In N.H.'s White Mountains, Campaign Rhetoric & Economic Reality Don't Always Align

Nov 16, 2015

It’s on every presidential candidate’s checklist: make at least one swing through northern New Hampshire, deliver a stump speech, shake hands with residents of the quiet mountain towns. But what about the people who aren’t at those campaign events? 

As part of our State of Democracy project, NHPR’s Natasha Haverty spent some time with folks who live in the White Mountains to ask what’s on their mind.

People from the White Mountains have a kind of unspoken social contract with the rest of the state. Everyday out their window they look onto a place that most of us see on a postcard. But their economy—their entire existence—depends on other people coming to visit.

Marilinne Cooper understands how fragile that existence can be. She lives in Bethlehem, and when she got here in the 1970s, it was a ghost town.

"There was nothing here," Cooper says. "There was a block of rundown stores that were sometimes open and sometimes weren’t."

Just a few decades before, this one village had thirty grand hotels, filled with thousands of tourists every summer.

Marilinne Cooper lives in Bethlehem, once home to dozens of grand hotels and resorts. She runs WREN, the Women's Rural Entrepreneurial Network, which works to improve economic and community development in Northern New Hampshire.
Credit Natasha Haverty

But by the 1950s, the advent of motorcars and Disneyland meant those grand hotels—were empty. And by the 1980s and 1990s, Cooper says, they were gone.

Today, White Mountain communities like Bethlehem are working their way back. But that loss reverberates.

And it shapes the character of the people still here today. Cooper says, that’s really the character of New Hampshire.

"It’s our Yankee independence, it’s our awesome beauty, it’s our rural isolation."

That Granite state resilience and free spirit—it’s what presidential candidates want so badly to appeal to. Which makes this place the ideal backdrop for somebody auditioning for the White House.

Interactive: Voices From the White Mountains

But for the people who live in that backdrop — off the campaign trail, outside the photo opps — that political talk isn't always reaching them in a way that resonates.

Guests at the Carroll County Democratic Committee’s annual Grover Cleveland Dinner last month in Bartlett. Hillary Clinton was the dinner's guest speaker.
Credit Natasha Haverty

Getting better, "but not good enough"

On a rainy October night in Bartlett, a valet service greets guests arriving to the Attitash Mountain Resort. Inside, a flautist and keyboard player get in tune.

Three hundred or so people circle their seats, waiting for Hillary Clinton to arrive at the Carroll County Democratic Committee’s annual Grover Cleveland Dinner.

Ed Jones and Nate Blake are working tonight’s event. They’re waiters. I meet them at the back of the room, restocking trays of cheese and fruit. Jones tells me this is just a one night gig for them.

I ask Jones and Blake how connected they’ve been feeling to this election. They tell me, sheepishly: if they weren’t here tonight, they probably wouldn’t even be thinking about it.

"I’ve only voted once in my life, honestly," Jones says. Then he points to his friend: "But he’s never voted."

"Yeah," Blake says. "I’ve had two chances and then never voted. I don’t follow it close enough, I guess. If I knew more about it, obviously, I would do it."

What these guys are thinking about instead? Where their next paycheck’s going to come from. The jobs they can find are mostly seasonal gigs like this one, with no benefits.

"If you want a decent paying job, it’s hard to find," Blake says. "You can go anywhere, if you want to make eight bucks an hour." 

That night in Bartlett was just the first stop on one of Clinton’s trips around the White Mountains. The next day she was in Littleton, talking about how to make rural economies stronger:

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton reacts during the rope line following a campaign appearance at Littleton High School on Thursday, October 29, 2015.
Credit Paul Hayes

"You know, I stopped at the diner in Littleton to pick up a sandwich before I came over and I was talking to the owners there," Clinton told the crowd at Littleton High School. "And I said, 'Well, how are things going now?' 'Much much better. It was a really bad time ‘07, ‘08 and it took a while to recover from that.' So things are better. But they’re not good enough. At least as far as I’m concerned."

This is the kind of thing people have been hearing from all the candidates who come here—Bush, Rubio, Sanders.

And, driving around the Whites, you see striking economic contrasts everywhere.

One in three houses here are seasonal homes—big new developments that sit empty much of the year. Just around the corner: trailers and Section 8 housing—the poverty rate is high. On average people here earn a third less than the rest of the state.

A lot of the issues presidential candidates are talking about—income inequality, employment security, minimum wage—are playing out on these street corners and long open roads. But, like Jones and Blake, lots of people tell me they just don’t feel connected to what the candidates are saying.

Independent, but uninspired

Leo LeSage identifies firmly as an independent—this area actually has a bigger share of independent voters than anywhere else in the state, nearly half. In other words, he’s just the guy a candidate wants to reach.

Mike Melnick (left) and Leo LeSage work at Chick Lumber in Conway. "Politics is probably the last thing that comes to my mind," Mike says.
Credit Natasha Haverty

"Politics is tough to follow because you got one person promising one thing one person another," LeSage says. "And after a while they get in there and they forgot about what they promised, so you forget about it."

LeSage and moved here with his wife from Pennsylvania earlier this year. He was out of work for four months before he found employment at Chick Lumber in Conway.

"It was tough finding work because, I mean, summer time they’ve already hired everybody they’re gonna hire. And all the places I did apply, it was, ‘Oh well you’re just not qualified' or 'you’re overqualified,' or 'You’re just not what we’re looking for.’ "

Today LeSage has a job that anybody looking for work in the White Mountains would envy: full time, year round, with benefits.

I ask him why he isn’t more involved in the election—he’s a veteran, he’s cares about job opportunity.  He’s skeptical.

"I know what you’re saying," LeSage says. "I mean right now they’re just trying to get the votes. They’re trying to get people behind him, and the more people there are, the better it is."

An economy that's seasonal and cyclical

The political season may be in full swing, but here, locals call this time of year ‘the lull’— the leaves have turned from gold to brown, there’s no snow yet. People who rely on seasonal work are scrambling and showing up at Kathy Howard’s door.

November is mid-season in the White Mountains, though many employers are gearing up for the winter sports season.
Credit Natasha Haverty

At the Employment Security Office in Conway, she helps people find work. And when it comes to the election, here’s what she says people are thinking about:

"They want a good job with benefits," she says. "That’s what if you ask any person walking through this door, that’s your dream."

Howard says, sure, it makes sense: people worrying about finding work don’t always have time to think about politics.

But these days, the local help wanted pages are actually longer than they’ve been in a while. Howard says there’s reason for this: the seasonal cycle aside, in a lot of cases there aren’t enough people to fill the jobs that are here.

"You will go from high unemployment with no jobs to having lots of jobs with no one there to fill them. That’s the time we’re in right now."

Which brings us to another major problem communities here are grappling with: the area is aging. Younger people are leaving. That means fewer people with college degrees, a weaker skilled labor force, more people relying on services than are here to give them.

Some of those young people are in Mrs. Murdough’s civics class just down the road at Kennett High School. Students slide off their backpacks and take out their notebooks.

Whipple Roberts, a senior at Kennett High School in Conway, says he's eager to cast his first vote in the 2016 presidential primary.
Credit Natasha Haverty

Whipple Roberts is a senior from Tamworth. He wears a football jersey and sits in the front row. He’s excited to have a voice in the election this year.

"Putting in my opinion for the first time and having the right to do that I find really cool," Roberts says. "I’ve waited 18 years for the to do that? So I kind of want to use that right when I can for the first time."

Looking around this classroom, Roberts and his classmates, are engaged. They’re sparring, or laughing as they discover something a candidate said.

This stuff is all new for them—an initiation into adulthood. The question is: How long will that excitement last out in the world?