MANCHESTER — Over a marathon day of speeches, spin and no shortage of campaign merchandise, Granite State Democrats convened Saturday at Southern New Hampshire University Arena for the annual N.H. Democratic Party Convention.
Those in attendance from Cheshire County’s delegation, by and large, said they are thrilled with the options available in the 2020 field and remain optimistic about beating President Donald Trump next November. The delegation was placed toward the back of the arena floor because of its share of tickets sold.
With 19 presidential candidates speaking during the proceedings — which did not include the usual rule setting by delegates, which was suspended until another quorum — a few contenders’ names came up more frequently than others.
The top three candidates for Keene Democratic organizer JoAnn Fenton, for example, overlapped with the preferences of other local attendees who have yet to endorse: U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
Booker and Warren, in particular, were favorites among the Monadnock Region die-hards in attendance, with organizers like Fenton citing their strong ground game and close attention paid to local Democrats.
Fenton, who said she is not ready to endorse anyone yet, quipped that she faces a new conundrum, given the size of the field.
“I have never had this problem before,” Fenton chuckled. “I have always known who I was voting for, and it’s such a dilemma because they’re all so good.”
State Sen. Jay V. Kahn of Keene told The Sentinel his favorites outside of the so-called top tier are Booker and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, both of whom “present a good vision for our country, but also our state,” he said.
Jim Tetreault of Winchester, who was in attendance in his capacity as a delegate for the party — not as Winchester town clerk, a nonpartisan position — said he hadn’t made up his mind yet, but is most strongly considering South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Booker.
“It’s exciting to hear all of the candidates, and again, we have so many great candidates that it’s hard to make a decision,” Tetreault said.
Others, like state Rep. William A. Pearson of Keene, kept their cards closer to the chest and would not give a short list of favored presidential hopefuls.
Former state senator and gubernatorial nominee Molly Kelly of Harrisville was also coy, saying “I feel that my role is to really welcome every candidate and to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity.”
Kelly, who served for a decade in the state Senate as Kahn’s predecessor, added that she has thought “very seriously” about running for governor again over the summer, and expects to make a decision this fall.
Another potential gubernatorial candidate, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord, declined to make his candidacy official during his remarks on stage, instead promoting his exploratory committee and adding that a decision will come in about six weeks.
Meanwhile, the only declared candidate to challenge Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, N.H. Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, was greeting voters around the convention in his new orange-and-blue campaign T-shirt.
Sununu was the subject of criticism from several national candidates on stage.
Warren called Sununu “Governor Veto,” while Kamala Harris said that Sununu’s record number of vetoes on bills from the new Democratic majorities in the Legislature are “not how leaders lead.”
Sununu’s spokesman, Ben Vihstadt, responded to Harris’ quip tweeted by a Sentinel reporter:
“A tradition unlike any other: mid-to-low-tier Democratic candidates attacking New Hampshire’s most popular elected official in an effort to score cheap points with the base on issues said-candidate knows nothing about,” Vihstadt wrote. “Glad to see you supporting an income tax in N.H.”
The Sununu pile-on caught the attention of local leaders like Kahn.
“The national as well as the state reaction to the vetoes by Governor Sununu was another takeaway,” Kahn said afterward.
Perhaps the climax of the day came with back-to-back speeches from Warren and her longtime friend U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
In a Sentinel interview with the Green Mountain State independent in his campaign’s box suite, Sanders was noticeably distracted as Warren took the stage to thunderous applause, which was boosted by inflatable “thunder sticks” that prolonged the ovation to nearly two minutes.
As supporters cheered on Warren, Sanders was answering questions on foreign policy after giving a rousing speech of his own.
“So bottom line here is, I believe that we need a foreign policy which is based on human rights and democracy; not support of authoritarian governments, not intervention in countries all over the world,” Sanders said as he took a lingering glance over his shoulder at Warren taking the stage.
Asked about the distinction between his supporters and Warren’s, and whether that kind of fervent support would have been possible had Trump not won in 2016, Sanders said: “The answer is, I don’t know, and I don’t want to speculate. All I can tell you is, I’m proud that we have well over a million volunteers in this campaign, that as we speak, hundreds of people right here in Manchester New Hampshire are out knocking on doors, that we have received more individual contributions — small donors, small donations, low donors, low donations, low income donations — from, you know, people all over America. So I’m proud of the grassroots base that we have, and I think that’s how we’re gonna win this.”
The applause for Warren continued after Sanders finished his answer.
Sporting newly printed “liberty green” T-shirts — modeled after New York’s famous statue — Warren supporters came out in droves and made themselves loud even before the thunder sticks came out.
Two Keene-based Warren organizers, Hillary Ballantine and Alycia Barron, said they have been knocking on doors for wees in their home of the Elm City, as well as the surrounding towns of Marlborough, Swanzey and Nelson, with places like Harrisville on the horizon.
“Everyone seems so surprised as to how personable [Warren] is, and she’s just so friendly and so upbeat all the time, and [Monadnock Region voters] are just so surprised to see that,” Ballantine said. “I’ve never heard a complaint.”
“I second that,” Barron chimed in.
For longtime organizers like Fenton, the energy behind Warren, coupled with her campaign’s ground game in the Monadnock Region and across the Granite State, was made more palpable at Saturday’s convention.
Despite his lower standing in the polls, Cory Booker is in the same league, according to Fenton.
“She has a really good team on the ground, and Cory Booker does, too. I mean, I think those two — it seems to me, from my experience — that they have the best organized teams,” Fenton said. “What I love about them: They’ve been doing local projects since they got here in May.”
Even with 157 days until the first-in-the-nation primary, Fenton said “the energy in the room is just contagious.”
“It really makes you realize — it’s a cliché — but Democracy isn’t a spectator sport,” she said. “You come here, and it just energizes you to go out and do the work you have to do.”