Lights, Camera ... Senate: Behind the Scenes with Kelly Ayotte on Capitol Hill

Jun 29, 2016

Senator Kelly Ayotte is in the middle of a competitive reelection bid this year.  In her six years in Washington she's quickly risen from the ranks of rookie politician to the national spotlight. But enough with that for the moment. We sent NHPR's State of Democracy reporter Natasha Haverty off the campaign trail, to see what Ayotte's daily working life is like on Capitol Hill. She sends this report.


In a little studio tucked under the Capitol Building, Kelly Ayotte sits, staring straight ahead. The set behind her is of a generic political office. The teleprompter, loaded up with a speech she just had a moment to look over, starts rolling.

This is where she and all the other senators tape greetings and speeches that get sent back to their home state to play at ribbon cutting ceremonies and chamber of commerce breakfasts.

Ayotte has to do a few takes. After a few slips, she turns away from the camera, to me, and jokes that it’s because of my presence that she’s tripping over her words so much.

“Oop, sorry we gotta go back up…see you’re making me like all nervous!”

At first it seems weird that this senator—who’s been hailed as a political rising star, potential VP, at the forefront of her party’s battle to hang on to the senate—is rattled by having a reporter in here, as she does these recordings.

But maybe it’s because: it’s awkward to be seen getting into character.  Ayotte spends half her time in DC and half her time back at home—two different modes she inhabits. Having someone watch you navigate them?  That’s the tricky part.

“We’re all self conscious at times,” she says.

Ayotte and her senate colleagues spend their days here shuttling back and forth through a network of tunnels and hallways. There’s even a little tram—Ayotte usually speed walks.

There are little elevators just for senators, where Ayotte crams in with her colleagues, like Democrat Tom Carper from Delaware, who’s also her running buddy.

“We’re runners. And she just kicks our…it’s humiliating!” Carper says to me and the group.

These are colleagues who a few minutes Ayotte will be sitting on a panel with, sternly perusing documents and listening to testimony.

And it all leads up to the main stage: the senate floor.

So, maybe you knew this already—but the senate floor—the place you see on tv and in movies, where tourists come from across the world to witness the making of democracy—

Other than the moments when everyone gets rushed in to vote, it’s empty most of the time. Clear of any humans besides the Senate stenographer.

The day I visited was the anniversary of the Brown v Board of education ruling. I watched from the press galley as Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey delivered an impassioned speech—to one hundred empty seats.

Those colleagues were back in their offices, getting his speech funneled in through CSPAN.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte's Capitol Hill office showcases a stuffed moose head, among other New Hampshire-themed decor.
Credit Natasha Haverty

Here in Ayotte’s office a colossal moose head sticks out of the wall, frozen in a grimace. A panorama of the White Mountains, old maps of the state hang over the doors.

Ayotte says New Hampshire is always on her mind in here. And a lot of her meetings here in DC are actually with people who’ve come down from New Hampshire.

That might sound inefficient, but watching constituents arriving for their meetings with the senator you can see it’s some kind of of rite of passage. And some of them are clearly starstruck—not just by Ayotte, but all of it. This woman from Nashua brings up a favor the Senator might do for her niece.

“My niece…she really loves Michelle Obama, she was hoping I’d get to meet her today too…so can you make that happen?”

What Ayotte says over and over at the head of this table is that she’s thinking of New Hampshire all the time—and that she’s one of these folks.

“You know I’m in my community, I do my grocery shopping at the local Market Basket…”

And almost on queue, this guy from New Hampshire, tells Ayotte how cool it is when he sees the Senator out at Market Basket in Nashua doing her shopping. Ayotte seems to enjoy this.

“You know you have this vision, you see senators on television, you don’t expect to see them out in the world.”

Ayotte jumps in, “Yeah, and when you see me I’m usually in a baseball cap or sweatpants or something!”

So again, there’s that contrast, which Ayotte seems really aware of—between the Kelly Ayotte in sweats at a deli counter and the Kelly Ayotte giving a speech on the Senate floor.

Credit Natasha Haverty

Senator John McCain of Arizona says neither of those versions really embody the real work of being a senator. He’s one of Ayotte’s mentors here, and as we sit in his palatial office one floor up from Ayotte’s, McCain tells me the real work of being a senator is in the committees. He says that’s where he’s seen Kelly Ayotte shine.

“There’s no doubt that when Kelly speaks and addresses issue people listen and listen with respect. I’d like to tell you that’s true of all 100, but that would be a stretch.”

On the day I spent shadowing her, Senator Ayotte had seven meetings, attended two hearings, did two media interview, and gave one floor speech. At the end of our day together I ask her if she has a way of turning it all off.

“Yeah it’s called running! It’s called softball. That’s my stress relief.”

I ask what she thinks about on her runs.

“I like to listen to tunes.” I have like a playlist. I have lots of tunes.

“Can you name one? “ I ask.

Ayotte starts listing some songs, but by this point it’s clear Ayotte’s is ready to push the curtain back, sign off from being shadowed—

“Do you dream senate?” I ask.

“Do I dream Senate? I dream all kind of things, I dream Senate, I dream my children, I dream…you know I have that dream that a lot of people have where you didn’t go to that class all semester and you have to take the exam and you don’t recognize anything, you know that common dream? I have that once in a while too!” she says, laughing.

And with that, we say good bye—see you in New Hampshire. 

P.S. Here are some of the "tunes" Ayotte mentioned she listens to on her runs...