A growing wave of women are guiding top aspects of the 2020 presidential campaigns in the Granite State, and those female staffers credit pioneers on the trail and New Hampshire Democrats for having paved the way.
The majority of presidential campaigns say at least half of their New Hampshire senior staff — a term that generally refers to those with managerial responsibilities in a department of the team — are women, with key seats at the table not just as state directors, but also running field organizing, communications and digital operations.
Elizabeth Warren’s New Hampshire team, for example, has women running just about every key department, led by State Director Liz Wester, Political Director Kate Moore, Digital Organizing Director Elice Rojas-Cruz, Organizing Director Kat Rogers, Operations Director Victoria Lee and Voter Contact Program Director Hannah Bristol.
On Amy Klobuchar’s campaign, three of the six senior staffers in New Hampshire are women: Communications Director Kelsi Browning, Deputy State Director Sondra Milkie and Digital Director Megan Carter-Stone.
And Pete Buttigieg’s state director, Victoria Williams, leads a senior staff at gender parity as an alumna of then-Gov. Maggie Hassan’s 2016 campaign for U.S. Senate.
Nationally, the female 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls had just shy of 60 percent women in senior-level positions as of late August, according to a POLITICO analysis of federal elections records and internal campaign data. The top three polling men — former vice president Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Buttigieg — weren’t far off at 54 percent.
To get to this point, women on the campaign trail faced challenges familiar to those in other traditionally male-dominated industries, from double standards in acceptable workplace attire to having to work twice as hard as male counterparts to move up in the system, according to interviews with more than a half dozen top-level female staffers and longtime N.H. Democratic Party operatives.
And while by no means perfect, today’s relative equity is owed largely to the mentorship of trailblazers going back to the 1980s, and the bounty of elected positions across the Granite State, many said.
“I think especially in a place like New Hampshire, where Jeanne Shaheen — who basically rejuvenated the Democratic party in the state — when she was elected, she had women around her,” Kathleen Sullivan, former chairwoman of the N.H. Democratic Party, said.
Many of those who worked on Shaheen’s late ’90s gubernatorial campaigns and her 2008 and 2014 U.S. Senate bids continue to pollinate statewide and presidential campaigns, Sullivan said, building a deep bench of hardworking, talented women who can run first-in-the-nation primary operations with extensive local knowledge.
Shaheen “was a mentor to all sorts of people, both women and men,” Sullivan continued. “... And I think today, when you look at some of the women who are managing campaigns in New Hampshire, like Erin Turmelle and Liz Wester, I would call them sort of second- or third-generation Shaheen people.”
Turmelle and Wester, the state directors for Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker and Warren, respectively, were two of the earliest New Hampshire hires in the 2020 campaign cycle. Both credit their breadth of experience to what they learned ascending the ranks under Shaheen and other leaders.
“New Hampshire has empowered women throughout the field, so I have always felt like these strong female role models have helped pave the way for me to take the steps in my professional career that I have,” Turmelle, 31, said. “I think to some degree, people can always say that, but I feel really lucky and incredibly blessed to have strong women in my professional life, in my personal life and in my family who have really helped me push through any barriers that I’ve seen in my way.”
A Granite State native from Stratham, Turmelle started organizing in high school for former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s presidential bid in 2004.
Wester grew up outside Boston, but has spent most of her political career in New Hampshire since 2010, despite the shellacking Democrats took that year.
“Senator Shaheen is definitely a mentor,” Wester, also 31, said “... She has been definitely an inspiration to be able to see someone who started serving in an organizer-type role.”
In 1984, Shaheen ran then-Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire, leading him to an upset victory in the Granite State over better-known candidates like Walter Mondale and John Glenn. Prior to that, she ran then-President Jimmy Carter’s New Hampshire primary campaign, fending off neighboring state challenger Ted Kennedy.
One of the only women running campaigns at that level in the early ’80s, Shaheen began earning what a New York Times reporter described as “an aggressive, take-no-prisoners campaign style.”
