Ahead of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, WBUR will look at GOP politics in the Granite State through the lens of the tiny town of Mont Vernon and the city of Rochester.
ROCHESTER, N.H. — You get to the empty shell of Packy Campbell’s real estate development business by heading three miles west from Rochester along the commercial strip on Route 11. His pickup truck is the only vehicle in front of his two-story building.
This Republican businessman’s views have been shaped by several traumatic events in his life. Seventeen years ago, a man walked into the place where Campbell worked. It was not good.
“(He) called me by name, walked me out back and put a gun to the back of my head,” Campbell said. “When I was 24 years old, I got shot twice in the head with a .38 at point-blank range. I have two bullets still lodged in my body. I didn’t work for four and a half years.”
Cambell was angry for a lot of reasons. One of them was because he was shot by a man a judge had ordered held without bail. It was a Democratic politician who ordered the man released.
Eventually, though, Campbell got married. He had five children. And then one day, seven years ago, he found out that being shot in the head would not be the worst thing that would ever happen to him.
“My 2-year-old son died in my arms,” Campbell said, tears filling his throat. “There’s nothin’, there’s nothin’ that can happen to me that’s ever going to be as bad as that. And to the degree that I feel grief and blame for that, I do. But here’s the deal: I’ve got to deal with that. I’ve got to deal with that and accept my role and my responsibility. I left my keys in my car and my son played with them and my car rolled.”
That traumatic experience reinforced Campbell’s sense of personal accountability.
“If you want to sit down and whine about life, I tell you there’s nobody out there that has a harder, tougher story than mine, OK?” Campbell said. “But I ain’t lookin’ to win that award, because that’s what the liberals want to win. They want to have the ‘poor me’ debate and they want to have the ‘look at this hard-luck case.’ ”
But Cambpell doesn’t see himself as a hard-luck case. He believes in self-reliance and he thinks the country should encourage it more. In the Republican presidential primary, he thinks the candidate who best serves that philosophy is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“For me, Mitt Romney’s message is, ‘Believe in America, assume the best in people and know that we can take care of us,’ ” Campbell said. “That’s truly, when you think about it, a very Tea Party-ish philosophy. (They believe) in the individual and the individual responsibility, so does Mitt Romney.”
There’s another reason Campbell supports Romney.
“I want to get behind a candidate that I think can beat Barack Obama,” Campbell said.
But Campbell also agrees with the Tea Party that the country can’t borrow its way out of its problems. He learned that the hard way through personal experience.
“For me, Mitt Romney’s message is, ‘Believe in America.’ “
“I made some poor choices,” Campbell said. “I made some mistakes in business, but the best thing I can do is be honest with myself. And the honesty came when I had to make a decision to file bankruptcy, and now that I’ve made that decision, I can say, ‘Where do I go from here?’ ”
Campbell is trying to sell his offices. He has already had to lay off 35 people. And as a realtor, he’s pushing a lot of short sales, even though New Hampshire has one of the best economies in the country, with unemployment around 5 percent.
“New Hampshire is in a unique situation,” Campbell said. “We have very low unemployment, but we still have a very, very high amount of foreclosures — a very, very high amount of short sales.”
To demonstrate why he thinks the government is making the housing problem worse, Campbell and I went for a drive in his pickup truck. We went past the booming commercial strip on Route 11, past the gun factory that just closed and onto Main Street with its empty storefronts. And we took a right turn into what is considered the roughest neighborhood in Rochester.
“The government shouldn’t be in the business of renovating these buildings,” Campbell said.
Here, the federal government has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars to refurbish some of the ramshackle multiple-family houses. But Campbell is frustrated that these houses, with their luxury appointments, aren’t getting rented.
“Here’s a building that now, it’s sitting vacant,” Campbell said pointing to a spotless renovated house. “It’s in beautiful shape, and you know, it’s a nice building. It came out nice, but they put granite counter tops in it, and now, they’re trying to find a tenant. These have been back on the market now for six months and they haven’t sold.”
Campbell believes his own life would also be better with less government interference. His own bankruptcy, having to lay off 35 people and making a living in the worst economic times since the Great Depression are all things Campbell believes he can best overcome if the government stays out of his way.