Tea Party Divides Rochester, N.H., Republicans

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In preparation for the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, WBUR will look at Republican politics in the Granite State through the lens of the tiny town of Mont Vernon and the city of Rochester.

Nette Fiorini is an independent voter. She is a teacher, but she dreams of opening her own business. And Fiorini sees the Tea Party as an extremist group.

"I think they're radical," Fiorini said. "I think they're a little over the top. They really present as angry."

If the Tea Partiers are angry, then Jerry DeLemus  is one of the head angry guys in Rochester. Every month, at the Salmon Falls Church, he leads the meeting of the Rochester 9/12 Project, a political group.

Fiorini wants to see the government play a more active role in getting the economy going again and she went to a Mitt Romney campaign event in Rochester in July to talk to the candidate about the economic devastation she has seen in Rochester.

Nettie Fiorini, 6th-grade special education teacher, stands in downtown Rochester, N.H. She hopes soon to open a Biker Café. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Nettie Fiorini, 6th-grade special education teacher, stands in downtown Rochester, N.H. She hopes soon to open a Biker Café. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"I'm a lowly teacher in the Rochester School Department," Fiorini told Romney. "I'm very proud to be, but I also have a very big entrepreneurial spirit. I'm afraid to death. One out of every four of my friends are unemployed."

Fiorini would one day like to open up a cafe for bikers, but she doesn't dare take the risk of starting a business in this economic climate.

Rochester sits at the end of a line of three former mill towns along the Maine border. Portsmouth and Dover have found new prosperity, but Rochester, farthest along the road from the coast to the White Mountains, is still trying to find its way back. Nowhere is that clearer than downtown.

Walking past downtown businesses, Fiorini said she thinks that with the right person in the White House, Rochester can make a comeback.

"Initially, we had a lot of stores that just wouldn't make it because they didn't draw enough people in," Fiorini said. "Now, I think the caliber of businesses that are moving in are more desirable. Upscale art shops, galleries — it seems to be a better crowd for drawing the kind of people that we want here in town."

People like Jenny Wren, an artist who also does tailoring and alterations.

"I thought, 'Wow! I didn't know Rochester was so cool,'" Wren said. "So when when people ask me why I started a business here, it's because it has to be the next place."

But around Wren's shop on Main Street is an array of empty storefronts. It's that concern that pushes Fiorini towards Republican politics. Because she is an independent voter, New Hampshire lets her vote in whichever primary she wants to. She intends to vote in the Republican primary.

"I really like Mitt Romney," Fiorini said. "I think he's the most electable of all the candidates. He's very clear. He's very concise. And of course, being an entrepreneur myself and wanting someday to have my own small business, I think he is the greatest supporter of the small people in this country who eventually want to own their own small business. He's very presidential. He looks like a president. He acts like a president."

Romney is not a Tea Partier, but he's using the kind of language meant to impress Tea Partiers. He recently made an appearance at a garden party in Manchester, N.H., where he compared President Obama to King George III.

Jerry DeLemus was among the people at that garden party, and he was impressed.

Bicycles wait for customers at Tri-City Bicycles. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Bicycles wait for customers at Tri-City Bicycles. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"I was pleased to hear him refer to the Constitution as much as (he) did, and the Declaration of Independence," DeLemus said. "I think he's honing his message some and maybe he's just finding his voice and the direction that he's looking to run."

The Tea Party helped Republicans take over the New Hampshire state legislature last year. But some old-time Republicans doubt that the Tea Party will have the same effect in 2012. Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and one of Romney's leading supporters, predicts that with the huge interest in the Republican presidential primary, the Tea Party will get diluted.

"They certainly matter a huge amount in a primary in which the turnout is low," Rath said. "They will matter even when the turnout is larger, but the turnout is going to be so large in this thing that I think no one group is going to dominate."

That's good news to Fiorini. She's not impressed by the latest entry into the Republican presidential race, Tea Party favorite and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"Quite frankly, when he first came in, I thought he'd be a very big threat to Romney," Fiorini said. But now that I've heard and seen more of Perry, I just look at him as being an extremist of sorts. And right now, our country does not need an extremist."

DeLemus, though, is impressed by Perry. He likes the directness of his fellow Tea Partier and believes that the Tea Party will play a big role in the election.

"Once the groups find a candidate that they like, I think it'll be big," DeLemus said. "They'll have boots on the ground and they're organized, so I think it'll help out immensely. They're looking for a candidate that they can believe in and can stand behind."

DeLemus is still trying to figure out which candidate that will be.

Wednesday, we meet a real-estate developer who likes what the Tea Party has to say, but who is supporting a candidate not normally associated with the Tea Party.

This program aired on August 30, 2011.

Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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