Senator Granny of New Hampshire

Election '04

New Hampshire – Forget the Bush twins and the Kerry girls. Put Teresa and Laura out of your mind. The most intriguing woman of this election season may well turn out to be Doris Haddock, the 94-year-old New Hampsherite better known as Granny D.

The nonagenarian became a neo-populist folk hero back in 1999, when she walked from Pasadena, California, to Washington, DC, to champion campaign-finance reform. Now she's running for U.S. Senate in the Granite State. Her mission: unseating popular Republican incumbent Judd Gregg.

Haddock, who was something of a press darling during her cross-country trek, has yet to reclaim the media spotlight. There have been no The Daily Show appearances, no chats with Dave or Conan – at least, not yet. But Haddock has the potential to serve as a sort of Democratic secret weapon. After all, she's a cute old lady who dispenses devastating takedowns of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. And with the recent addition to her campaign of Joe Trippi – who presided over Howard Dean's improbable ascent last year and is aiding Haddock as a consultant on a pro bono basis – Haddock's chances of waging a meaningful battle on behalf of the Democratic Party have greatly improved.

But while the potential for a funky insurgency is undeniable – just think of all those disenfranchised Deaniacs at the University of New Hampshire who will be desperate for something to do this fall – the reality is that Haddock faces long odds. Gregg, a two-term incumbent, previously served as governor and enjoys broad support throughout the state. Democratic state senator Burt Cohen planned to challenge Gregg in this year's general election, but no one really gave him much of a chance, either. When Cohen exited the race after his campaign manager absconded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, it left a vacuum only Haddock was willing to fill. "It's like running against Ted Kennedy," says PoliticsNH.com's James Pindell of Haddock's challenge.

Then there's the delicate matter of Haddock's nine-plus decades – her pledge to serve only one term notwithstanding. Haddock is a charismatic woman who gives a mean stump speech. In her interactions with the public, she inspires protectiveness, reverence, and general delight. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are vulnerable to Haddock's charms as well; both Jimmy Carter and John McCain have lauded her as a Great American. But while Haddock is lucid and energetic, her age is impossible to ignore. Her skin, etched with a multitude of deep lines, resembles fine but very worn leather. When she speaks in public, her voice is strong, but in one-on-one conversation she is much quieter, pausing often to process questions or track down elusive words. When Haddock walks – and she plans to walk more than 200 miles between now and November to bring her message to the Granite State's voters – she does so with the trademark stoop of the very old, leaning toward the earth, breathing heavily from emphysema-afflicted lungs, and periodically clutching her aching back as she strides ahead. Yes, Haddock is spry. But she's 94 years old.

Given her age and her competition – as well as her seeming lack of enthusiasm for John Kerry (more on that later) – the true nature of Haddock's quest remains unclear. Is she a Democratic asset waiting to be tapped? An amusing novelty candidate, a la Fred Tuttle? Or, in a worst-case scenario, a worrisome liability in a very important election year? With Election Day less than three months away, no one – not even Haddock herself – seems entirely sure.

Haddock's campaign-kickoff speech last Thursday morning, which she delivered in the middle of Portsmouth's Market Square, felt like an outtake from an old black-and-white film. In her youth, before she became a wife, mother, and anti-hydrogen-bomb activist, Haddock studied public speaking at Emerson College, and her oratory is still marked by aspirated T's, dramatic cadences, and an upper-crusty, pseudo-British accent.

This style may be dated, but it also lends old-newsreel drama to her words – and the words she uses in calling for national health care, criticizing the war in Iraq, and railing against corporate domination of politics are often compelling. "There are many people who are doubtful that a 94-year-old woman can get from here to the U.S. Senate, but there are good reasons to think this campaign will work – and I am not in the habit of losing," Haddock declared. "Democracy cannot be hired out. There is too much power involved, and it corrupts absolutely if we, the common people, do not manage it ourselves with a humble spirit and a willingness to cast our own self-interest into oblivion.... If our choice is between a strip-searched Fortress America and, on the other hand, the beautiful world we all long for, what is keeping us from making the beautiful choice? Is it the distortions of the political system? The special interests? The selfish posturing of people who call themselves leaders but who, in fact, only take up valuable space at a critical time in the world's history? Well, let us joyfully roll over them."

The picture of Doris Haddock that emerges when you spend time with her resembles the one presented in her book, "Granny D: You're Never Too Old To Raise a Little Hell" (Villard, 2003) – that of a woman who, despite her age and diminutive stature, knows what she wants, usually gets it, and is not to be trifled with. For example, after pondering campaign-finance reform with a group of friends in her hometown of Dublin, New Hampshire, Haddock – who was recently widowed and also mourning the death of a close friend – undertook her epic 1999 walk to help make the next stage of her life meaningful.

The truth is, though, that Haddock had to be cajoled into running for Senate. Five hours and one five-mile walk after her campaign kickoff, and fresh from a restorative nap, Haddock sits in the lush back yard of a Portsmouth supporter and tells me how she came to enter the race. Earlier this year, she was on the road, registering voters in battleground states, when fatigue prompted her to return to Dublin for a few days. While she was there, Cohen dropped out of the race at the last minute, leaving prospective replacements precious little time to step in.

"My son came to me one morning at 6:30," Haddock recalls. "He had been listening to the radio, and he said, 'How would you like to run for the Senate?' I said, 'Are you out of your mind?' He said, 'No, but poor Dan [sic] Cohen has tried to resign, and you've got until 5:30 tonight to decide whether or not you want to do it.' And I said, 'Well, I don't want to do it. I'm not qualified. I'm not ready for it. I mean, at 94 – that's crazy.' And he said, 'Well, it would give you a chance to have a platform – you could try, you might not win, but at least you would be able to talk about what your love is, and that you would not have it any other way.' So I said, 'Gee, I hadn't thought about that. That's true.'" Next came a hastily arranged meeting with state Democratic Party officials, in which Haddock promised she'd fight to win and vowed to support John Kerry (she voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, but now says she regrets doing so). By the end of the day, Haddock – whose experience as an office-holder has been limited to a stint on Dublin's town-planning board – was a freshly minted Senate candidate.

