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NH primary: What to do when the candidate you endorsed drops out?

Introductions were made, hands were shaken, and, eventually, a news release would be sent out etching a local leader’s endorsement of a presidential hopeful into the history books.

Then the candidate dropped out.

Whether endorsements from New Hampshire’s elected officials — from the Statehouse to boards of selectmen and city councils — actually improve a presidential candidate’s chances at winning the first-in-the-nation primary remains empirically unclear. But where these local politicians are left after their candidate of choice drops out sheds light on the broader struggles of undecided voters less than a month before voting day on Feb. 11.

Before exiting the race on Monday, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had run away with dozens of endorsements from Granite State elected officials, breaking 100 by December.

After the midterms, N.H. Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley famously dubbed Booker “the best friend New Hampshire Democrats had in 2018” because of his fundraising and organizing efforts leading up to the party flipping both chambers of the Legislature.

One area lawmaker who took to Booker early on is state Rep. Bruce Tatro, D-Swanzey.

Tatro endorsed Booker in July, calling him “true to his values” and “the definition of presidential.”

Now, Tatro said he’s back to square one.

“Well, until our primary, I think I’ll probably just ride it out and see who floats to the top,” Tatro said Tuesday. “I’m not sure exactly who I’m gonna vote for now, but I will be watching the debate and see how things come out.”

Keene City Councilor Bettina Chadbourne said she too remains undecided after the candidate she endorsed, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, dropped out in early December.

Like Tatro, Chadbourne said she may not endorse another candidate.

“I was really disappointed [when Harris dropped out], and spent a lot of time talking with campaigners for [U.S. Sen. Elizabeth] Warren, probably because they have been really active in putting on events and getting people to come. A lot of their gatherings centered on women-related issues.

“And Pete Buttigieg is another one I find interesting,” Chadbourne continued, “but honestly, I haven’t made up my mind.”

Chadbourne’s in good company. Living up to the proverbial reputation of New Hampshire voters, two-thirds of Granite Staters had not yet decided on a candidate ahead of primary day, according to the latest YouGov survey from Dec. 27 to Jan. 3.

Campaigns put considerable time into courting endorsements from New Hampshire leaders, often rolling them out in as big a batch as possible to make news. Former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, announced 13 more Statehouse endorsements Tuesday, adding to the 22 members who have already declared their support.

In mid-December, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota announced the endorsements of more than 100 women across the Granite State, including five community activists in Cheshire County and, in Hillsborough County, state Sen. Jeanne Dietsch, D-Peterborough.

Tatro said Booker’s campaign was particularly diligent about keeping him in the loop.

“He had a good campaign group working for him,” Tatro said. “They were constantly calling and telling me where he was gonna be and inviting me to different things, and, you know, not pushy at all. Just to keep you informed [on the campaign schedule].”

Tatro said that although he voted for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016, the only candidate he’s currently leaning toward is Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

“I’m just looking for somebody who can cut through the bullsh*t as best they can,” he said.

Beyond taking a second look at Warren and Buttigieg, Chadbourne added that she plans on doing her homework and making it out to more events to make a better decision on who to vote for.

That could complicate things for the candidates who will have to be jurors in the U.S. Senate during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

“Because there are people out there like me who still don’t know [who to vote for], it would be important for the candidates to circle back through, so it’s too bad that they will be tied up with impeachment,” she said.

Regardless of whether the stranded endorsers will be aggressively courted by the campaigns remaining in the race, Chadbourne and Tatro said their biggest responsibility is that of any New Hampshire voter: to have an early, outsized say in picking the next leader of the free world.

With that responsibility comes an obligation to do research, they said.

For Tatro, using his vote to support someone to unite a divided nation will be a heavy decision.

“I keep telling my wife we’re already in a civil war,” he said, “but this time it’s between Democrats and Republicans. Nobody is getting anything done.”

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School district-owned dam draws most discussion at Keene budget hearing

The future of the Wilson Pond Dam behind Keene High School was the main focus among those who gathered Tuesday night for the Keene Board of Education’s public hearing on its proposed 2020-21 budget.

The board voted in October to add $450,000 to its operating budget proposal to rehabilitate the eroding dam, contingent on someone agreeing to take ownership — and future responsibility for the structure — after the repairs are done.