“I think at that time, I was one of the few women in the country who had run a campaign at that level for a candidate, and it’s been heartening to see more and more women do that,” Shaheen said Friday. “And I think it’s because women have seen other women do it and think, ‘Well I can do that, too.’ ”
She and other Granite State women, like former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly of Harrisville — who cut her teeth as the Cheshire County chairwoman for Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign — paved the way for today’s women in a heavily male professional culture. Kelly was unavailable for comment for this report.
Carli Stevenson, the communications director and deputy state director for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, did not mince words in describing holdover traits from the days of the proverbial “old boys club.”
“We want to end this culture of the sort of hard-charging, like, ‘Yeah, he’s an a--hole, but, you know, he gets the work done!’ kind of thing that I think is so destructive,” Stevenson, a 35-year-old Hampton native, said of what women have been up against working on the trail. “In many fields, but certainly on campaigns, there’s kind of like that caricature or archetype of the grizzled man who’s the hotshot guy who yells and screams, and [people are] like, ‘Yeah, but he’s tough, and he gets results.’ And I think that’s honestly a lot of nonsense.”
After working as the New Hampshire deputy communications director for Sanders on his 2016 campaign — later going on to run the comms shop in Ohio and Minnesota — Stevenson said she was in a closed-door meeting with top brass from the national team to discuss the culture of the Sanders hierarchy, and how things could be improved for women and other marginalized groups going forward.
“I was really, really proud that I was able to be a part of that discussion to say, ‘Let’s talk about this openly, and let’s see what we can do to really change the culture of campaigning and make it more sustainable and something that people can do as a long-term career,” she said.
A lot of that has come in campaigns codifying basic rules for the workplace and adding human relations departments, which were not common in the past and remain a rarity in other parts of the country, according to Stevenson and other operatives.
Campaigns are particularly vulnerable to a hyper-macho workplace culture, Stevenson explained, because of the basic ingredients.
“Adding in the fact that it’s a very kind of high-adrenaline, high-stakes [atmosphere] — and then it ends, right?” Stevenson said. “It’s hugely competitive, and I think it tends to attract, just by its nature, people who are more aggressive or have big egos, if you will.
“And a pathway to power, right?” Stevenson added. “Campaigns are all about, you know, winning — winning for your candidate, so they can hold power. So I think people who are attracted to power for the wrong reasons, I think certainly campaigning is a place where all of those things can come together in a perfect storm.”
While many women used to be frozen out of those circles of power, Stevenson noted that for the few who managed to get a seat at the table, the incentives could lead one to believe the only way to make it in politics was being just as ruthless or more so than male colleagues.
But in the modern era, with more diverse staff and — particularly in this presidential cycle — more diverse candidates, both younger and older staffers say many of those attitudes have changed.
“The biggest thing I’ll say is that working on this campaign and getting to work for Kamala Harris every day is a dream come true,” Pavitra Abraham, the New Hampshire organizing director for the California senator’s presidential campaign said. “I get to get up every day and go to work for a candidate and with a team that are reflective of our country and our democracy, and that’s really exciting and something that is new, right?”
On the Harris campaign, Abraham, a 25-year-old from Farmington Hills, Mich., noted that she is “never the only woman in the room, [and is] constantly on calls led by women, people of color.”
And feeling the historic nature of both the campaign and her own role in a leadership position, she said she’s looking forward to what comes next.
“Moving forward and thinking about what do future generations of organizers and organizing directors — what are they looking for, and what do they need to be successful?” she said. “I feel really proud of the work we’re doing every day to make this space and this work more inclusive for anybody who wants to get involved.”
This week marked the second annual Radically Rural summit, a gathering of community leaders and stakeholders from different industries who traveled to Keene to learn about the challenges facing America’s small towns.
Six program tracks explored potential solutions: arts and culture, community journalism, entrepreneurship, Main Street, renewable energy and working lands.
The Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship co-hosted the event, which was held in venues throughout downtown Keene, such as the Keene Public Library, The Colonial Theatre, the Historical Society of Cheshire County and the old county courthouse.
Nearly 600 people attended the conference from two dozen states, including Washington, D.C., couple Liz Bailey and her husband, Jeff.
Bailey said she’d spent some time in New Hampshire before, but never in Keene.
“It’s just charming,” she said, noting her appreciation for the city’s walkability. “... You just don’t have that kind of ability to be within a couple blocks of everything you wanna do [in D.C.]. We hung out at Lindy’s Diner every morning, and we felt right at home.”
She registered for the conference wearing two hats, as a board member for both the Cooperatives Build a Better World Foundation, as well as Senior Service America. So she attended sessions in the entrepreneurship and Main Street tracks.
Bailey hopes she offered valuable information for others about business cooperatives, something she said could be added as its own track in future years. She appreciated the variety of the summit as well as the chance to see what Granite Staters are doing.
“It struck me that there’s an awful lot of entrepreneurship work going on … that’s a good model for the rest of the nation,” Bailey said, adding that she intends to return in 2020.
Kathy Kiely was more familiar with the area and the conference, since she attended last year’s summit, too.
A professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Kiely was a speaker at the inaugural Radically Rural and came back this week to experience it as a guest.
Before becoming a full-time academic, Kiely was a longtime political reporter and traveled to New Hampshire for presidential elections, so she already had a love for Keene.
She said she was delighted to see that Radically Rural is growing and to encounter more attendees from her part of the country, including the summit’s keynote speaker, Wendy Guillies of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City.
“It’s showing that this is really a draw, that it’s drawing people from other regions of the country … that are also rural and are facing opportunities and challenges,” Kiely said.
She also enjoys seeing journalism programming as part of a larger event, allowing everyone to participate. Journalism is community-building, she said, and both readers and journalists “have taken each other for granted” for years.
“It’s important for us journalists to be reminded how important our communities are to us,” she said. Looking ahead to the future of the industry, “… we need our readers more than ever, and we need our readers to appreciate what we do more than ever.”
A union representing Keene schoolteachers has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the school district, alleging administrators misused a federal student-privacy law to discipline the union president and another member for communicating about safety issues.
The Keene Education Association’s complaint to the N.H. Public Employee Labor Relations Board, dated Sept. 12 and announced in a news release late Thursday night, says those disciplinary actions have made employees reluctant to discuss workplace safety concerns with their union representatives.
According to the complaint, union members have expressed concern about student behavior resulting in injuries to staff, and the union’s leadership feels the school district administration has not done enough to address the issue.
The complaint says the school district disciplined KEA President William Gillard and another union member, Bonny LaRocca, for sending messages in which they relayed worries about specific incidents involving students.
According to the complaint, the district treated those messages as violations of the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law governing privacy and access related to student educational records. But the union maintains Gillard and LaRocca did not violate the law, because the information they shared did not come from student records.
“Disciplining an employee for bringing a legitimate safety concern forward is just totally unacceptable,” Gillard, a Keene High math teacher, said Friday.
The school district disputes the union’s claims and expects to file a formal response next week, said Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which includes Keene.
“The school district cannot comment on confidential personnel or student matters,” Malay said Friday. “However, the school district takes all safety matters very seriously. It also takes its obligations under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, otherwise known as FERPA, very seriously.”
Malay declined to comment on the union’s specific assertions because the district has not formally responded to the complaint yet.
George Downing, chairman of the Keene Board of Education, declined to comment, saying the complaint has not come before the board yet, and he does not have the full details.
Gillard said his safety concerns include the way violent incidents are reported, and staffing levels, which can leave fewer adults supervising students.
Separately, employee complaints about workplace safety have prompted inspections of the Keene School District this year and last year by the N.H. Department of Labor, Deputy Commissioner Rudy Ogden confirmed in an email Friday.
