With Background in Campaigns and Marketing, Van Ostern Sets Sights on Governor's Office

Jul 5, 2016

Colin Van Ostern talks to the media after filing his candidacy for Governor in June.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Among the Democrats running for governor this year is Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern. He's a candidate who's no stranger to running political campaigns and is now seeking statewide office for the first time.

In 2008, Colin Van Ostern was facing a tough choice. He was just finishing up his Master’s Degree in Business Administration at Dartmouth when he got an offer to work at Apple in California.

But, as Van Ostern explains in his stump speeches these days, he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave New Hampshire.

“And I went out there and I thought very hard about it, it was very tempting," he told a crowd of voters recently. "And I came back and I bought a puppy and an engagement ring. And I – we – decided we were going to make our lives about New Hampshire.”

Van Ostern may have stayed for a marriage and a puppy. But he came to New Hampshire 15 years ago for the politics -- first, working as Jeanne Shaheen’s communications director during her 2002 Senate campaign, then as a spokesperson for John Edwards’ 2004 New Hampshire presidential primary campaign, as well as a stint working for the state Democratic Party.

Van Ostern speaks with voters at an event in Hanover.
Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Now Van Ostern, at 37, has his own campaign to become the next governor of New Hampshire. He’s pitching himself as a business-friendly, progressive successor to Democratic governors Maggie Hassan and John Lynch.

As a political science major from George Washington University and a former White House intern, it would seem natural for Van Ostern to make a career out of politics.

But in 2004, he went into the private sector, running his own communications consulting firm for a few years before moving to Hanover and enrolling in Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

"No one ever dreams of running for the Executive Council when they grow up. I certainly had not."

After turning down his Silicon Valley offer, Van Ostern found work as a Brand Manager for Stonyfield Farm.

His first assignment?

“Adult multi-pack yogurt cups," Van Ostern says. "If you imagine, those six cups that are all connected together. It was kind of a don’t-mess-anything-up-while-you-learn-the-business job.”

It was at Stonyfield that Van Ostern, who had helped others get elected, began considering a run for office himself -- even if it wasn’t for the most prominent office: the state's Executive Council.

“No one ever dreams of running for the Executive Council when they grow up. I certainly had not.”

The council, a five-member body that approves state contracts, is not typically a launching pad for young, ambitious politicians. But Van Ostern says two issues before the council then inspired him to run: expanded commuter rail from Boston and Planned Parenthood funding. Van Ostern supports both, and both figure prominently in his platform for governor, as well as statewide full-day Kindgergarten.

In 2012, Van Ostern was elected to the Executive Council’s 2nd district, which had recently been redrawn to favor Democrats. He was reelected in 2014.

In the meantime, Van Ostern left Stonyfield for a job at another New Hampshire-based employer: College for America, which operates out of Southern New Hampshire University. The program offers online degrees designed for working adults for just a few thousand dollars a year.

On a recent visit to the College for America offices, Van Ostern was nostalgic – he worked here as Chief Marketing Officer from 2013 until early this year when he shifted to an advisory role, to focus on his run for governor.

Steve Giglio worked with Van Ostern in the earliest days of the program. He remembers him as someone who asked tough questions that brought focus to the young and quickly expanding organization.

“And it was wonderful because it was done in such a way that it forced folks to think," Giglio says. "It was done in a very positive way.”

As the tour continues, we round a corner into the company cafeteria where Van Ostern gestures to a large inscription on the wall.

“This is actually one of the things that I’m proudest of," he says. "Our mission, mainly because I wrote the mission, with help from a lot of people here. ‘College for America is radically expanding access and improving the quality of higher education…’”

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Van Ostern’s ability to craft messages – for colleges, businesses, and politicians – has been a big part of his success so far.

But not everyone is convinced that this skill and three and a half years on the Executive Council have prepared him to be governor.

State Senator Martha Fuller Clark has been involved in state politics for over 25 years. She endorsed another Democrat, Mark Connolly, in the race for governor, saying the Executive Council isn’t the best preparation for the governor’s office.

“Obviously the Executive Council allows you to understand a number of issues that comes across the governor’s desk," she says.

"I think it isn’t quite enough experience, no.”

But the idea that Van Ostern might lack the substance to back up his messaging is a critique he seemed ready for back in the College for America offices.

“One of the first things I learned at Stonyfield is that the best marketing is a good product," he says. "It’s less about what the label looks like and it’s more about what the yogurt tastes like.”

The final taste test will be left to Democratic primary voters this September.