CDS Column: Live, Vote or Drive

How do we keep having these arguments?

Massachusetts voters streaming into New Hampshire and swaying our elections. That could happen, hypothetically. Despite voter ID laws and town clerks who know residents and a robust, tried-and-true electoral process, Massachusetts could be deciding New Hampshire’s votes.

But they’re not. There is no evidence of such fraud. There is supposition, a rumor, something the White House is talking about, but it’s just “alternative facts.”

And yet we keep having these arguments.

Rumors and innuendo are not a basis for policy. New Hampshire knows that. Ours is a state of no-nonsense people. New Hampshire voters are sophisticated. They are accustomed to the political milieu, seasoned from serving on the front line of the presidential vetting process. We Granite Staters are no electoral novices. The Live Free or Die ethos means we belong to fire districts, water precincts and lighting districts in addition to a town, a county, the state and the federal government. Every one of these entities is an exercise in democracy. Each puts out its own annual report, has a board, holds public hearings and requires a vote. If we choose, we might spend half our non-working waking hours ensconced in elections. Not only does the nation trust us to make early judgments on the character and capabilities of those who one day hope to run the country, but we see fit to practice democracy at almost every level and in every corner. Voting is our lifeblood, something rooted in New Hampshire history more deeply than in any other state.

And now our votes have found their way into the national discourse: A flood of Massachusetts carpetbaggers allegedly made their way north to strip Kelly Ayotte of her senatorship and President Donald Trump of a rightful victory. This is the word out of the White House, beginning with the president and repeated by his advisers.

Let’s be clear: The president and his team have brought no evidence to support this claim. None. The White House has a hunch, but offers nothing to back it up beyond words. As with other accusations of voter fraud, it’s an opinion, nothing else.

But this time it isn’t about about California. This time it is about us. It’s about our little state. And this claim hits at our heart — our political process, a sacred part of the Granite State.

Our political apparatus is ingrained into our state identity. When it comes to presidential elections, we have home field advantage. Every great election begins with us. Tryouts here commence a year before the rest of the country. New Hampshire does not play politics, we live it, from the federal level right down to the North Conway Water Precinct and the Redstone Fire District.

As a result, despite our small population and rural character, New Hampshire is no political backwater. Our residents and institutions carry the sophistication needed to govern thousands of scattered municipal districts, as well as the chops required of a state trusted to cast the first vote. We have seen scandal before, and political fraud. Small but well-schooled, we are not naive. This is our game, and we know how to play.

And yet we are left listening to accusations out of Washington that our political apparatus is full holes. Accusations floated without evidence by the president of the United States that Massachusetts political operatives pulled the wool over Granite State eyes.

To sling unfounded accusations at the New Hampshire electoral process is to undermine our electoral heritage. Such slander casts dispersions on our “First in the Nation” position, a role we have carried with dignity for decades. If there is voter fraud, quit teasing and expose it. New Hampshire Republicans and New Democrats alike would stand side-by-side to uproot such perversion. Our coveted electoral position demands it — we all have too much to lose to sit by and let such mischief continue unchecked.

But these claims are baseless. There is nothing behind them. They are all bluster, no truth.

But baseless claims are hard to fight. There is no arguing a shapeless provocation, empty of evidence. How do you prove fraud when all fraud is supposed, not exposed?

The White House casts suspicion on the sanctity of our political heart, on the laser-cut accuracy of our selection process. This dispersion sullies not only the electoral count, but also our presidential primaries, every federal ballot cast, the state election, every local election, each precinct and district. In a word, the president has put the Granite State on notice — without evidence — that our democratic processes do not hold water. We are not a cup, he says, but a sieve.

But it is these claims that are the true sieve. We in New Hampshire wear democracy close to our skin. We live it, know the taste of it, the feel of it. It’s a dance we’ve practiced before. And we also know the smell of something rotten. These accusations are rotten. Without evidence they can only be called lies. And New Hampshire has no room for lies, nor “alternative facts.”

Cast dispersions on New York elections if you wish, Donald Trump, or on California or Texas. Pick any of 49 other states, but leave our Granite process alone. We know politics. We know elections. Step forward with evidence, or be silent.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Fear, the Biggest Liar

I will not be afraid.

Fear is a mask without holes to see through. It pulls at us, weighs us down. It is a yoke, a liar. I will not be afraid.

