What’s N.H.’s Brand?

The race for Judd Gregg’s Senate seat could determine it.

The year 2006 had just begun and Jack Heath, a political consultant with a Concord radio show gaining in popularity, heard that highway signs welcoming motorists across our state’s border were being replaced. Gone were the old blue and yellow signs with the phrase “Bienvenue.” The new signs were cleaner, had more charm and they had a new phrase, “New Hampshire: You’re Going to Love it Here.”

To Heath these new signs were an outrage. The state’s proud motto “Live Free or Die” was nowhere. He urged listeners to call their state officials and demand new signs. He booked Statehouse leaders on his show and demanded they do something about it.

Soon the state was in a tizzy. An investigation revealed the new phrase and the new signs were the brainchild of state bureaucrats and marketing agencies.

Eventually, State Senator Bob Letourneau, a Derry Republican, filed a bill to add “Live Free or Die” to the five new welcoming signs along major highways. Stories covering the bill began appearing on newspaper front pages and editorial pages daily. Television news channels asked people on the street about it. A new candidate for governor announced his first campaign promise: replace the new signs with newer ones saying “Live Free or Die.”

In nearly record time, Gov. John Lynch signed a bill doing just that.

It was a teaching moment. Amid change culturally, politically, demographically and economically, Granite Staters, whether lifelong residents or newcomers, cared deeply about the state’s identity and they weren’t about to hand it over to a bunch of marketing consultants in a boardroom somewhere.

This passion may soon rise again.

Over the next 12 months we could witness and take part in one of the most fascinating and soul-searching moments the state has had in a long time. Next November voters will elect a new United States Senator to take over from the retiring Judd Gregg. The race is wide open and the candidates are largely unknown. The results could affect the state’s branding for decades.

Yes, branding. Granted, a state’s branding and marketing isn’t typically considered as a consequence of elections. Normally with campaigns there is discussion of tactics, personalities, the mood of voters and issues. But the politicians we elect to represent us also say a lot about who we are. Politicians can define the times as much as the times define them. President Eisenhower defined 1950s America. Abraham Lincoln embodied the conflicts and outcomes of the Civil War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s out-sized role for himself and government perfectly fit the age of World War II and the Great Depression.

Just as presidents can define American decades, U.S. Senators can define states. The recent passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy reminds us how clearly he defined Massachusetts and was part of the state’s image. The Kennedys are as symbolic of Massachusetts as Fenway Park, Plymouth Rock and the Old North Church. The same could be said of how Sen. Robert Byrd personifies West Virginia, how self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders could only be elected a senator from Vermont and how Sen. Orrin Hatch represents Mormon Utah.

States, of course, can also pick the wrong person to serve as state symbol. Those who live in South Carolina, Illinois, Alaska or New York in the past year felt the sting of jokes about their controversial governors. And recently U.S. Senators from Louisiana and Nevada were caught in sex scandals.

Judd Gregg for so many years properly defined New Hampshire. He is the state’s most successful politician. He has held elected office since 1978, becoming the only person in state history to be an Executive Councilor, Congressman, Governor and U.S. Senator. His style of politics reflected the time and the state he represents. He is a fiscal conservative and a quiet Congregationalist. He is a proud Republican, but always tilting more pro-environment than his party.

While Gregg may have been the brand for New Hampshire in the past 30 years, it is an open question as to who would be the best fit for the next 30. The state has dramatically changed since Gregg went to the Senate in 1992. The state’s population has increased and become more diverse. The southern tier has become a conservative Massachusetts. The western border towns have blurred with Vermont. The North Country has grown even more deserted. Everywhere the population is getting older. The state’s economy has shifted from manufacturing to high tech to a service economy. There has also been a rise of independent voters and of Democratic victories. Democrats have only held the seat Gregg occupies for 10 of the years since 1858. Yet when Gregg looks across the Senate chamber he sees his colleague Jeanne Shaheen, state history’s most successful Democratic politician. In Concord, for the first time since Reconstruction, Democrats control all levels of state government. As timeless state symbols go, even the Old Man of the Mountain fell.

The choice

For the nation, our Senate race is remarkably important. Control of President Obama’s agenda is teetering by just one Senate vote. In September, the Washington Post listed New Hampshire as the top Senate race of the 36 races taking place next year.

Most New Hampshire elections favor one candidate; some have foregone conclusions. It’s rare when a substantial block of voters have to evaluate issues and size up all the candidates without the benefit of a familiar player or two. With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at the field at this time.

• Paul Hodes is the only Democrat in the race. He is the District 2 U.S. Representative serving half the state, so he’s well positioned to run. But in reality he is nearly as much of a political newcomer as his opponents. He lost his first political campaign in 2004 by 20 percent of the vote. Two subsequent wins put him in a strong position to join the world’s most prestigious legislative body, adding his name to a list that includes John McCain, John Kerry, Chris Dodd, Richard Lugar and Joe Lieberman. Hodes was born and raised in New York City and moved to Concord after law school to start working at the state attorney general’s office. He then went into private practice. He’s the only candidate who plays in a band. So far, at least. He and his musical wife were once best known as the leads in a children’s folk rock act called Peggosus.

• Washington Republicans were thrilled when they were able to convince Kelly Ayotte to step down as Attorney General to challenge Hodes. She was born and raised in the state. Her husband is an Iraq War veteran and still active in the Air National Guard. They live in Nashua with two young children. She can tout the fact she was nominated to be Attorney General by a Republican governor and re-nominated by a Democrat. While Ayotte has the most name recognition of anyone running, about half the state still doesn’t know her and she has yet to outline where she stands on major issues.

• Unlike Hodes, it appears Ayotte will face competition from her own party. Ovide Lamontagne, a Manchester attorney, has a political reputation, though it’s been more than a decade since he put it to a test. He won the 1996 Republican nomination for governor by running a grassroots campaign and knocking off the party favorite, something he’ll have to do again if he runs. Lamontagne has a French-Canadian name (once political gold in the state).

• Another Republican contender, Portsmouth businessman Sean Mahoney, will argue he is the right fit. He is a New Hampshire native with a Harvard M.B.A. who publishes a business magazine and can brag he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

None of these Republicans are known as well as former Congressman Charlie Bass, the scion of a political dynasty as impressive as the Greggs, but he appears more likely to run for his old Congressional seat. In addition to serving 12 years in Congress, Bass is a former state senator, the son of a former Congressman and the grandson of a governor.

Who are we?

Choosing from such a fresh pack will allow New Hampshire voters to define themselves on their own, new terms. If Gregg served as one of the symbols of old New Hampshire, who would best be seen as a symbol for the New Hampshire of today and the future?

If New Hampshire is defined by granite, fall colors, Lake Winnipesaukee, the presidential primary, a low-tax structure, the late Old Man of the Mountain and, don’t forget, Live Free or Die, who else should define the new brand for a state that’s always changing, yet deeply proud of what it has become? Is it the person who moved here and made it? The person who returned to her roots, is quiet about political stances and focused on the job before her? Is it a social conservative who has long believed in non-profit institutions to make the state better? Or is it a Seacoast entrepreneur?

And before voters decide who should represent New Hampshire, maybe they should first figure out what New Hampshire they are talking about.

If they do that, we could even put it on a sign. NH

Categories: Law & Politics, Opinion & Humor