But with no agreement struck before the board’s pre-determined deadline of Jan. 3, members voted Saturday to allocate $250,000 for the dam’s removal instead.

“We have no desire to maintain the liability of that dam,” said Jim Carley, chairman of the board’s facilities committee, at Tuesday’s hearing at Keene High. “This is not something that an educational entity should be spending $25 on, let alone $250,000 to $450,000.”

Carley noted that there is still time for a third party to take ownership of the dam. If that happens, he said the district could tap into other resources to make up for the additional $200,000 not budgeted for repairs.

Still, a handful of community members wanted the dam to stay put. Longtime Keene resident Jim Phippard, whose Arch Street home overlooks the dam, said getting rid of it would significantly lower his property’s value.

“I’m assessed an additional $20,000 a year in property value because I have frontage on the pond,” he said.

Former Keene mayor Kendall W. Lane mentioned the lengthy process the district would need to go through to remove the dam.

“This is not something where time is of the essence. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight,” he said. “I’m not sure why that money was taken out because you’re looking at a two- to three-year process before any action gets taken to remove that dam.”

The dam, according to previous state inspections, is in very poor condition and leaking in several places.

After Tuesday’s hearing, N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Chief Financial Officer Tim Ruehr said that in its current condition, the dam will fail its next inspection, and officials are trying to plan ahead.

Another line item some residents voiced concern about in the proposed $68,865,207 budget was what they considered inadequate funding allotted for repairs to Keene High School’s track.

During Saturday’s vote, the board reduced those funds by $60,000, leaving $290,000 for the project. The board learned the vendor could use a three-eighths-inch surface material to repair it — rather than half an inch like Keene Middle School’s track — and opted to budget for the alternative due to cost.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Dawn Mutuski told The Sentinel this past weekend the change in thickness wouldn’t diminish the track’s safety.

But former board member Ed Murdough called the track “a disgrace” and said it needs to be addressed.

He suggested putting together a $5 million project, paid for through a 10-year municipal bond, to revamp all of Alumni Field, instead of just the track.

“I believe it’s a much better use of community resources with a much bigger bang for your buck, much bigger benefit, than putting a Band-Aid on a track that, even after it’s fixed, will not be suitable for competition,” he said.

Aside from the reductions for the dam and track projects, other budget proposal cuts the board approved Saturday include trimming $100,000 from the buildings maintenance department, which had planned to use $120,000 for door security keycard upgrades.

Mutuski told The Sentinel that correcting a budget error pertaining to furniture and fixtures at the Cheshire Career Center removed another $3,700 from the proposal.

The budget still includes money for an additional $1.1 million in special education costs, as well as funding for a district-wide workplace safety position and a behavioral interventionist at the middle school — a position that already exists at the district’s elementary schools.

The budget figure doesn’t include the costs of any new employment contracts, which are voted on separately. If those contracts are approved, the costs are added to the 2020-21 operating budget and incorporated into the budget in following years.

The contracts voters will consider:

The Keene Educational Office Personnel Group (21 clerical and administrative support employees). The costs for pay and benefit increases the first year of the four-year contract are $32,268, with a four-year total increase of $296,194.

The Keene Clinical Service Providers (10 speech-language pathologists and six school psychologists). The costs for pay and benefit increases in the first year of the contract are $43,434, with a four-year total increase of $448,820.

The Keene Custodians (28 custodians, three grounds workers, four trades people and a utility person). The costs for pay and benefit increases in the first year are $51,431, with a four-year total increase of $502,707.

After the school board and the Association of Keene Tutors did not reach a contract agreement, voters will be asked to raise $339,938 for the costs of pay and benefit increases in the first year of a four-year contract recommended by a fact-finder. 

Other warrant articles discussed Tuesday night include appropriations to the school buildings maintenance and special education funds.

Voters can discuss and amend the budget proposal and other warrant articles at deliberative session, slated for Feb. 8 at 9 a.m. in Keene High’s auditorium. Elections will be held March 10.

This article has been altered to correct information pertaining to the Association of Keene Tutors.