I will, however, say thank you to the women in my life: my sister Liz, my mom Nell, my nieces Charlie, Kennedy and Mackenzie. My sister-in-law. My step-mother. My cousin Lisa. My friends Helga, Lindsay, Terry, Nicole, Ana, and others too many to list and too strong to hold down. You are breathtaking. Powerful. Worthy. Equal. Unique. Amazing. I can only imagine your thoughts, the frustrations spinning inside. There is nothing I can say or do, but I hear you, grieve with you. Not for a missed political opportunity, but for the national sidestep around your inherent equality, our collective rejection of your internal capacity. For the continued elevation of your bodies as objects. For the grinding lack of respect you endure.

And to my friends of color — Jahad, Cynthia, Sinclair, Ish, Katie, Miguel, Helga, Lisa — my Muslim friends — Wasim, Farah, Selma — I can only imagine this moment for you, the feelings of exclusion, of otherness. You are the blood and bones of America. Your Haitian heritage, Salvadoran past and Saudi roots add texture to our fabric, your Friday prayers as sacred as Sunday. Worth does not live in color, sex or religion. It just is. Do not dim your light for anything, for anyone — doing so robs both you and the world.

Where to go from here? Part of me wants to drop the anger, to push for healing and national unity. But another part realizes this is a false choice, that the repudiation of Clinton and Obama grew out of racism and misogyny. Anger at the extreme right, meanwhile, is a rejection of these most American characteristics.

So how do we extract hate and exclusions from America? How do we instead spread ideals like tolerance, inclusivity and religious liberty? By yelling at opponents? No. We have to try something else.

Hurt people hurt people, a friend told me. Hurt people lash out. They react. They do damage. America today is full of hurt people. Will we, the tolerant, now become hurt too? Will this rejection grow to anger?

No. I will not be afraid. Fear is what got us here. I am sad, disheartened, but I will not move forward in anger. America has had enough of that.

Instead, I will look for the bright spots. Like Pious Ali, who was elected to Portland’s City Council. The first African-born Muslim to hold the office, he is a resounding voice for America’s integrated future. I heard Ali speak in September on young immigrants and people of color in America. His message was clear: We are stronger together. The gaps that divide us are narrow. The success of our newest citizens mark success for us all. Ali is not a man of fear. His eyes are open. He sees the American challenge with clarity, and instead of cowering in its shadow he smiles at it. He brings an unfettered heart to the fight. We must do the same.

The forces of inclusivity are strong, woven deep within the American experiment. We, the tolerant, are not alone. Fear and exclusionary violence will erupt from time to time, but those blows cannot overcome America’s inevitable grind towards equality. Over the long arc we are moving forward, and that movement continues, however awkwardly.

But our fight will always be hamstrung. We are cursed with the knowledge our opponents are as human as we are, as worthy and valuable as ourselves. We cannot demonize; even those who see us as abhorrent are our brothers.

How do we rise from such handicap? Like Ali: With clear eyes. By refusing to cower and rejecting the shadows. By realizing our commonalities will always be stronger than our rifts are deep. By engaging even our adversaries with curiosity and compassion. By refusing to be afraid. Fear is a liar. Put down that mask.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

CDS: Political Standing and Climate Science

CONWAY — The divide over climate change has long split along party lines, but a new report by University of New Hampshire researchers highlights just how politicized climate science has become.

“We found that most Americans are unclear about where the North and South Pole are located,” said Larry Hamilton, professor of sociology at UNH, “but they have definite ideas about whether the climate there is changing. And those ideas, along with basic knowledge, correlate with how they plan to vote in November.”

Hamilton was lead researcher on the first ever polar, environment and science survey, a joint project between the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy and Columbia University. Researchers asked Americans their views on science and climate change, their sources of information, their thoughts on the current problems and possible solutions. They also tested basic geographic knowledge related to polar regions. The survey was conducted in August, and the results came out in October.

Public views on almost everything related to climate change — acceptance of basic scientific observations, trusted sources of information, the seriousness of current problems, the need for a policy response — differ greatly depending on political orientation, the survey found.

“Trump supporters are much less likely to accept or know the scientific observations that carbon dioxide has increased and arctic sea ice declined,” Hamilton said in the report. “Logically, we could separate the scientific observation that climate change is occurring from the political question of what should be done. In public opinion, however, the science and political issues prove not very distinct.”

Ninety-nine percent of Clinton voters believe climate change is happening now, and 86 percent believe it is largely caused by humans. This, Hamilton said, is the statement most scientists support.

A majority of Trump supporters, however — 55 percent — believe climate change is occurring through natural forces. Only 33 percent believe humans are the primary cause. Another 7 percent do not believe climate change is occurring.