The department’s report from the most recent inspection, based on visits this spring, found, among other issues, that many of the employees working in three special-needs programs at Keene elementary schools had been injured by student actions.
Employees in the programs reported that management rarely followed up with them after injuries, that injury reports were not being filled out, that substitutes didn’t have specialized safety training and that two of the programs did not have enough trained staff, according to the report. The report also describes deficiencies with an employer-employee committee set up to review workplace injuries.
Malay said the district has received the report and recently met with the Department of Labor.
“They said, ‘Look, there’s nothing in here that we don’t find in every school district or every school building,’ ” Malay said. But, he said, the district takes safety “very seriously” and wants to work with the department to fully understand the report’s recommendations.
The Keene Education Association’s complaint to the Public Employee Labor Relations Board asks the board to find that the school district committed unfair labor practices by disciplining LaRocca and Gillard. (The complaint says Gillard was suspended for a week, but does not describe how the district disciplined LaRocca.) The union also wants the board to order the school district to “clarify their guidance to employees with regard to FERPA so that it does not interfere with the union and employee’s rights.”
According to the complaint, LaRocca, a teacher, used an online form to report to Gillard, the union head, that she observed a student bring ammunition to school and make a threat that made her feel unsafe. Efforts to reach LaRocca Friday afternoon were unsuccessful.
In January, Gillard sent an email requesting a safety evaluation of the student, copying Rachel Hawkinson, an employee of the National Education Association who works with the Keene Education Association and other NEA affiliates in the Monadnock Region.
The following month, Gillard — who had two kids at Fuller Elementary School at the time — emailed other Fuller Elementary parents about organizing a meeting about the administration’s handling of safety concerns. The email, which mentioned Gillard’s status as union president but said he was writing as a parent, listed specific incidents that he said had happened at Fuller recently.
The Keene Education Association’s complaint says the school district disciplined LaRocca and Gillard for those communications, claiming they violated FERPA’s privacy protections.
The union, however, argues the law pertains only to information learned from student records — not to what teachers witness themselves or hear from other people.
The union’s complaint cites U.S. Department of Education guidance issued in 2011, which states that the law covers disclosure of personally identifiable information “derived from education records.”
“Thus, information that an official obtained through personal knowledge or observation, or has heard orally from others, is not protected under FERPA,” the document states. “This remains applicable even if education records exist which contain that information, unless the official had an official role in making a determination that generated a protected education record.”
Gillard said none of the information in his email to other parents came from educational records. He heard about the incidents either from colleagues or from his own children, who told him about things they saw or heard at school, he said.
“All the information I obtained was either as a parent or as union president,” he said. “… These were all personal accounts of things that happened.”
Nothing in FERPA prevents parents from repeating stories their kids tell about school, he said.
The union claims in its complaint that the district’s disciplinary action against LaRocca and Gillard — along with a memo about FERPA the district sent to staff this spring, which the union calls “confusing” and “intentionally overly broad” — has suppressed discussion of safety issues among union members.
“Employees have shared with the union that the above acts have led them to become fearful of discussing workplace safety incidents with the KEA and Ms. Hawkinson, their assigned union resource,” the complaint states. “They report that they do not understand what they can and cannot talk with the union about. They report that … they are too fearful of discipline and reprisal from the District to speak with the union about anything to do with students.”
Malay, the superintendent, declined to comment on the union’s account of LaRocca’s and Gillard’s activities, citing employee and student confidentiality concerns. He said the memo issued in spring “was to provide additional guidance on regulations as they relate to FERPA.”
He also declined to comment on the union’s understanding of FERPA because the district has yet to respond to the labor complaint.
“I think that’s what this allegation is about, interpretation,” he said. “So, you know, until we’re able to put our formal response out, I think it would be a little bit irresponsible for me to comment.”
Sentinel reporter Meg McIntyre contributed reporting.