WBUR

Republican Wave Splits A N.H. Town

As the New Hampshire primary approaches, we’re going to spend time getting to know voters there. We open in Mont Vernon, where some of the townspeople are alarmed at the radical turn of politics in their state.

Volunteers roast chicken for the Mont Vernon Congregational Church BBQ at the town's Spring Gala. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Volunteers roast chicken for the Mont Vernon Congregational Church BBQ at the Spring Gala. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

MONT VERNON, N.H. — The Spring Gala is the big day here. It’s a great day to get a taste of what the town is all about. A good place to start a tour of the town is on the second floor of the Town Hall. The museum has opened its doors. Volunteer Robert Kent shows off one of its prized possessions.

“It’s original tea from the Boston Tea Party,” Kent says. “I understand it wasn’t very good tea.”

Like Boston then, Mont Vernon is living in combustible times. There’s discontent with the roiling nature of the political scene. Last November, Republicans took over three-fourths of the state legislature. One of their leaders, House Speaker Bill O’Brien, is from Mont Vernon. He’s pushing for radical reforms: making the state a right-to-work state, barring Election-Day voter registration, and cutting the budget by 11 percent.

As the gala gets under way, O’Brien recognizes that his hometown is divided by his reforms.

“Even those folks I’ve known for years, you can sense they’re moving apart from each other a bit because of the rhetoric,” O’Brien says.

How far the town is divided by O’Brien’s agenda becomes apparent at one of the highlights of the Spring Gala: the popular fireman’s breakfast. Yes, it’s still called the “fireman’s breakfast.” Contributions keep the small, rural fire department going — 18 firefighters serving 2,490 residents.

Politicians have long tried to exploit Spring Gala's fireman’s breakfast to win votes. Now, there’s a new rule: no politics at the event. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Politicians have long tried to exploit Spring Gala's fireman’s breakfast to win votes. Now, there’s a new rule: no politics at the event. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

The firefighters say over the years, politicians have tried hard to exploit their breakfast to win votes, so there’s a rule now: no politics at the event. So Sean Mamone, the deputy fire chief, steps out to the driveway.

“Right now, I don’t like the direction we’re going,” Mamone says.

Mamone finds himself in a personal political crisis. He’s a longtime Republican, but he thinks Republicans have slashed government too much since they took control of the legislature.

“We’ve gone from one extreme to the other,” Mamone says. “The people in New Hampshire are not happy. I’ve been a longtime Republican since 18 years old. Ninety percent of the time, I voted in the Republicans. No more. Absolutely not. I’ve undeclared myself, and then I started to lean towards the Democrats this time, ’cause it needs to stop.”

But let’s face it, in the presidential primary next year, all the action is on the Republican side. It seems as if there are as many people running in the Republican primary as in the Mont Vernon 5k.

The problem for Mont Vernon Republicans Bob Cox and Patrick Deshazo is that they seem more impressed with the road runners than with the presidential candidates.

“It’s a little bleak,” Deshazo says.

“I don’t see anybody right now,” Cox says.  “At this early stage, there doesn’t seem to be a winner in the group.”

“The closest they got is Romney, and I don’t think he’s a winner right now,” Deshazo laments. “He’s a little too shiny for me. I like having governors as presidents because what you’re seeing now, lack of executive experience, lack of decision-making, is evident, so a governor who’s made decisions, who’s run as an executive and had to work with the legislature, that’s key. I don’t know which governor that is. Romney, when you sort out what’s there now, he seems to come to the top, but is he a winner? I don’t know.”

“He’ll finish well in New Hampshire in the primary,” Cox predicts. “He may even win it, but when you get out of New England, I’m not sure. People don’t trust him. They look at him as a big-business Eastern establishment type, and they don’t trust him.”

Nearby, on the town green, a big audience gathers to hear Mont Vernon’s hometown band, Undertow. And in two ways, the band’s name seems appropriate as the political season gets under way. The voters can always provide a surprising undertow: to Romney if he fails to persuade them that he can win outside New England, and to the entire Republican field if no candidate gets the voters excited.

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