A similar divide occurred when respondents were asked whom they trust for information on climate change. Supporters of both Clinton and Trump listed scientists as their most trusted source, but the two sides showed differing levels of trust: 85 percent of Clinton supporters said they trust scientists for information on climate change, compared with 61 percent of Trump supporters.

For Trump supporters, Fox News was the second-most trusted source for information — 49 percent — followed by friends at 38 percent and religious leaders at 34 percent.

Only 10 percent of Clinton supporters, meanwhile, trust Fox, and 26 percent trust religious leaders. Clinton supporters trust websites, friends and political leaders most after scientists, at 44 percent, 42 percent and 42 percent. Only 18 percent of Trump supporters trust political leaders, and 22 percent trust websites.

That separation continued into policy questions, where Clinton supporters repeatedly give high priority to policy moves aimed to reduce the impacts of climate change such as renewable energy investments, lifestyle changes and a carbon tax.

But Clinton supporters are not alone here. “Trump supporters also place high priority on action to reduce climate risks,” Hamilton said, though not as high as Clinton supporters: “39 percent prioritize renewable energy investments and 27 percent consumer or lifestyle changes.”

Researchers also found a relatively poor understanding of the forces at work in global warming, paired respondents’ belief they were well-informed. Respondents had more confidence in their understanding of issues like sea level rise and melting glaciers than the data bore out.

“Objective tests suggest,” Hamilton said, “that such confidence often derives from political convictions rather than knowledge of science or the physical world.”

The survey found most respondents had limited knowledge of polar regions. “Less than 40 percent correctly place the North Pole on ice a few feet or yards thick, floating over a deep ocean,” Hamilton said.

“Similar proportions think the pole is on ice more than a mile thick, over land, while others imagine a rocky, mountainous landscape. Answers regarding the South Pole are not much better; less than half correctly place it on thick ice over land.”

Similarly, fewer than 20 percent of respondents recognized the United States as an arctic nation, with more than 3 million square miles of territory and thousands of inhabitants within the Arctic Circle.

Over the past seven years, UNH researchers have seen public acceptance of climate change “drifting upwards,” Hamilton said, and the scientifically supported view that humans are the main cause has climbed from roughly 50 percent seven years ago to 63 percent in recent surveys. “Thus, despite sharp political divisions, there is broad and rising public recognition of climate-change problems and of the need to shift our energy use in response.”


This story appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

From the Back Seat: America’s Argument

It has come to an end. After almost two years of buildup: the election, the point on which it all hinges. Dragons will either be slain or Armageddon will soon commence.

Which, of course, depends on your political bent, whether Hillary is your Antichrist or Donald. But either way there will be an offended swath, American outrage that hasn’t occurred since… last election.

Remember in 2008 when Obama became president and the TEA Party stormed the streets in protest? We still see the racially-tinged aftermath of Taxed Enough Already in the selection of Donald Trump. Obama marked the Socialist takeover, the “they’ll come for your guns” moment, another pivotal dragons and danger moment.

And yet today America stands, gun in hand. Rome has not fallen. There have been incremental ticks, changes to health care policy, the recognition of same sex marriage, withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, but much from before remains. Guantanamo is still open. America still kills from the sky with unmanned aircraft piloted from the Heartland. Abortion is still legal and under stress. A black man may occupy the White House, but beyond condolences he’s been unable to offer anything to curb the mass incarcerations of innocents or shootings by police. America is thick with its own history, and the wave of his hand proven insufficient to part the Red Sea.

Foreign-born Muslim Socialist or not, presidential powers are limited. Armageddon will have to wait.

The same can be said of Maine and the 2010 sweep that brought the 39 percent to power. Despite his best threats, Gov. LePage proved unable to eradicate functional government. His insistence on undermining the bureaucracy rather than reforming its aims was caustic but not calamitous, and lumbering beast though it is, the government proved agile enough to stay steps ahead of the governor.

Mainers still pay taxes and state agencies continue to offer services. LePage did his damage, but much of it was superficial. The occasional racist comment proved the governor an unsavory mascot, but his real goal—to free the state of the tyrannies of government—stands uncompleted.

Another disaster dodged. Armageddon again averted.

But was Armageddon really the risk? That is language of elections today, both from conservative corners and progressive politicians. But in American democracy nothing burns overnight. Things don’t happens fast. Neither man nor movement has the sway they claim. Our institutions are great pyramids standing on bases that stretch for miles. One man or woman at the top has not the strength to move it. Even armies of protesters lack the might to push them over, be they the TEA Party or Occupy Wall Street.

