Van Ostern's 'Political Operative' Past Is an Asset (And a Liability) In Run For Governor

Oct 24, 2016

In his campaign to become New Hampshire’s next governor, Democrat Colin Van Ostern often talks about his business experience and his votes on the Executive Council. But there’s another, less talked about portion of his resume that could be just as important to his run for governor.

The 2004 New Hampshire Presidential Primary attracted a lot of young, talented political operatives to the state. There were seven Democratic campaigns that year, and for anyone looking to make a career out of politics, getting a job with any one of them would have been a big deal.

Among those who managed to land one of those coveted jobs was a 24-year-old Colin Van Ostern, who signed on as New Hampshire press secretary for the John Edwards campaign.

“He was one of those of people who you were kind of like well he’s everywhere.”

Credit Sara Plourde, New Hampshire Public Radio

Kathy Roeder worked opposite Van Ostern on the Dick Gephardt campaign that year.

“He clearly has a lot of energy and he’s at all the right places and nothing is slipping through the cracks.”

Roeder says because Van Ostern had already spent some time in New Hampshire politics, he had a leg up. But he was also a collegial opponent.

“Colin didn’t feel like someone who was using his knowledge as an unfair advantage against you. If you had questions about the state, it’s not like he was going to hide the ball on someone.”  

Will Kanteres spent much of that 2004 Primary following staffers like Roeder and Van Ostern around for a book he was working on at the time. He says Van Ostern was already making a name for himself as a skilled, disciplined press secretary.

“He had a reputation of being a rising star and a young person who had a lot of capability.”

Kanteres says that while many of the younger staffers would spend their evenings out socializing, Van Ostern lived a sparse, almost ascetic lifestyle that was all about the campaign.

In his book, Kanteres quotes Van Ostern in 2004 saying “if you’re going to do something –particularly something so hard, so uphill, so important– make it your life.”

For a while, Van Ostern did. By the time he was 31, he had worked for 8 different political organizations or candidates. He went from working an obscure congressional race in Texas in 2000 to managing statewide campaigns in New Hampshire in 2008 and 2010. His list of notable former bosses includes Jeanne Shaheen, John Edwards, John Kerry, and Annie Kuster.

All told, that time in the political trenches adds up to about five years of his life.

But they are five years you’re not likely to hear much about at a Van Ostern campaign event today. In his stump speeches, he glosses over those experiences in favor of his more recent jobs as a marketing executive at Stonyfield Yogurt and College for America.

But Van Ostern says that’s just because that period of his life isn’t all that relevant to what he’s proposing to do as governor.

“Well I’m happy to talk about the work that I’ve done throughout my career. I tend to think what matters most to people is their own lives and what I’m proposing as governor to make an impact on them.”

Van Ostern’s history in politics may not feature heavily in his campaign’s messaging but it almost certainly played an important role in its founding.

His relationships with the state Democratic Party as a campaign staffer gave him an advantage when it came to getting his own campaign off the ground says Dean Spiliotes, a professor of political science at Southern New Hampshire University.

“We always talk about certain people being wired into the political environment in a state and that can certainly be beneficial in terms of contacts and influence, etcetera, etcetera. Even to the extent of having politicians like Annie Kuster or Jeanne Shaheen go to bat for you.”

That relationship was on display just a few days after Van Ostern’s gubernatorial nomination when Congresswoman Annie Kuster’s husband, Brad Kuster, offered his congratulations.

“Many of you know Colin ran Annie’s first campaign, and it’s fair to say Colin, that Annie and I owe most of what we know about campaigning and winning elections to you. So we want to thank you.”

So Van Ostern’s history in party politics clearly has its benefits when it comes to seeking higher office. But his Republican opponents are quick to seize on it as a potential vulnerability.

Colin Van Ostern worked on John Edwards' New Hampshire Primary campaign in 2004 with his future wife Kristyn McLeod.
Credit Meryl Levin

“Colin spent the first ten years of his professional experience as a paid political operative and a community organizer. He’s a communications guy!”

That’s Frank Edelblut, a former Republican candidate for governor himself and now a campaign surrogate for Chris Sununu. At a recent press conference he criticized Van Ostern  for not including any of his experience as a political operative on his campaign website’s bio page.

“Who forgets to include ten years of experience unless you’re trying to hide what you have been doing from the voters?”

Edelblut is exaggerating that resume gap, counting some years in between campaigns when Van Ostern was doing other things like getting his MBA.

The Van Ostern campaign, for its part, stresses that he spent the majority of his time in New Hampshire working in the private sector or attending graduate school. They also point out that other prominent public officials like Jeanne Shaheen began their political careers in New Hampshire by helping others get elected.

But even so, UNH Political Science Professor Dante Scala says trying to incorporate his history in politics into his campaign message probably isn’t a good idea for Van Ostern. Scala says whether fair or not, voters tend to have a negative reaction to the words ‘political operative’.

“Yeah it might not be quite as bad as being a lobbyist, but it’s definitely down there.”

So Van Ostern has clear political incentives to downplay this part of his resume. And Republicans have clear incentives to play it up.

Each side has just a few weeks left to make their version of Van Ostern’s resume the one that voters remember.