Political junkie James Pindell joined New Hampshire’s Hearst-owned TV station WMUR last Tuesday as its first official online political editor. A co-founder of the now-defunct Politicker.com—which published local political sites serving seventeen states—and sole founder of the subscription-based NHPoliticalreport.com (now owned by WMUR), he’s passionate about the incredible shrinking world of local political coverage. And for Pindell, there’s no better part of that world than New Hampshire.
It was a busy first few days on the job with a newly competitive GOP senate primary a week away—frontrunner Kelly Ayotte finding herself suddenly challenged by opponent Ovide Lamontagne. Pindell spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares from his car, rushing to help out at a debate among GOP primary candidates last Thursday. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How would you describe the nature of New Hampshire politics?
I am in love with the story that is New Hampshire politics. It was one of the most staunchly libertarian states in the country for about two hundred years. It’s a “live free or die” mentality here, “stay out of my bedroom and stay out of our wallets” is our state motto. But we saw arrive in the ’80s and ’90s a Republican Party increasingly of the South and of the West, with more of the socially conservative agenda that remains. It is not a party that New Hampshire, including the Republicans here, identified with. So we saw people leaving the Republican Party and we saw more undeclared voters. Now they’re the largest voting bloc in the state; they literally decide elections.
Has that changed the nature of the two major political parties at all?
You have a totally divided nature to the politics and one where the ethos is “live free or die.” In 2006, both of the state’s congressmen were Republicans and pro-choice. The state house speaker was Republican and pro-choice, and the state senate president was Republican and pro-choice. It’s not because pro-choice is a big issue among Republicans, it’s just that people don’t care. It’s about taxes and spending. We’re one of the few states that do not have an income tax or a sales tax.
How politically active are the voters?
It’s a very empowered electorate and we have very empowered voters. When it comes to presidential primaries and Town Hall meetings, they show up. There’s high participation and people have no problems asking tough questions to candidates. And there’s an expectation that you can’t be high and mighty and you can’t run a purely TV campaign. You have to actually go out and do a lot of parades and do door-to-door yourself as a candidate.
That must make it an interesting story to cover?
I moved to the state eight years ago. I’m a political dork who went to college in Des Moines because of the Iowa caucuses. My last job before I came here was covering the state house in West Virginia. And it’s so hard to cover politics in most states where you don’t have access to the principals. You work here and their home phone numbers are on the state website! There’s a culture where politicians have to be responsive and people show up to rallies and show up to town meetings and really take their citizenship seriously.
You say it’s all about taxes and spending. Has that been even more the case this year, where the economy has been such a dominant issue?
In New Hampshire, the fiscal issues are so ingrained into the culture that you have a Democratic governor, John Lynch, who is as fiscally conservative as the Republicans. He’s against the income tax; he’s against the sales tax. And as the state’s been having problems, all he’s been doing is cutting. He’s been fighting the unions.
But sure, the nature of this year has meant that Republicans in the state have been more fired up than they have been in recent years. Much of the fiscal focus has been on federal issues—health care, the stimulus package, and bailouts—and that’s not unlike the rest of the country. You’re seeing it intensify but it’s truly the same language New Hampshire always speaks.