A state is so much more than its government. A country is so much livelier than its laws, its politicians. These are small choices, momentary blips, water and sand only have the power to eat away the stone that forms our foundations. One day, through the slow erosion of time, shifts may come, but there is no earthquake on the horizon. Shout as they might, this country can endure.

And regardless of its smaller swings, America lumbers in the direction of its founding, the words it was born with: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

America is a country forged out of words and ideas, not the other way around. It was plucked from thin air by idealists on land made clear by genocide. We live a nation rife with contradiction. Questions of diversity and wealth and what it means to be free run in our blood. They are our history, our legacy, our burden. And they are bound to resurface at times. At times like these. Indeed, they might never go away.

Sometimes this argument we have with ourselves is raucous, ugly even. But it is our argument, one we must embrace to push forward those American words.

But for all the fighting the sky will not fall. This argument, this ungracious snarl, is the messiness of democracy. There will be no dragons gone after Nov. 8, and Armageddon will still have to wait.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: Elections and Trumped up charges

Next week we get a new president.

Next week we get to watch one of the most remarkable aspects of the American experiment — the commander of the largest military in the world relinquishes his claim to the most powerful nation in history. Obama’s term is ending, and soon he will step aside peacefully without complaint.

It’s a crazy idea, a system where power moves effortlessly from one leader to the next, one party to the next, without bloody upheaval. Imagine such a trade-off in Syria or Sudan, Somalia or Saudi Arabia. Such handovers are unimaginable. There and elsewhere wars are fought for less.

But somehow America has found a way stave off the corrupting influence of power, enough so that every four or eight years the transition occurs. Elections come and go, presidents come and go, without a hitch. Steel-edged self-interest is ignored in favor of stability.

And as a result, year after year, we reap investments in businesses, community, family. No one wants to pour themselves into a future at risk of being torn down every four years, but Americans have figured out how to let the veneer of government change while the substance of our country continues. It is our American legacy, our 200-plus-year history, something so elemental to our democracy that anything else seems absurd.

Maybe it was bound to be taken for granted.

When Donald Trump raised the spectre that this election could be rigged, when he said he might contest the results of Nov. 8 if on Nov. 9 he isn’t White House-bound, he drew a line between himself and our American past. He pointed to the most fundamental of American concepts — those clean transitions of leadership — and opted to take a pass.

This is the history that makes America remarkable, a pillar of our greatness. The candidate who would “Make America great again” would also smear her best qualities, reject her democracy at its roots.

And on what cause? What evidence? Mad claims of rigging, unpunctuated by fact? Trump has offered this show before. It’s a reprise of his Obama birth certificate blowout: all fiction and farce, a ball of lies, a con. In shouting “It’s rigged!” he does more to show his disdain for the American civic process than to enlighten voters with any truth. In the land of honesty Trump is a foreigner, a hustler looking to get America on the cheap.

But his boasts are inconsequential. We are made of stronger stuff than this, and we have faced more meaningful crises before. Remember 2000? Imagine the chaos that would have followed had Al Gore had refused to accept defeat. Considering the irregularities — Florida, butterfly ballots, a monthlong recount, the U.S. Supreme Court — the loser had cause to protest but, as a player in the American political game, Gore recognized the rules. His personal stake in the outcome did not trump the American tradition of graceful defeat.

American politics, as messy as it may seem, is largely about such grace, about high ideals and civic virtue. Though a strain to live up to, American democracy was founded on such optimism. The country’s first president famously stepped down after only two terms in office, which at the time was itself something of a revolution. This was the time of kings and emperor generals, but, like Cincinnatus, George Washington relinquished power after only eight years. Elected in 1789, he retired to his Virginia plantation in 1797 and died there in 1799.

Washington’s civic example, however, outlasted him. It set a precedent for presidents that lasted through the next century, and it wasn’t until World War II that a commander in chief exceeded eight years in office.

Congress passed the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms in 1947, but for a century-and-a-half before that there was no need for such a rule. American politicians lived by Washington’s example. They recognized the decorum of the office, that their position only held for two terms. Stepping aside gracefully was a presidential prerequisite.

Such grace eludes Donald Trump. The Republican nominee (the party of limited government) is conducting his campaign in a way that almost shouts for more rules, more written laws. But how do you write a rule for presidential candidates unwilling to accept the outcome of elections? How do you put in print the most basic tenet of electoral decorum? Trump has no evidence to back his claims of rigging. We are a week from the election and the Republican nominee is calling into question the very backbone of our democratic system. There ought to be a rule against it.

