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What makes for a good political campaign venue — and what's in it for the host?

On a dreary August weekday afternoon at L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates in Walpole, business as usual is pretty quaint.

Brightly colored macarons bask in a display case as espresso machines hum in the background while a handful of customers sip hot cocoa and nibble on pastries.

But a month and a half ago, the sweets were obscured by camera equipment and campaign signs, the espresso machine drowned out by crosstalk, and the checkout counter cut off by a blockade of voters packed in to see Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand.

As the first-in-the-nation primary heats up, everyday employees at businesses and other in-demand spots across the Monadnock Region find themselves drawn into the spotlight, navigating logistics and occasional chaos to make things run smoothly when would-be presidents roll through town.

And even though longstanding traditions like house parties and drop-ins to Lindy’s or the Peterborough Diner remain an option, people still find value in hosting candidates at their workplace, and campaigns keep finding ways to optimize the experience in pursuit of the Oval Office.

Worth the trouble?

“I wouldn’t want to have my wedding reception here, but we’re cheap,” Phoebe Bray, executive director of The Community Kitchen in Keene, said of candidates renting the facility’s cafeteria hall on Mechanic Street.

Like most of the business owners and other impromptu hosts who spoke with The Sentinel, Bray said the biggest hassle comes after the event, when some members of the public mistakenly conclude the venue has endorsed a candidate rather than just letting them use the space.

Many of those who declined to go on the record for this story cited concerns about a politically polarized public changing their feelings about the establishment for getting involved with a presidential campaign, even though these events often come without an endorsement.

“I am really careful about saying, literally, it is not The Community Kitchen hosting them, because we wouldn’t, and it is purely a rental agreement,” Bray said. “So I spend a lot of time telling people that.”

Otherwise, Bray said the visits have a simple value: $50 in the coffers for the nonprofit organization to serve the hungry, and a chance for the community to learn more about their mission while engaging with the candidates.

Robert Wilson, the Boston-based chief operating officer of L.A. Burdick Chocolates, said a candidate visit may draw some more attention to the brand, but the main benefits are for Walpole.

“I just think the whole town of Walpole is a great area for a candidate to stop by and reach out to the folks in the area and some of the customers that may be in there,” Wilson said. “... I don’t think we see a significant boost in business as a result, but if it’s done in a professional and a good light, then sure, [it’s good for business].”

In Peterborough, the Waterhouse restaurant saw a bump in April after U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota made her first official visit to the Monadnock Region as a presidential candidate, according to Assistant Manager Wendy White.

White said she and her team have an organized protocol in place for candidate visits, and she zipped through the various permutations of a Waterhouse campaign stop before the dinner rush Thursday evening.

Monday is ideal for a candidate visit, White said, because the restaurant is closed, and all of the seating areas can be utilized. She and her team can prepare breakfast food and coffee for visitors, which takes about two hours before and two hours after the event to clean up, while a more elaborate lunchtime spread comes to four hours on each end.

“We would do food and such in the bar area, kind of where they walk into, and then the more social gathering, chatting area is in the back in the dining room,” White said.

Staffing for the events is treated like a “subcontracting job,” according to White, with employees coming in on their day off or before the restaurant opens at 11 a.m.

Like other hosts who spoke with The Sentinel, White did not disclose a price campaigns pay to rent the space.

“It’s not really a standard rate — we definitely don’t do it for free. It’s certainly not a giant moneymaker for us,” she said, adding that owners Cy and Joyce Gregg encourage White and her staff to put on high-quality events for the public.

Logistics

On the campaign side of the equation, lots of planning and scouting go into a candidate visit. Those responsible for the bulk of the work are part of what’s known in politics as the “advance team,” who often operate as a distinct channel from the national- or state-level teams within the campaign.

“At the end of the day, doing a campaign event, no matter how big or small, is a lot of work,” Morgan Finkelstein, a seasoned advance staffer, told The Sentinel via email from Croatia. “It’s often the first time a venue has done something like this, and everyone is out of their comfort zone.”