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Police: Man in red van wasn't trying to abduct children

CHESTERFIELD — Police say they have looked into an incident Monday in which a man offered kids a ride to school and determined it was not an attempted abduction, as was initially reported in an alert from local schools.

The Chesterfield School District notified police of the incident Monday at about 8:20 a.m., according to a news release from Chesterfield police. A man in a dirty red van reportedly pulled up next to two boys who were walking to their bus stop and asked several times if they needed a ride. The van drove off after the children refused.

Chesterfield police and N.H. State Police conducted directed patrols Tuesday, located the van’s driver and interviewed him, according to the news release.

“Once located Chesterfield Police were able to interview the male and determined that this incident was not an attempted abduction and there is no threat to the public as a result of this incident,” the release said.

Police have closed the matter without charges.

Chesterfield Lt. Michael Bomba said that while the man did offer the kids a ride, “there was nothing remotely there that would indicate there was any type of foul play.”

N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay said Tuesday night the incident is a “great example” of “see something, say something.”

“Thankfully in this incident there was no credible threat to our community, but what if there had and we did nothing? That would be unthinkable if something had happened,” he said.

In the news release, police encouraged people to continue to report any suspicious activity.

Doctored images now routine for political campaigns; when they're disproved, believers 'just don't care'

To back his assertion that President Barack Obama had coddled the world’s top sponsor of terrorists, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., cited an unusual source: a clumsily altered image of a nonexistent handshake between Obama and the Iranian president. The doctored photo, once used in TV ads supporting Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., had been repeatedly debunked since it first surfaced on an Egyptian Islamist political website in 2013.

But when critics last week chided Gosar for showing hundreds of thousands of people a faked image of an imaginary event, the fifth-term congressman said they, the “dim witted” ones, were in the wrong. “No one said this wasn’t photoshopped,” he declared. “The point remains ... The world is better without Obama as president.”

For ginning up political resentment and accentuating your rivals’ flaws, nothing quite compares to a doctored image. It can help anyone turn a political opponent into a caricature — inventing gaffes, undercutting wins and erasing nuance — leaving only the emotion behind.

Sharing doctored images of an electoral rival is a timeworn strategy of modern politics: In campaign mailers and TV ads, shadowy lighting, sinister music and unflattering facial expressions are so expected as to be cliche. But those tactics are increasingly playing out on the Internet, the most powerful visual medium in history, where they don’t require a campaign’s backing or resources to get attention.

Trolls in the last year have superimposed the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s head onto the body of Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff’s father from a family Thanksgiving photo; doctored a Black Lives Matter protest photo with a sign supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to suggest her campaign had attempted the misrepresentation; and changed a photograph to make it appear that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was pointing at a supporter’s shirt that read, “America deserved 9/11.”

On Monday, Trump, who has more than 70 million Twitter followers, retweeted a fake image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., cartoonishly altered to show them in a turban and hijab. The tweet, which falsely claims that the two most powerful Democrats in Congress have “come to the Ayatollah’s rescue,” has been retweeted more than 17,000 times.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News that “the president was making the point that the Democrats seem to hate him so much that they’re willing to be on the side of the leadership of countries they want to kill Americans.” Jasmine El-Gamal, a former Middle East adviser at the Pentagon, called Trump’s tweet “deeply damaging,” adding, “This President thinks that a good way to insult someone is by painting them as Muslim.”

Sharing altered images and video, long a prized weapon of online trolls and meme-makers, is increasingly being seen as fair game for political leaders, reducing reality into a viral meme and flattening complex personalities into characters evoking only pity, loathing or disgust. The posts apply the hallmarks of political cartoons and parodies to real life, fudging the facts to represent what their distributors argue is a deeper truth: the indecency, inadequacy or idiocy of their enemies.

“They’re not necessarily trying to persuade someone to come to their side,” said Darren Linvill, a professor at Clemson University who researches social media disinformation. “They’re trying to reinforce existing beliefs and get people more entrenched in those beliefs. The more entrenched we are, the less possible it is to agree with the other side.”

Misleading fakes have been used against a bipartisan cast of political leaders, including Trump, but many of the most prominent cases have targeted top Democrats. All of the Democratic front-runners for the presidential nomination, as well as the leading Democrats in Congress, have been targeted by deceptively altered images or videos within the last year.