But actually there shouldn’t. To echo good conservatives, we don’t need more rules. Trump’s behavior begs for laws and regulations designed for the worst of us, legislation designed for that one windbag willing to make outlandish claims. But America is built of stronger stuff than that. Our democracy runs deep. Our rules and laws and governance are meant to be thin. They are the paper covering on something more substantial, a vast nation that the drama of politics only plays on top of. Any swindler with a lawyer can find his way through one more law. Trump has proved that again and again.

What we need is a trust in our roots and our traditions, paired with a demand that claims of election impropriety be followed by evidence. Shouting “The sky is falling” doesn’t make it rain, much less uproot the sun and clouds. Trump needs to be held to account.

And he will be. Next week, ballots will be cast, and we will see where America stands.

And Trump may well win. He’s on the ticket, and it’s the voters who decide. That’s how the system works, how it has worked for 240 years. Next week, we’ll know the outcome.

But, unlike Trump, Americans will accept the results even if they don’t like them. Because in America, that’s how it’s done.


This column ran in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Right, Left and Center

image1-2When it comes to voting for federal office in New Hampshire this cycle we don’t have a lot of choices to be excited about; both the Republican and Democratic tickets are bleak. At the top is Donald Trump, clearly unfit to lead, or Hillary Clinton, the consummate politician. One step below is the U.S. Senate where Gov. Maggie Hassan is hoping to unseat Sen. Kelly Ayotte, two candidates more astute at political maneuvering than practicing leadership or instituting policy. Two strikes for the federal ballot.

Then there is the race for Congress: incumbent Frank Guinta running against former representative Carol Shea-Porter in the fourth matchup between the two. These two have gone back and forth, and every time the seat flips.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter which one is in office, both have proven uninspiring. It’s another version of the races above it, but it’s also worse: Guinta versus Shea-Porter is more bad TV, but in this race we have to watch a rerun.

In one sense we’re lucky: In a country where almost every congressional seat goes to the incumbent it’s a rare thing to see a contested race. But it hasn’t done us any strategic favors. Rep. Guinta has members of his own party (including Sen. Ayotte) suggesting he resign following his finance scandals, and still Shea-Porter is unable to trounce him.

Is that because Guinta is likeable? Nope. He’s come by the Sun a number of times, and each visit is reminiscent of a sitdown with a used car salesman.

But Shea-Porter offers nothing more promising. Both candidates sit square within their parties, basically stooges for Washington games. If a bright idea has come from either it never made it to paper.

But in the house race 2016 isn’t a rerun. We finally have a chance to watch something other than the lumbering Shea-Porter-Guinta-Shea-Porter drama. This year there is an Independent in the race. And Shawn O’Connor is a guy worth voting for.

Who is O’Connor, and why haven’t you heard of him? I hadn’t heard of him either before he came by the Sun office earlier this month and introduced himself. O’Connor is an entrepreneur and businessman from Bedford, the founder of Stratus Prep, a test preparation and admissions counseling firm, also the founder of the Stratus Foundation, a nonprofit the helps underprivileged kids access college prep services. He earned an MBA and a law degree from Harvard and studied international politics at Georgetown as an undergrad. He graduated all three with honors.

He’s smart, but more important than that, he’s reasonable. And unlike his predecessors, he’s without puppet masters to pull his strings; he’s running as an Independent, and in his case that means truly independent.

The Guinta-Shea-Porter brawl is loud. So you might have to turn down the volume to find O’Connor. But if you do you just might find something you like. Here is a thoughtful, considered candidate running for elected office, the kind of person who usually steers clear of Washington, or else is corrupted by it. He has ideas for addressing healthcare, minimum wage and social security that pull from both conservative and progressive corners, taking the good ideas from both and applying them to American problems. With no ideological allegiance and a background in business he’s a free man, something Washington lacks.

And what’s more, he’s already made his money. One of his pledges is to donate the bulk of his Congressional salary, roughly $160,000, to a charity selected by an independent board. He’s not going to Washington to help himself.

To be clear, as a New Hampshire reporter you sit through a lot of interviews. Politics is kind of New Hampshire’s thing, and as a result we bat around ideas with everyone from presidential hopefuls to prospective school board members. And often these editorial board meetings feel like a game of cat-and-mouse with the candidate unwilling to say anything concrete and the team of reporters chasing them to nail down a policy position. The best escape artists (Mitt Romney comes to mind) evade every attempt like a bullfighter avoids the horns. Lesser versions (Newt Gingrich, Marco Rubio) do it with less grace, but all of them come off feeling insincere.