Finkelstein has worked as an advance associate for the Obama White House, an executive logistics coordinator for former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe’s inaugural committee and as a regional press secretary for Andrew Gillum’s 2018 Florida gubernatorial bid. Through the years, she has developed some do’s and don’t’s for setting up a successful campaign stop.

“Of course, any campaign wants a good shot: Someone should be able to see a photo from your event and know immediately what’s happening without any audio or text,” Finkelstein, now the associate director of media relations at the Center for American Progress in D.C., wrote. “So, say your boss is interested in learning about the car manufacturing industry ... You want to find a venue where you can get some cars, some machines and some workers in your shot. Finding compelling visuals is a huge job of advance.”

Another consideration is for those conveying the visuals out to the world: the press.

“You also need space for the media, which can be a huge challenge if it’s a small venue and a large press corps,” she wrote. “The ideal situation is finding a space large enough to build a ‘press riser’ where media are on an elevated platform to get a good view of the candidate’s speech — without taking up the whole room and blocking views for actual attendees. It’s a delicate balancing act!”

Much thought is also put into entrances, exits and other variables.

At Klobuchar’s Peterborough visit, for example, the campaign used a staging area across the street from the restaurant and came through the bar area where voters were snacking. Gillibrand’s Walpole visit caused bottleneck congestion at the doorway, and some unwitting customers walked in midway through her speech only to find no feasible path to the checkout counter, much less a clear view of the macarons.

While these problems are common for upstart campaigns and always on the mind of advance staffers like Finkelstein, any campaign that has Secret Service security can turn planning into a nightmare.

In the 1988 Republican presidential primary, Kendall Lane, an attorney who was then working for the George H.W. Bush campaign, pitched several different ideas for a Keene visit to the national team, only to have them shot down.

“The vice president’s [campaign] office was never cooperative, the schedule would change, the security was incredibly tight,” Lane, who is now wrapping up his fourth term as the Elm City’s mayor, said on a recent episode of The Sentinel’s politics podcast, Pod Free or Die.

After the national campaign settled on a fundraiser at what was then the Keene Ramada Inn, Lane said he was almost hauled away by the Secret Service when he was pushed too close to Bush while standing next to him in a crowded handshake line.

“They don’t want you to get too close, and there wasn’t much I could do about it,” Lane said.

Another H.W. Bush visit to the Monadnock Region involved a Secret Service sweep of the roughly 35,000 chickens at Hubbard Farms in Walpole, according to Sentinel archives.

The payoff

A popular bargain choice for campaign events this cycle has been Keene State College, where the Young Student Center can be used for free as long as candidates take questions from voters.

Former vice president Joe Biden is set to visit Appian Way on campus Saturday, and other candidates who have spoken at Keene State so far this cycle include former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, as well as author Marianne Williamson and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who has since dropped out of the race.

“The question-and-answer thing ... it’s really impressive, actually,” said Philip Barker, a political science professor at Keene State who emcees most candidate visits to the college. “When the students, when the people from the community ask questions, they’re informed, they’re real questions. They’re not softball questions — they want candidates to be very specific about plans.”

Davis Bernstein, a rising junior and president of the Keene State Democrats, said the candidate visits are crucial for the more engaged members of the club who are willing to go the extra mile to volunteer for a presidential campaign. Bernstein stays neutral given his position with the club. And while he often gives introductory remarks ahead of a candidate’s speech, he said he shares the problem business owners face in onlookers mistaking his role as an endorsement of a particular campaign.

Both Bernstein and Barker noted that campaigns’ behind-the-scenes choices are interesting, as well.

Do they choose the luminous flag room, the multi-use Mabel Brown room, or think outside the box?

O’Rourke’s advance team, for example, spent time before his rally in March trying to find the perfect positioning for a bench he would stand on in the lobby of the student center.

O’Rourke “has a reputation of wanting to be on the ground floor, being able to make sure he can get out into the crowd and talk to everyone, so that one was pretty funny,” Bernstein said.

For all of the quirks of the visits and the unusual roles they thrust everyday Granite Staters into, the impression made by the campaigns at these venues can be make or break.