As her self-deprecatory tone suggests, Haddock is not a boastful woman. Because her modesty comes across as genuine, it is endearing, and it could serve her well if she embraces the role of anti-Bush spokesperson this fall. Too many iconic figures on the left – and since her legendary trek, that is what she has become – argue with a grim earnestness that rallies the faithful but can be off-putting to undecided voters. In contrast, Haddock has a lighter touch, and an appealing willingness to consider alternate points of view.

Sometimes, though, she takes this willingness too far. While Haddock napped, I discussed her candidacy with former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman, a Republican known for his bipartisan approach. He was not impressed. "People in New Hampshire aren't going to look at Doris Haddock as someone who has the kind of background, either legislatively or as an executive, to hold a Senate seat," Rudman said. "The only thing this lady is known for is walking around the country on behalf of campaign-finance reform. I commend her for that, but it's not enough to be a U.S. Senator."

When I told Haddock of Rudman's comments, she was surprisingly concordant. Instead of assuming her anti-special-interest stance and delivering a quick rebuttal – "Qualifications mean squat if you've sold your soul to corporate donors!" – Haddock accepted Rudman's premise. "I don't blame him in the least!" she said. "I think a lot of people will think that. A lot of people would say, 'Why would we put in a woman when we have a substantial man who has good standing in several committees?'" (Gregg chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and sits on the Appropriations and Budget Committees.) Haddock then spent several minutes detailing her business background – noting, for example, that in two decades working at Manchester's Bee Bee Shoe Company, she had managed employees, designed footwear, and priced the company line. Like many older people, Haddock seemed to have difficulty escaping the pull of the past and resurfacing in the present as she spoke. But most older people are not waging first-time Senate campaigns.

It's going too far to suggest that missteps like this may seriously harm Haddock, for the simple reason that – even if she were perpetually on point and aggressive – her chances of ousting Gregg are minuscule. In a recent University of New Hampshire poll, Gregg enjoyed a 65 percent to 20 percent lead over Haddock; while 19 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of her, 68 percent said they didn't know enough about her to pass judgment. Even Haddock's confidant, Dennis Burke – who says the Haddock campaign will paint Gregg as a dependable ally of George W. Bush – admits the Republican senator will be difficult to demonize. "He's not a knee-jerk neocon," Burke says of Gregg. (Gregg himself did not respond to a request for comment.)

The implications of Haddock's run go beyond her particular race, however. In 2000, Bush won New Hampshire by approximately 7000 votes; had Al Gore captured the state's four electoral votes, he would be president today. Currently, Bush and Kerry are running close in New Hampshire. Some observers think that, when the New Hampshire Democratic Party traded Burke for Haddock, Kerry's chances in New Hampshire may have taken a slight but significant hit. "Burt Cohen, at the time he left the campaign, had about 20 staffers signing up voters, canvassing neighborhoods, getting out a Democratic message that reinforced John Kerry's vision," says NHPolitics.com's Pindell. "Now you have a campaign run out of one house in a small southwestern town of New Hampshire with a few volunteers and now, finally, some paid staff.... The only argument I've heard that Haddock can help Kerry is that she'll siphon off Ralph Nader supporters to vote [for Kerry]. The problem is, she's done absolutely nothing to bring these people into the Democratic Party."

Factor in Haddock's tepid feelings about Kerry, and the situation becomes even more worrisome for Democrats. Haddock was an enthusiastic supporter of Dennis Kucinich – whom she describes as the "wave of the future" – and Kucinich-campaign veterans have filled key positions on her staff. She is less excited by Kerry. "I think Kerry is going to be a good president," Haddock says of the Democratic nominee. "He understands the man on the street, I believe, and so I think that he will be a good interim." A glowing endorsement it is not.

Yet Joe Trippi rejects the idea that Haddock's candidacy could hurt Kerry. "The great unifying force in the Democratic Party is George Bush," Trippi says. "From the Democratic Leadership Council to the Dean folks, we're all united. I know Doris supports Kerry." And, for good measure, Trippi insists Haddock has a fighting chance this fall. "The only way Gregg can be beat is by somebody that's different," he says. "Somebody who isn't looking over her shoulder worrying about being re-elected, who isn't going to look at every single vote in the Senate and how to reward her supporters, but is going to do what every senator should do, which is go there and change a busted and corrupted system. Granny D walked the entire country trying to do that. There's no other motive for her than to go and effect change. She's as real a shot as anybody's going to get at sending somebody to Washington who'll be dedicated to changing things."

Haddock herself doesn't seem so sure. Sitting in her supporter's back yard, I asked Haddock to assess her chances against Gregg. "I'm going to beat him. I'm going to beat him!" she replied. Then a hint of doubt crept in: "I'm going to work to beat him; I may not do it, but I certainly expect that I have a possibility of it, or I wouldn't be wasting my time." Then, still more doubt: "Although I guess maybe that's not entirely true, because I do have this chance to talk about public funding [of elections]. And I want to educate the people in New Hampshire about what it means and what it would be like."

Considering her advanced age and the novelty of what she's experiencing, it's understandable that Haddock would be unsure what to make of her own campaign. But time is short. For the sake of the nation's Democrats, now would be a good time for Haddock and her inner circle to decide what, exactly, the character of her candidacy is going to be.

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