Guinta and Shea-Porter (and Hassan too) always struck me as part of Team Insincere, team bullfight. They’re of the ilk who will say anything to win election, always trying to escape their own records and avoid firm points.

O’Connor, meanwhile, sat in front of us and took thoughtful, nuanced policy positions. He avoided partisan rhetoric and instead carved a platform in part conservative, in part liberal. His talk truly earned the label “Independent,” was the kind of candidate you can actually feel good about sending to Washington.

That’s a rare thing these days. Most races are about selecting the least poor option. O’Connor flips that on his head.

But can he win? That’s the question. As he pointed out, New Hampshire is the New England state with the widest independent streak but Maine, Vermont and Connecticut have sent Independents to Washington. New Hampshire could do it too. Voters just have to demand service, not politics, from their representatives. It was talk reminiscent of Ray Burton, the longtime executive councilor who cared more about his constituents needs than their party affiliation. Since Ray passed no one else has picked up the mantle.
O’Connor can change that. He is a candidate for all of us, not one stuck to the margins. He claims to want to Washington to support New Hampshire’s people as opposed to a party. Neither Guinta nor Shea-Porter have done that. Maybe it’s time for a change.


This column appeared in Wednesday’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: A Mini America

49895953510__6feb8924-ea7f-4930-ae0b-20f4a8fb15f3-1Maine is a modern political allegory. In a lot of ways it can serve as a stand-in for the entire United States—liberal coast hemming a vast but sparsely populated conservative heartland, with bustle and trade, vibrancy and a smattering of diversity along the shore but both tempo and complexion changing once you leave the ocean. Isolated pockets clustered around centers of higher education (rather than midwestern cities) retain the progressive flavor of coastal life, but otherwise inland culture is very different, as is the economic outlook.

America Mini: Yeah, we’ve got that.

And politically Maine has America covered too: one Republican congressman and the other rep a Democrat, in the U.S. Senate a moderate Republican regularly accused of being a RINO and an Independent who leans liberal. Maine voters, like voters across America, support every political stripe.

And then there’s the governor. If Maine is an American metaphor then loose-lipped Gov. Paul LePage is a glimpse into the future, a hint at what a possible presidency with Donald J. Trump would be like.

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” Gov. LePage told a radio host last spring. And he’s right: Gov. LePage is a shining example of what loose cannon leadership looks like, how an executive who takes no notice of facts likes to govern. It’s impossible to watch the trapeze act of Trump’s campaign and not be reminded of Maine’s own mini-circus, the pro-business bark adorned by rude racist comments and a constant confusion on facts. Trump hardly has a corner on that market. LePage never had his own TV show but in terms of political buffoonery and chicanery he’s got a six-year head start.

How do candidates like this get to power? Of course there’s the business of third party politics and Maine’s 61 percent, but there is also that vast white interior, the working class industrial heartland of Maine/America, the places where good jobs were once plentiful and now are hard to come by. These are the forgotten lands where infrastructure is crumbling as quickly as communities. This is the seat of power for “straight talk” politicos today, the home of the frustrated white worker.

And why shouldn’t they be frustrated? These voters live in the economic sectors of yesteryear, places like Rumford and Skowhegan (Cleveland and Milwaukee) that have suffered setback after setback. They’ve watched their communities drown in joblessness while their elected officials lead in other directions and focus more on talking over them than talking to them. The American Dream, long at their doorstep, is now far away and doesn’t look to be coming back.

It is to those voters that politicians like Trump and LePage offer their promises: a rejuvenated working class and a reborn heartland. “Make America Great Again.” It’s a slogan aimed at them, and it has hit its mark. It may be hogwash, a fantasy in today’s changing world, but when no one else is speaking to this constituency there is room for LePage and Trump to find support. They took a read on the pulse of frustration among white working class voters and they spoke to it. Their words may be hollow, but any sound booms across a vacuum. They noticed a bloc and reached out; they should not have been the first.

LePage and Trump are blowhards, but their political foresight should not be overlooked. It’s now clear that white rural voters are ignored at our collective peril. While Maine and the rest of America quibbled over policy nuance these factless windbags climbed ranks: LePage won both election and then reelection, and Trump cleared the Republican field. Disillusioned and disenfranchised working class voters led the way, showing up in droves to exercise what power they have left, supporting the candidates that speak to their situation as everyone else looked on.