“It’s important for advance staff to remember that in these situations, advance teams are the face of the campaign — and often the only person from the campaign that a local person may ever interact with,” Finkelstein wrote. “... The last thing anyone wants is to spend considerable money and time on an event, only to have the campaign badmouthed all over town when they leave because an advancer has been rude.”

Sometimes, a visit can strike the right chord.

Eleanor Elbers, the director of children’s programming at the Orchard School and Community Center in Alstead, said a February visit from then-potential candidate Pete Buttigieg was a great moment for the schoolhouse.

One of her former students, Morgan Brown, set up the visit as a friend of Buttigieg’s campaign.

Elbers said she was impressed with the South Bend, Ind. mayor, who drew 100 people to the main room on a Saturday morning — and though she had only three days’ notice to put everything together, it was all worth it in the end.

“On a dirt road in Alstead, New Hampshire, a presidential candidate?” she quipped, feigning incredulity while setting up back-to-school supplies. “ ... In that way, it supported our mission, which is to be accessible so people can [speak] to the power structure so that we can have a say.”


Local
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Pediatric dentist faces new set of allegations brought by state board

A Keene-based pediatric dentist who was previously sanctioned for practicing while impaired faces new allegations of professional misconduct, including claims that he overused restraints and nitrous oxide, performed unnecessary dental work and did not fully obtain informed consent for some procedures.

The N.H. Board of Dental Examiners leveled the new allegations against Dr. Blake C. Wullbrandt in a notice dated Tuesday.

Wullbrandt is scheduled to appear before the board Nov. 8 for a hearing on the allegations and, if proven, whether they warrant disciplinary action. State law authorizes the board to suspend or revoke a dentist’s license, or impose other sanctions, if it finds evidence of misconduct.

Wullbrandt’s practice is Children’s Dental Care on Railroad Street. Reached by phone Friday, he declined to comment on the dental board’s latest allegations. He did not answer when asked if he has been actively practicing.

The Board of Dental Examiners, which regulates dentistry in New Hampshire, issued Wullbrandt a license to practice in 2001, according to an online state directory. His license was active as of Friday afternoon.

In the spring of 2018, Wullbrandt agreed to a one-year suspension of his license to settle allegations that he had practiced or attempted to practice while impaired in 2015 and 2017, in one case drilling too far while treating a child. Because he had agreed not to practice pending the outcome of the case, the settlement agreement allowed him to resume practicing dentistry that August.

Meanwhile, the N.H. Attorney General’s Office had launched a criminal probe into the potential “abuse/neglect” of patients at Children’s Dental Care, according to a letter the office’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit sent to parents in the fall of 2017.

Kate Spiner, a spokeswoman for the office, said in an email that the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit later closed its investigation without charges and referred the case to the dental board.

In March 2018, the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit referred a complaint about Wullbrandt to the dental board, according to the board’s recent notice of hearing. The board received another complaint two days later, this one from a former employee of Wullbrandt’s.

After reviewing complaints about Wullbrandt’s treatment of four patients, the dental board launched an investigation, according to the notice, and found a “reasonable basis” for convening an adjudicatory and disciplinary hearing this November.

Between 2005 and 2017, the board alleges, Wullbrandt “provided too much, and in some cases, unnecessary dental work on young patients during one appointment.” The notice claims there were 12 such cases.

The board also claims Wullbrandt kept insufficient medical records that failed to document certain procedures in enough detail.

One of the board’s allegations involves the use of physical restraints. Limiting a young patient’s movement to safely provide care — known as “protective stabilization” — is sometimes appropriate, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, which has issued guidelines on the practice.

But the dental board alleges Wullbrandt’s use of restraints was “excessive and/or lengthy” in seven cases between 2013 and 2018, causing the patients physical or emotional harm.

The board also alleges Wullbrandt used nitrous oxide — a standard way to control a patient’s pain or anxiety — “routinely and without a specific behavioral reason to warrant it,” specifically in two cases between 2012 and 2014.

In three other cases between 2012 and 2017, according to the board, Wullbrandt performed extensive or invasive dental work while using only nitrous oxide and local anesthesia on patients.

Choosing the appropriate type of sedation for such procedures depends on different factors, said Dr. Kevin Donly, the president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and a professor at the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry in Texas.

