was from New Hampshire originally.
But 25 years later, the Hassans not only have put down roots in the state, but they also found a community. This birthday event was free and open to the public, but it was mainly organized by friends and attended by friends who all knew her simply as Maggie. They were friends from town, friends from Phillips Exeter (where her husband Tom works) or friends from the disability community they met through their special-needs son.
While not everyone moves to the Granite State and becomes governor 20 years later, Hassan’s story is representative. Many of her neighbors came to the state for a job or a lifestyle or as a great place to raise children. Along the way they found a community. The bonds created in New Hampshire’s town culture are rarely replicated in other places where studies show neighbors are increasingly strangers.
Hassan is the fourth person from Exeter to serve as governor and the first so elected in more than 130 years. In a town that holds its own American Independence Festival, claiming to be the current governor’s hometown is an extra boost for local pride.
The tone and style of Hassan’s birthday party was heavily influenced by her predecessor, Gov. John Lynch. Until Lynch, a series of New Hampshire governors tried to project an elevated status upon the role of the state’s top job. John H. Sununu left the job to become a White House chief of staff. Judd Gregg became a US Senator. Steve Merrill tried running for Republican National Committeeman. Jeanne Shaheen was the first female elected to the job. Craig Benson tried to transform the job and all of state government with his entrepreneurial forcefulness. But Lynch recalibrated the role of governor to something resembling the state’s “mayor.” Following his lead, Hassan has tried to be more approachable than other governors — like a person who celebrates her birthday in a laid-back event at a historic town hall.
It seemed like everyone was in on it. The headline in Seacoast Online’s Exeter News-Letter covering the event declared that it was for Hassan’s 50th birthday, shaving off six years. Days later Hassan joked that she appreciated the gesture.