Maybe next time Republicans and RINOs, Independents and Democrats will approach this frustrated constituency, listen to what they have to say and speak to them. Maybe next time working class Maine’s sole option won’t be a bluster-filled bully.

Maybe that can be part of America’s story too.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: Entertainment? Debatable.

CDS Column: Entertainment? Debatable.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-5-04-40-pmThis week included the first debate of the 2016 presidential election. Did you watch?

You could sense the excitement Monday evening, the closing of doors as people rushed home to make sure not to miss anything. It had the feel of the Super Bowl: blue lights of the TV screen flooding living room after living room, the proud rooting for a chosen team, a clawing desire to win.

But it also held the feel of a car accident, a train wreck that people wanted to glimpse. What would go wrong? What outlandish things would Trump say? Would Clinton be able to hem him in and fend him off, or would he eviscerate her as easily as he did the Republican field?

I met three friends for dinner Monday night. In town for an afternoon of rock climbing, they were on a mission to make it home in time for the debate. “I want to see what happens,” one of them said. “It won’t change who I’m voting for, but I know it’ll be good.”

He was not the only one to say so — another friend stopped by to ask if I was watching. He too wanted to see the drama unfold onstage. The unpredictability of 2016 has transformed the race for the White House into top-rated reality TV.

That is our election today: entertainment. A sideshow. We are ostensibly choosing America’s next commander in chief, but it feels more like a trip to the Colosseum.

What has happened? This isn’t the first time a presidential election has taken on the carnival feel — the selection of Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office was another step in that direction.

She brought folksy appeal to the ticket but neither experience nor a global perspective. After the 2008 election loss, the former governor moved on to reality TV, hosting a 2010 show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” According to People Magazine (always a trusted source) she is currently developing a Judge Judy-type courtroom program.

Reality is no longer real enough. We now select candidates more focused on Hollywood than Washington. Is this what voters consider “meaningful change”?

But two policy wonks standing behind podiums arguing the merits of Social Security reform makes for terrible television. No one is going to tune in for that show. Analysts projected the Clinton-Trump debate will be one of the landmark viewing events of 2016, with 17 percent more television viewers than Romney-Obama in 2012. And in the intervening four years much watching has migrated to online streaming media, which those numbers don’t account for. If we are upset with our choices for president, we sure give them our undivided attention. Perhaps our interest is really to be entertained.

A Palin presidency, however, would not have been entertaining, and neither would a Trump presidency. While it may be hilarious to watch the Republican nominee resurrect his signature tagline “You’re fired” in political form, he is without experience, temperament or the necessary judgment to lead. He is a conman stoking divisions and discontent. More of it won’t be entertaining to watch, and a Trump presidency wouldn’t be entertaining to live under.

So, what were viewers looking for? How many of the millions of them were trying to decide which one of these two candidates had the makings of a president? Or is that not what debates are for anymore?

Television companies appreciate them. If discord as entertaining as Trump versus Clinton could face off every year, it’d sprout a cottage industry with as many advertisers as the Super Bowl. And who wouldn’t want to see creative, funny depictions of red state versus blue, candidate versus candidate, issue versus issue. Perhaps Planned Parenthood could deploy croaking frogs and Focus on the Family a new World’s Most Interesting Man.

Maybe this is how we make America great again. Maybe we can sell ourselves back to viability. Maybe taking a page from our reality TV nominee’s book and stenciling our last names across the top floor of all of our houses from the North Country to the coast, from Cleveland to inner city Chicago, we pull us up by our bootstraps.

Really? That seems like a con. Rural America is struggling, and meanwhile Congress fails to meet to make basic compromises. America finds itself in a multipolar world amid powers not necessarily our friends. These are not joking times, not the moment for a clown, a conman. It will take vision, solid policy and hard choices to navigate the times we find ourselves in.

And yet, we as a country elect to tune in, to be entertained. We are trained to watch. We gripe about Washington and then refuse to engage in the boring meaningful work required to change it. We rush home in anticipation of getting to watch grownups act like toddlers onstage and then curse our lack of better choices. Is that true, we are without choices? Or are our politics a reflection of us? Do we have anything to offer, an attention span to listen on policy rather than vote for entertainment value?

There will always be conwomen and conmen. There will always be someone selling something we don’t need at a price we can’t afford, a shill looking to entertain.

And so, we have been left with one choice in this election. The cynical view has always been presidential elections are a choice between two evils, but not this year. This year we have a consummate politician, someone who in normal circumstances would be the very definition of bum in a call to “throw the bums out.” But the conman has transformed Hillary Clinton from sleaze into white knight. There is no other choice, the alternative is absurd, unthinkable.