“It really depends on the situation, the age of the child and things like that,” Donly said, speaking about practices in general and not the specifics of Wullbrandt’s case. “I’ve done extensive restorative care with just nitrous oxide and local anesthesia, but it’s on a child that’s, you know, old enough to be able to handle it.”

Another of the dental board’s claims alleges Wullbrandt “obtained insufficient informed consent to justify the repeated use of the papoose board [a type of restraint mechanism], nitrous oxide, and/or extensive dental procedures, and/or failed to document that alternative treatments were offered.”

The notice refers to patients by initials and does not specify their ages.

Wullbrandt’s hearing is scheduled for Nov. 8 at 10 a.m. in the dental board’s office at 121 South Fruit St. in Concord.

This article has been updated with a statement from the Attorney General's Office clarifying that Wullbrandt is no longer subject to a criminal investigation.


Local
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First local syringe-exchange program exceeds expectations

The area’s first syringe-exchange program wrapped up its pilot period this month, and those running it say it’s reached more people than anticipated.

The program, run by the Serenity Center of Keene, distributes clean syringes to people who use drugs and safe-disposal kits in exchange for used needles, which will later be disposed of through an incineration service, said Jocelyn Goldblatt, the center’s executive director.

As of two weeks ago, 31 people had received clean needles through the program since its start in June, according to Goldblatt. A total of 242 clean syringes were distributed, and 82 dirty ones were collected.

“I thought we would start the first few months with about 20 [people], so it was a little bit more than we expected,” she said.

This is the second year registered syringe-exchange programs have been allowed in the state, in the midst of a nationwide opioid crisis.

In 2018, there were 471 drug-related deaths in New Hampshire, according to data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Jason Garner, outreach coordinator for the Serenity Center, said the local needle-exchange program’s focus has been on people experiencing homelessness because they are a particularly vulnerable population.

Those who have substance use disorders are more likely to end up homeless, he noted.

And through the program, he said the center is able to not only help prevent the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, but to keep in regular contact with people and build trust.

“The problem is bigger than people know, and even though there are resources, a lot of times [people] are too afraid to use them or they just don’t have that drive or will to change,” said Garner, who is in charge of meeting people for needle exchanges. These exchanges happen every Friday at 1 p.m., but if someone runs out of clean needles before the week’s end, he said he’s always available for individual meetups.

The Serenity Center officially launched the program Aug. 1, according to Goldblatt, and it is funded through a $7,500 grant from AIDS United, a national organization that promotes syringe-exchange services and other strategies to reduce the spread of HIV.

The center purchased 5,000 syringes and 100 safe-disposal kits with the grant, Goldblatt said.

In addition to the needle exchanges, 85 service referrals stemmed from the program in its beginning months — 49 for substance abuse treatment, 27 for HIV or hepatitis C counseling and testing, four for health care and five for other resources, such as shelters.

The program is being administered in three homeless encampments in Keene, as part of the Serenity Center’s regular outreach.

Recovery coaches were already visiting with toiletries and socks, Goldblatt said, building relationships and offering resources for substance use disorders and those seeking recovery. No syringes are exchanged at the center’s building at 34 Mechanic St., she noted.

Each kit provided through the exchange program includes 10 syringes, one strip to test drugs for the presence of fentanyl, 10 alcohol prep pads, bandages, two tourniquet bands, one syringe disposal box and other items to reduce the risk of disease or infection.

Goldblatt said Narcan, which helps reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, can also be requested.

Looking forward, the center will soon be partnering with the Discern Study, which focuses on drug use, the dangers of sharing needles and recovery. The study will be providing mobile clinics for the program, according to Goldblatt.

The start date for this is not yet confirmed, but once it begins, she said the goal is to have people head to the mobile clinics to receive kits and medical treatment if needed.

Four other syringe-exchange programs operate in the Seacoast, Manchester and Nashua areas, as well as in Claremont, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Serenity Center, at 34 Mechanic St., is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To request a syringe kit or more information on the syringe-exchange program, call Jason Garner at 903-4049. For other inquiries, call the center’s main line at 283-5015.