Trump is among their top distributors, routinely sharing crude memes, doctored images and satirical fakes targeting his political opponents. One video, in which former vice president Joe Biden appears to fondle himself, has been retweeted roughly 70,000 times.

Researchers think Trump’s willingness to share altered images may be one reason for the increase: Some of the political meme-makers he’s spotlighted have capitalized on the attention by soliciting donations or charging for premium subscriptions. A study by Princeton and New York University researchers last year, based on surveys and social media data from 3,500 respondents, also found that conservatives and people 65 or older were more likely than other adults to share links to fake-news sites in 2016.

For the images’ creators — and many in their audience — the falseness barely matters. The feelings they evoke are the point, Linvill said, and people who believe the message already aren’t looking for a counternarrative: They just want confirmation that they were right all along.

“They’re broadcasting to an audience that already believes or feels a certain way about a politician, so, often, when [the truth of the alteration] comes to light, people just don’t care,” said Becca Lewis, a researcher at Stanford University who studies online extremism and media manipulation. “They say, ‘It could have been true,’ or ‘Nonetheless, it reflects who the person really is.’ There’s a shared form of apathy in some cases for the fact that it was manipulated at all.”

Anyone can go viral, build an audience or score political points by altering an image or making a meme — and doing so is not only accepted, but encouraged, by the incentive structures of the modern Web. Instead of seeing a single mailer, an online viewer can see a new image practically every minute, distributed freely and anonymously through insular and like-minded communities that constantly reinforce their own ideas.

Why do people share them? Because, researchers said, they work. The opponents of someone who shared a fake image, as in Gosar’s case, might call them out. But those reactions only serve to spread the message further, helping seed the idea on an immediate and massive scale.

There are mercenary reasons for people to create altered photos and convincing fakes, from building a fan base to making money to getting the attention of a political leader — even Trump himself. But much of the energy also stems from the polarized desire to sway political narratives and outdo the other side. It’s “a battlefield mentality,” Linvill said. “People create these memes to prove their cause is the just one.”

The fakes highlight how deception from homegrown American sources may be just as destructive, if not more so, than interference from abroad. And they underline how a manipulator doesn’t need the full might of sophisticated technology to fool an online crowd: A crude photo edit, or even just a false caption on a video, can often do the trick.

Such was the case of an altered video of Pelosi from May, in which her speech was deliberately slowed and distorted in a way that made her sound impaired. The video touched off a firestorm over the way altered footage could be used to undermine opponents and distort the truth. But eight months later, the video — which Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill has called “sexist trash” — remains widely available online.

Debunking such images and video can often have limited practical value, and a fact check’s virality very rarely outpaces that of the original fake. Even reporting on the images — in stories like, well, this one — can help fuel their spread.

Some of the edits are designed as eyebrow-raising parodies, the kind of satire long protected by the First Amendment. But others are deployed largely to sow uncertainty or malign one’s perceived enemies, and in an era of increasing political polarization, it is often just a challenge figuring out which is which. Video appearances are inaccurately captioned or falsified altogether. Images are skewed, mislabeled or misconstrued. Speech is clipped out of context or dramatically slowed to make one’s words sound stilted and slurred.

On Thursday, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., tweeted a fundraising appeal featuring an altered, rust-colored image of Pelosi — her face so harshly sharpened it deepened every line into a craggy hollow, practically vacuum-sealing her flaws.

After Trump retweeted the image, The Washington Post wrote a story noting its “unnaturally high contrast,” and Stefanik thanked The Post for “advertising” her appeal. “Was an embarrassment for you. But great fundraising for #TeamElise,” she tweeted, alongside an emoji of a winged stack of dollar bills.

Such an edit, Stefanik’s supporters said, was par for the course: What about the photos last year on Pelosi’s Twitter account of Trump’s heavily sallowed frown or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s dark vignette? Some compared the Pelosi image to an Instagram filter: A fact of life in an online world where photos are presumed edited until proved untouched.

Stefanik herself had recently been forced to respond to her own distortion. In November, thousands of Twitter accounts retweeted a photo manipulated to show her extending a middle finger following the impeachment-inquiry testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine. The image was portrayed as clear proof of Republican impudence: Her congressional district “deserves better than this childish loser,” one viral tweet declared.

