Thursday, December 11, 2003

A talk with author Charles Brereton
Charles Brereton has just released his fifth book about New Hampshire politics, the funny and informative, "Primary Politics," Peter E. Randall Publisher,
Brereton traces his experience with the primary from before 1972 to the 2000 campaign. He also makes the case that the historic New Hampshire primary should be preserved but that national parties should tweak the rest of the process to encourage participation. I talked with Brereton recently about his new book and politics in New Hampshire.

P: This is your fifth book, and a lot of them have been about New Hampshire politics and the primary. But you said you had a specific reason for writing this book.

CB: New Hampshire may be a small state but it does have a rich texture to it. And I really didn’t think there was anything available for reporters to use, to really understand that texture and particularly the history of the state in the post-World War II period. So that’s why I wrote "Primary Politics," so this would be available.

P: You had mentioned that you didn’t have a computer, and you write with a typewriter. Do you do your research by hand, with newspapers, going through the archives and microfilm and stuff like that?

CB: Yeah, it’s all done by hand until I’m done with the draft and then I have someone put it on her computer. Then, it was transferred over to Peter Randall, who obviously, since he has done over 400 books on New Hampshire politics and culture – he has computers too – but not me. I’m totally befuddled by anything mechanical. I never advanced to electric typewriters. So, I’m very old-fashioned that way. I have yet to find my way to the Information Superhighway – not even to the on-ramp.

P: In your book, you talk about ethnicity in Manchester and the shift of different cultures. Has it affected the outcome of certain primaries? Has that had an influence at all?

CB: Well, particularly in 1972 by Ed Muskie’s weak showing [in Manchester but] winning with 50 percent of the vote. It has more to do with the internal dynamics of New Hampshire politics in terms of our state primary more than presidential primary. That was the one time it was the main factor.
The thing that got me thinking about that so much was when I read David Hoeh’s book, "1968-McGovern-New Hampshire." David is an experienced operative and he writes in his book that every election there seems to be a "Manchester surprise." And there was no more surprising thing than the infamous Canuck letter back in 1972 [A nasty letter published in the Manchester Union-Leader before the primary claiming that then-candidate Ed Muskie was bigoted towards Franco-Americans, a large segment of Manchester’s population at the time].
One reason I think this state is so strongly Republican is that there have been people like [former-Gov.] Styles Bridges and Bill Loeb [the late-owner of the Manchester Union-Leader], who have been able to drive that wedge between the Franco-American community and their natural alliance to the Democratic Party.
And it continues to this day because if you look at what happened in the last Senate race turned out, [former-Gov.] Jeanne Shaheen did very poorly in Manchester and the surrounding communities and its one of the reasons the Republicans controlled the Senate, is that one vote from New Hampshire that normally, I think, would have gone Democratic. And then the presidential race last time around was so close, another reason, because that Manchester went for George Bush rather than Albert Gore.

P: MassINC recently did a report about the flight of residents from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, about 78,000 people in the last 12 years. The assumption is that the people in the southern tier tend to be more liberal, at least on social issues. But if you look at election results – using the Shaheen and Sununu example – that isn’t always the case.

CB: When I moved into the state 35 years ago and started working for Pete McCloskey in that first primary I was involved in 1972, that was not only the election with large population growth to factor in, but the first time 18-year-olds could vote. There were some people who lived in southern New Hampshire when I would spout this theory that, the liberals are coming to New Hampshire, just shook their heads and said, No, they come here, pretty much, as economic refugees. They do not like the high tax rates in places Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey … It has been a very different influx of newcomers here, differing to what has happened in Vermont where a lot of radicals i.e. Bernie Sanders, have moved up from New York, and made Vermont – once considered a conservative state – far more progressive than New Hampshire which has not become a progressive state at all, despite the population growth.

P: There has always been a move underway to take the First in the Nation primary away from New Hampshire because the state isn’t as diverse as other states. But the population shift has made the state more diverse than it used to be, even before 12 years ago … you see larger minority populations than before, larger immigrant populations than before, the national obsession with it not being diverse enough … the state has changed.

CB: Well, [N.H. Democratic activist] Marty Gross sort of pointed out how shallow that argument is. Representative of what? We are a very diverse country. Even with all the change in the state, it’s still not as multicultural as Massachusetts or New York or places like that. What all that population growth tells you though is that there is something going on here. We may have a frost-belt climate, but the way we think is very sun-belt. And that is where you have enormous population growth as well - in Nevada, California - these states that constantly add new representatives while a lot of Northeastern states are losing representatives, but not New Hampshire.

P: Even if you moved it to another state – even it was small and intimate – like Rhode Island or Delaware – you still wouldn’t necessarily get the same hands-on campaigning. John Q. Public has a chance to meet the candidates over time.

CB: I think it would be impossible, given our state law, and the love affair working reporters have with New Hampshire, to switch New Hampshire and replace it with Rhode Island, or what have you. I think the road they are on to is much more dangerous – where everything gets front-loaded – if it is not a national primary campaign in name, it is in fact and that is what we are very close to. That is the problem.

P: I was looking at the election returns in the back of the book and was amazed to see almost 50 percent voter turnout in every primary in New Hampshire. In Massachusetts, even when Paul Tsongas ran in 1992, if I recall correctly the turnout was pretty low.

CB: It’s abysmal, yeah. It is hard to compare one state to another because not all states allow independents to vote [in their primaries]. So, you will have a lower turnout anyway. I really wish they had a standard format for voting in the states that way. It would encourage turnout. But you’d get the Republican establishment … they don’t not want independents coming in, mucking up the works like John McCain did. They’re going to protect their turf. There was a movement to remove independents from voting in the primary in the last session here. That is a 50 state puzzle. But it would be nice to let independents vote.

P: You have a plan for having 25 primaries and 25 caucuses determine a political party’s nominee. However, if you had to choose between a regional primary or another plan other than yours, which do you think would be the best?

CB: I’m not a fan of regional primaries. I’m not a fan of national primaries. I will probably get in trouble for saying this but there really should be a single small- or medium-sized state, in each of the regions of the country. We’re almost there in terms of Iowa and New Hampshire being the traditional starting points. Having South Carolina follow New Hampshire by a week – I’m not opposed to that. I think southern politicians, being able to be heard on their home turf, is a good thing. And now, for the first time, we have New Mexico with a caucus and Arizona with a primary, a week after.
The problem is that Terry McAuliffe let six other states come in there and you have a very difficult task for the less-financed candidates to get out there and have a chance to state their message. All he had to do, with all these states like Michigan that were complaining, is to say, if you want to move a caucus in there, go right ahead. That turns out to be what Michigan did but then he let these other states all slip in there and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. If New Hampshire lost its First in the Nation status – and I will probably get in trouble for saying this – I would prefer having a Maine or a Vermont replace us, rather than a regional system or a national system. Any single small New England state. If you were trying to replace [New Hampshire] with a Wyoming or South Dakota, states with small populations where you still do person to person campaigning, well, winters out there are very different from winters here. The travel would be just very difficult for the candidates and the press, etc. I had to drive across Wyoming – I know what a place like that is like – you just can’t do it. For those reasons, I would say forget about it.
If you move from New Hampshire to Maine, you are going to run into the same problems – there aren’t enough African-Americans, there aren’t enough Latinos, so why wipe out 80 years of political history just to replace it with something so similar?

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