An organizer for former Manchester, New Hampshire Mayor Frank Guinta, who is trying to unseat two-term Democratic U.S. Representative Carol Shea-Porter, handed out a fake hand-made “Veteran for Guinta” sign at the rally that preceded the debate between the two candidates. The 1st Congressional District debate was held at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, the site of many political debates such as the quadrennial New Hampshire Presidential Primary debates.
I was born in the Granite State: I consider it (along with California) as home. (When people in New Hampshire would ask me, “What do you think about your governor?” I would be taken aback. They would be asking me about Arnold Schwarzenegger and I would be thinking about John Lynch.)
I hadn’t been to a political rally as a supporter of a candidate since the 1976 New Hampshire Presidential Primary, when I supported U.S. Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN) while I was a high school student. I decided to attend the rally and did so with a “Veterans for Carol Shea-Porter” sign and hat because of all the Congresswoman had done for veterans. She has been instrumental in bringing the Manchester veteran’s hospital back from the brink of collapse. (Shea-Porter received the endorsement of the political action committee of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2010, as she did in ’08.)
Rallying the Troops
The debate was scheduled for 7:00 PM. Supporters of both candidates, including political operatives, arrived before the 4:00 PM “kick-off” time for staking out one’s territory with people and signs. The idea is for the supporters of each candidate to grab as much prime territory on College Ave., the road on which St. A’s is located, so as to create a telegenic presence for the media and passersby. The process is overseen by poker-faced members of the Goffstown Police Department.
After rallying the troops and checking in with each other’s leaders, both sides at a pre-arranged signal at 4:00 proceeded to run for the prime territories along the very short stretch of College Ave. leading up to the entrance of the Institute of Politics. To witness it is startling: It reminded me of the recreation of the Oklahoma Land Rush in the early talkie Cimarron (1931), winner of the Best Picture Academy Award.
The troops for Frank Guinta were impressive, unfolding a line of large signs that had been pasted together like some unfurling human centipede — it was almost Chinese-at-the-Olympics with their picture boards-like in its precision — but the Shea-Porter supporters stood the gaffe and staked out some prime territory themselves. There was initial jostling for position, before things straightened out. Many of these people have attended other rallies and know each other, and after some shouting, things settled down.
Stand the Gaffe
One young member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, an ultra-conservative supporter of Frank Guinta, stood right beside me. He was extremely pleasant and we found out that though we were on different sides of the political divide, we were both at heart libertarians.
He was greeted by an older man in a car who was driving by and stopped briefly in the middle of the road. One of the things of the St. Anselm rallies is that the people are right there on a busy street (the other side of the street does not have a side walk) and cars are whizzing by constantly, many of them beeping their horns and waving thumbs up or down. (College Ave. meets Rockland Ave., one of the main drags in the neighborhood, at something like a 70 degree angle, making for a funky curve for cars negotiating the entrance from Rockland to College from the north. The Goffstown police need to keep enthusiastic rally attenders out of the road so they don’t get squashed.)
The young conservative exchanged pleasantries with the older gentleman in the car, who to this observer, appeared to be a Frank Guinta supporter. The old gent later arrived at the rally after parking his car and was revealed to be a Democratic member of the House and a Carol Shea-Porter supporter! After greeting his young colleague from the other side of the aisle, he took his sign and staked out his own bit of turf.
After the lines were established on both sides of College Ave (supporters for both candidates alternating in spots), a Goffstown Police Captain — a bull of a man with the no nonsense look of a Navy chief petty officer — walked the line. He came striding slowly down the sidewalk, ensuring that the supporters and their signs were well back and that the sidewalk was not obstructed. He had a younger police officer with him bearing the stripes of an Army PFC.
There was three hours to wait, and reinforcements began to arrive as the clock slowly ticked on towards 7:00 and the start of the debate.
One of the operatives who served as field marshal of the Frank Guinta forces then came down the sidewalk distributing signs. One of the signs he distributed was a “hand-made” sign declaring “Veteran for Guinta” and he handed it out — randomly, without asking as to the Guinta supporter’s veteran’s status — to the young State Rep. standing next to me. (I and other veterans, such as those from the VFW who endorsed Rep. Shea-Porter, were clearly identified as such.)
The State Rep. was a very friendly sort possessed of a pair of iron lungs that was someone candidate Guinta could be proud of. I immediately challenged him as to whether he was a veteran, and he admitted he was not. The friendly Republican State Rep. said he didn’t even know what was on the sign when he took it. He did the right thing and gave it back to the organizer. He was quite a fellow, and I enjoyed talking to him.
Later, I moved to the other side of the street where I was with other veterans and some union people. Opposite of me was a middle-aged man holding a “Federal Employee for Guinta” sign. We vets talked about how incongruous it was for a federal employee to support Frank Guinta, who wants to cut the federal government and will be part of a caucus that has pledged to implement fresh spending cuts each week if it gains power. Now, thinking back, I realize that was probably a fake, too.
As a veteran, I do not think that political organizers should be bringing fake “hand made” “Veterans for…” signs to rallies and then handing them out randomly without even inquiring as to a supporter’s veteran’s status. Not only does it violate this veteran’s sense of decency in that the bespoke “hand made” sign misrepresents itself as being the self-produced political expression of a vet, but such an act of political prestidigitation is a dishonest attempt to appropriate the honor of veterans.
Thirty-four years after my last political rally, in which the specter of Richard Nixon hung heavily over the land and helped give us Jimmy “I’ll Never Lie to You ” Carter as President, the dirty trick was alive and well and thriving in New Hampshire. (Speaking of dirty tricks, Nixon’s “White House Plumbers” had perpetrated the infamous “Canuck Letter” in the Granite State during the 1972 New Hampshire Presidential Primary. It wrecked the candidacy of U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, the 1968 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate and the front-runner for the ’72 nomination.)
Unlike the banter between the opposing sides a the rally (with the exception of some Tea Party whackos), this type of dirty trick was not good-natured but cynical and shameful.