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In Defense Of New Hampshire

Now that Nevada has backed down from its plan to hold its caucuses January 14, the path is clear for New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner to set his state's primary for January 10 without violating the state's self-decreed law that there be no "similar contest" within a week of the primary. Once again, New Hampshire has triumphed in the game of chicken, after having once again gone so far as to threaten the nuclear option -- moving the primary forward before Christmas. And once again, New Hampshire will earn the ire of the dozens of less entitled states.

I got my start in covering national politics thanks to the New Hampshire primary, covering the 1999-2000 contest as a young reporter at the Concord Monitor. Heck, I even wrote a very long profile for the paper of Richard Upton, the former speaker of the New Hampshire House who is considered the father of the primary for the changes he instituted in 1949 that turned the contest into the hallowed tradition it has become. Yet I'm not going to wax grandly here about the civic worth of the primary, the state's talent for vetting candidates, the glory of the living room visit, etc. or defend the state from the quite legitimate criticisms of its role (its lack of racial diversity chief among them.) Instead, I'm going to defend the institution on purely selfish grounds: Politics set in New Hampshire are singularly fun to cover.

There are several reasons for this -- the state's natural orneriness, the ease of getting around the small state, the handsome landscape -- but I'm going to focus here on the one I think overrides all others: simple math. New Hampshire stands alone even among other New England states for the level of citizen involvement in local democracy. Most notably, the state House has 400 members -- the third-largest assembly in the English-speaking world, after the British Parliament and the U.S. House. This works out to one member per 3,300 residents. The result is sort of the inverse of what I came to think of in my time at the Monitor as the New Hampshire Murder Rule: there are very few homicides in New Hampshire, but the ones that happen are real doozies, so strange and dramatic as to seem like something out of a Russell Banks novel.

Well, when it comes to politics, it's the flip of that, but with the same result: there are so many politicians in New Hampshire that their ranks are full of marvelous characters, people who in other states would be trumped by your typical blander sorts. In my piece in the current issue, looking how Mitt Romney has overwhelmed the state with his hard cash and sheer persistence, I mention a couple oddball examples from my years in the state -- a House member who was mentally disabled and ended up losing to his former fiancee by a handful of votes, and a member who later accused his former housemate, also a member and eventually the head of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, of possessing child porn.

But the colorfulness of the state extends even to the less explicitly screwball characters. I was reminded of this when, in reporting my piece on Romney, I called up a former state rep by the name of Fran Wendelboe, a staunch social conservative who, after 14 years in the House, lost a bid for the state Senate last year. She is a ruddy-cheeked, perpetually jolly woman who unsuccessfully tried to seize control of the state Republican Party after the party's nationwide washout in 2006 and, while having been just one of 400 in the state House, took her responsibility in endorsing presidential candidates very, very seriously (for instance, in 1999-2000, she was for Elizabeth Dole -- until Dole came out for mandatory trigger locks on guns, which caused Wendelboe to confront Dole's campaign staff and declare that she'd have to part ways.)

When I called Wendelboe's cell phone recently, she answered and said she was at the fairgrounds in Belknap County, where she lives. What was she doing there? I asked. Well, now that she had more time on her hands, she was volunteering as an overseer of the fairgrounds. More specifically, she was overseeing inmates from the local jail who were on work-release to fix up the fairgrounds. On this particular day, the inmates were replacing missing battens on the fairgrounds barn.

"I’d love to be able to take them home and put them to work on my house," she said. "I pick them up in the morning, and [the jail says], keep them as long as you want...As a mother, I'm used to, you know, you ask the kids to do something and they say, 'Why can't my brother do it?' So it's nice to say to someone, 'Will you do such and such' and they say, 'Yes, ma'am' and don't give you any lip. They're nice guys. Obviously, they made some poor choices -- they're mostly drug offenses, assault, car theft. But they're mine and I can do whatever I want with them. If I want, I can even drag them to the store to get supplies."

Until big states -- Michigan, Georgia, whoever -- show they're capable of this sort of serendipity and local color, I'll stick up for New Hampshire.