The Unexpected Congresswoman
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Problem #1: No one knew her name. While she'd grown up in Durham and Lee, the fourth of seven siblings and the daughter of devout Republicans (one of her first childhood memories is that of holding a Barry Goldwater for President sign) and had earned a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's of public administration at UNH in the 1970s (after the election, she would joke that one of the best perks of office was being able to park in the UNH president's driveway while visiting campus), Shea-Porter had lived out of state for two decades. First she had lived in Colorado, where she met her husband, Gene, an officer in the Army, then in New Orleans, where she worked as associate director of a senior center, and finally near Baltimore, where Gene commuted to a new job in D.C.

In Maryland, Shea-Porter worked for senior centers, led an effort to bring affordable housing to her community, and helped create a social service agency that served the local homeless and poor. She also taught politics and history at a local community college. They returned to New Hampshire in 2001 because Shea-Porter was homesick; she chose Rochester because she liked the socioeconomic mix, thinking it would help ground her children. And although she had met plenty of people through her role as chairperson of the Rochester Democratic Committee and her work on presidential campaigns, few voters outside those circles knew who she was or what she stood for.

Problem #2: She had no money. And everyone she talked to in the National Democratic Party and the New Hampshire Democratic Party told her she needed cash: the average Congressional campaign costs over $1 million.

Problem #3: She wasn't interested in fundraising. She preferred to talk to people, to listen to their thoughts and share hers on Iraq (remove the troops as soon as possible) and education (reduce student loan interest rates) and economic opportunity (no more tax breaks for the very wealthy). "I represent the other 99 percent," she'd tell whoever would listen. The 99 percent that focused less on the stock market and "more on finding money for pizza on Friday night."

Problem #4: Because of the above, both the national and state party machines endorsed her opponent, Jim Craig, a well-established state representative from Manchester who served as the state house minority leader. "She wasn't raising any money," says Bill Shaheen '65, the long-time democratic activist and husband of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen. "If you don't have money, you don't have a shot."

It's not that they didn't think that they needed any money. Rather, Shea-Porter and Mayer thought that they could campaign successfully with limited money. Instead of buying expensive television ads, they would use age-old methods of news delivery. Mayer reasoned that if the medieval crusaders could spread news effectively via horseback and foot, then think of how fast word could travel with the help of phones, highways and the Internet. Leaping ahead a half a millennium, they also borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell's best seller about change, The Tipping Point, which examines how certain ideas and behaviors act like outbreaks of disease. All you need are "carriers," people who will successfully convey the word to different populations.

First, they announced Shea-Porter's candidacy and key platform points through e-mail lists they had collected during the 2004 campaign. Members of those lists had lists of their own. Names begat names. Then they contacted environmental activists, health care professionals, educators. They began organizing house parties at which Shea-Porter would talk to a handful of people. The more people she talked to, the more people she recruited. She recruited Dave Kulju, a computer-savvy guitarist from Portsmouth, to build a web site. She recruited Ranan Cohen, a nutritionist from Newmarket who had served on the town council and organized local campaigns, to serve as her volunteer coordinator. And she recruited 82-year-old Romeo Dorval, a former banker who knew everyone in Manchester, to mobilize his forces for her.

As her inner circle drafted "carriers," Shea-Porter talked. She talked in coffee shops, in living rooms, at parades. Wherever people gathered, she talked. She talked about the need for affordable health care and prescription drugs. She talked about an energy plan that made the United States more independent. She talked about privacy, that the government should not interfere with reproductive or medical decisions. She couldn't walk through a room without talking to someone. At a function during the primary, Dorval says he watched as Jim Craig "walked from Point A to Point B and Shea-Porter stopped 100 times to talk to people."

What many remember is that she was so nice. Wise, knowledgeable, and nice. Not cynical. Not patronizing. She laughed a lot. She listened. She didn't lose her composure. When Bill Shaheen bumped into Shea-Porter at a picnic in Jackson for the Iron Mountain Democratic Committee, he warned her that she couldn't beat Jim Craig in the primary. He had money. She didn't. He was from Manchester. She wasn't. Shea-Porter didn't argue. She just smiled and said, "Now, Bill, when I win the primary, will you help me?"

"If you win," he said, "I'll do anything you want me to do."

After the primary, when she beat Craig--and two other opponents by 14 points, Shaheen became her campaign's co-chair. Her other co-chair was Jim Craig.

She had learned to disagree respectfully as an adolescent. More often than not, she was the dissenting voice at the Shea dinner table when the Vietnam War was debated. She revered both her father, a lawyer who had served in the Navy during World War II, and her mother, an antiques dealer, and learned to argue with facts, not emotion. And even though many of her siblings harbored different opinions, they were then, and are now, "very close," says Shea-Porter. During the congressional campaign, when she would be called a radical, when opponents nicknamed her "Moonbat" or tried to paint her as left as Howard Dean and Ted Kennedy, she was perplexed. "You can't be a liberal extremist and be welcome in a Republican family," she says.

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