So we have the election we built for ourselves. But at least we are entertained.


This column ran in the Conway Daily Sun.

The Candidate Race

The Candidate Race

rubio-marcoThe pointman for Sen. Marco Rubio wore a sport coat and thick beard and talked with a southern accent. In his late 20s, he arrived an hour before the candidate was scheduled and sat in the front room of the Sun offices surfing the Internet on his phone. His name was Trip, and he was waiting for his boss to arrive. His job, he told me, was to get things ready. That means his phone battery dies every three hours.
The Sun, however, doesn’t require much prepping. When candidates arrive we pull a pair of armchairs side-by-side, one for the candidate and one for the publisher, and the rest of us form a semicircle. The chairs were still in place from the last interview, so there wasn’t anything to prep. With 15 minutes to Rubio-time the Sun staff was still working on other things. Trip’s trip was being wasted.
But after some strategic texting Trip jumped up to let everyone know the senator was four minutes out. The campaign was going into action. But again, this was met without fanfare — late afternoons are deadline time at a newspaper, no time for distractions, and people kept working.
When the senator finally arrived, however, everything shifted. Phones hung up, notebooks closed, computers went into sleep mode. Rubio made his way around smiling and shaking hands, and everyone stood to meet him. He took a comfy chair, thus beginning one more job interview for 2016’s toughest opening.
In New Hampshire we’re lucky. We guard the frontline of presidential politics. Every four years the candidates come, wave after wave, to sit and discuss the issues, to interview for the job. It’s a democratic utopia, a dreamland for reporters, where the action is.
But it’s a weird place too. It’s a place where you interact on a human level with people more prepared to address a television camera. It’s like they train to address crowds from podiums and lose the ability to engage a room of a dozen.
That was Rubio. We had roughly 20 minutes with him on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn’t come across through.
That might sound like harsh critique, but in essence that is the point of the New Hampshire primary, to test candidates in a retail politics setting. Rubio said it himself: “New Hampshire is very town hall based,” he told us, the politics “retail-oriented.” After the New Hampshire primary, he said, it transforms into a media race, not a human race.
But then he talked at us for 20 minutes. To him, we might as well have been television cameras.
Now maybe he was in a hurry. Or was tired after a long day of campaigning. Maybe our little paper wasn’t worth putting in the full retail effort. Whatever it was, if Rubio is charismatic, he wasn’t when he visited us.
But he was smart. It was easy to see he is brilliant, capable of winning political arguments. And maybe that’s what we should be looking for in a president — the smart guy. Maybe the transformation from human to politician is just part of the game today. In the modern media environment cell phone cameras run 24/7. There is always someone watching for any potential slip, looking to turn an offhand comment into a career-ending soundbyte.
Remember a dozen years ago when Howard Dean let out “the scream” that ended his campaign? Now multiply that risk by the number of smartphones introduced since 2004. Moments of idiocy, of poor word choice and brain farts are now captured and broadcast around the world. And it’s not uncommon for Fox News or NBC to broadcast to the world something recorded on a cellphone.
The result? An expectation of perfection, and candidates like Marco Rubio, a man so stuck on script it doesn’t even matter when the cameras are off. Living in a political environment where only the script makes sense, where the race is about the television audience rather than the general electorate, why deviate? Those willing to risk off-message interaction also risk alienating. It’s too great a risk, and retail politics drops by the wayside as voters are courted only by the millions, not one-by-one.
New Hampshire sits as the bulwark against that world. We are here to meet and greet, to be the face of the country, to gauge individual interactions and then broadcast that gut feeling on to the nation. New Yorkers will never get to meet every candidate. Nor Californians, nor Texans, nor Floridians. Those states have sway in November. New Hampshire sways now.
In New Hampshire, the presidential contest is recast as a local race. And in local races — the New Hampshire House or Senate, for example — it’s nearly impossible to vote straight ticket. When you know the candidates it’s not just enough to agree with their ideas; we need to trust the individual as well, to believe they are the kind of person we should elevate to power. It’s no longer just party. Here it’s personal.
That ability to build connections is what kept Ray Burton in office for three decades despite shifting political tides. People knew him, liked him and, regardless of political affiliation, supported him. That is a rare thing today. It’s a New Hampshire thing.
And that’s what we offer the country: The chance to face presidential candidates like local politicians. The chance for them to prove they hear us. The chance to support the person, not just the politician.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December of 2015.