Has Rep. Shea-Porter 'gone native'?
By: Alex Isenstadt
October 20, 2009 05:00 AM EST
Has Washington changed Carol Shea-Porter?
It’s a question that’s being asked in New Hampshire as the Democratic congresswoman gears up for reelection amid criticism that she’s become an insular member of the political establishment she once confronted as a grass-roots activist.
While Republicans have seized on the issue as part of their effort to deny her a third term, the state media has also focused on the theme after Shea-Porter avoided scheduling open town halls during Congress’s August recess. While she eventually held the events, it wasn’t until after she took considerable heat — and after her likely 2010 Republican opponent, Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta, announced he would be holding his own public health care event.
“The irony is, of course, that Shea-Porter used to be a ‘tea-bagger’ on the left,” wrote Nashua Telegraph columnist Kevin Landrigan in late August, borrowing a phrase Shea-Porter had used to describe conservative town hall opponents. “We remember when, Carol, do you?”
The charge that a member of Congress has “gone native” or been changed by Washington is a campaign staple, but in Shea-Porter’s case, it’s an especially troublesome matter because it cuts to the heart of her political identity.
In the years leading up to her stunning 2006 House upset victory, Shea-Porter won notoriety not as a politician but as a state organizer for an anti-George W. Bush group called Turn Your Back on Bush and for her dogged pursuit of then-Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) at public events across the state.
She embarked on a long-shot bid for Bradley’s seat, waged a mom-and-pop-style campaign in the 2006 Democratic primary and managed to knock off then-state House Minority Leader Jim Craig, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s preferred candidate. Then, in the general election, she took down Bradley in one of the election cycle’s most unexpected outcomes.
“She had gained a following of local activists. They believed in her, and she had momentum from the local level that I didn’t have,” Craig said. “It took on a life of its own — and that was to her benefit, I think.”
Last year, she defeated Bradley in a rematch, but not before bowing to political exigencies — Shea-Porter reneged on an earlier promise that she would not accept help from the DCCC. By the time the dust cleared, the committee had spent a whopping $2.4 million on ads and direct mail slamming Bradley.
The blowback from that small concession paled next to the furor created by Shea-Porter’s reluctant approach to town halls.
Republicans, including former state GOP Chairman Wayne Semprini, accused her of being a hypocrite for avoiding the events and criticizing conservative town hall disrupters when, as a protester, Shea-Porter herself had been removed from a March 2005 event featuring President Bush.
The congresswoman denied in an interview with the Portsmouth Herald that she had been told to leave, a response that had many in New Hampshire political circles scratching their heads, since the incident is a well-known part of Shea-Porter lore.
In an interview with POLITICO, Shea-Porter said that she had merely meant to distinguish between her relatively peaceful form of protest in her pre-Congress years and the more disruptive actions taken by the conservative town hall rabble-rousers during the August recess.
“I never opened my mouth,” she said of the 2005 Bush event, where she and another activist removed their sweatshirts, turned their backs to the president and revealed T-shirts that read, “Turn your back on Bush.”
“There’s a very, very big difference between standing there politely and quietly with a shirt on and going around and being disruptive and yelling,” Shea-Porter said.
Bradley, Shea-Porter’s predecessor, claims she has contracted a form of Potomac fever.
“I think she’s gone to Washington and forgotten that she’s New Hampshire’s representative in Washington,” Bradley told POLITICO, noting that Shea-Porter had frequently been confrontational and challenging at his public events. “I think she’s become Washington, and the power has gotten to her.”
“What I have a problem with, and what a lot of people have a problem with, is that there’s a double standard,” said Bradley. “There is no bigger hypocrite in Congress than Carol Shea-Porter.”
Shea-Porter allies are quick to argue that the lawmaker’s grass-roots support is as strong as ever and that she’s the same fighter for the causes she believes in. They point to a University of New Hampshire survey released last month that shows her favorability rating among registered Democrats at 70 percent and among those who identify themselves as liberal at 78 percent.
“If you ask anyone around here, they will tell you that I’m outspoken and that I stand up for the middle class,” said Shea-Porter.
“I think she does have grass-roots appeal. The difference is that she’s in Congress now. She has a different vehicle to achieve those goals,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman.
“When you’re not an officeholder and you’re very active in politics, you’re very critical of those who hold office,” said Sullivan. “Now that she’s holding office, she can focus on the issues that matter to her and be a positive force.”
Still, as she heads toward what is widely expected to be a tough reelection bid, Shea-Porter must find a way to prove to voters that she remains the same passionate advocate, only with a different title.