The altered photo had been circulated by a “Leftist Twitter mob,” she later tweeted, pointing to a telltale clue in the altered photo: its magenta nail polish. “I haven’t had time for a manicure in weeks!” she said.

Some clips don’t need to doctor anything to achieve a corrosive effect. A 13-minute monologue from Biden earlier this month in New Hampshire, on the serious need to address America’s cultural legacy of domestic violence, was trimmed of all context to a 19-second racist sound bite, which then exploded across the Web.

This style of digital fiction long predates the Trump years. Obama’s face has been darkened, morphed with Joker paint and cropped to reveal devil horns. Warren has been falsely shown dancing in a “nude pagan ritual.” Hillary Clinton’s head bobs and “hand posture” were put forth as proof, in a YouTube montage in 2016, that she was hiding Parkinson’s disease: The video — which the National Parkinson Foundation says “does not in any way” support the diagnosis — has been viewed more than 5 million times.

But researchers say they’ve seen a rapid acceleration of such fakes during the Trump presidency, possibly because Trump has proved one of their most popular distributors. In September, Trump tweeted a dancing video of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that had been falsely labeled as her partying “on the anniversary of 9/11.” Her tweet correcting the record — and decrying “lies that put my life at risk” — was retweeted 9,000 times, or roughly 5,000 times less than Trump’s original tweet. (The pro-Trump commentator who originally posted it later thanked Trump for the share.)

Part of that growth, the researchers say, may also stem from the increasing technical ease with which anyone can create and mass-share a doctored image, as well as the social media giants’ reluctance or unwillingness to get involved. A doctored image of Biden appearing to grab a woman’s chest, posted onto the “America’s Conservative Voice” Facebook page in 2017, has been shared more than 250,000 times and was still receiving comments — asserting the image is real and “conveniently NOT reported on by the ... Fake News Media” — as recently as this month.

If fake images lead Americans to lose faith in what they see online, that could have consequences for the spread of legitimate information, too. Researchers Bobby Chesney and Danielle Citron, who labeled this effect “the liar’s dividend,” worry politicians could weaponize that doubt against their own legitimate scandals or truths inconvenient to their cause. Trump, who calls reports critical of him fake, has said the “Access Hollywood” video that recorded his boasts of assaulting women was doctored. (It was not.)

The expansion of edited media has in some cases made it harder to tell the difference between a deliberate alteration and an accident. In November, Fox News’s Facebook account posted a live video of Sen. Kamala D. Harris’, D-Calif., speech to a crowd in Muscatine, Iowa, with audio that seemed inhumanly garbled. Some commenters wrongly said it was clear proof that she was drunk.

The truth, as both Fox News and Harris officials would explain, was that technical difficulties in the Iowa bar’s sound system had oddly modulated her voice. But viewers of opposing stripes in the comment section saw only vindication. For some, the video proved the depth of Fox News’s distortion; for others, it proved Harris was as untrustworthy as they’d already presumed she was.

Often, the fake images and videos are only a few clicks away from being disproved. The fake photo Gosar tweeted of Obama’s fictional handshake with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, which was sent to his 32,000 followers and retweeted more than 6,000 times, was first sighted online on the website of Al Shaab, the official newspaper of an Islamist political party in Egypt, according to a reverse-image search.

The doctored image gained new traction in recent years on American conservative blogs, message boards and ad campaigns, including in 2015, when the fake was beamed to TV screens across Wisconsin as part of a campaign boosting Johnson. The image was widely debunked by fact-checkers before the vote. (Johnson was reelected.)

Gosar’s tweet was panned by Democrats, including Rep. David Cicilline, R.I., who tweeted “this is exactly the kind of thing Republicans are going to do in 2020 to hold onto power.”

But Nina Jankowicz, a fellow studying disinformation at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, said the long-term effects of elected leaders sharing warped views of reality extend beyond any one contest.

“People are going to trust their politicians less, they’re going to trust institutions less and they’re not going to want to participate in civil discourse,” Jankowicz said. “Without that participation, our democracy just doesn’t work.”