How She Does It

New Hampshire’s governor, a prep-school campus, and the meaning of women in politics
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Associated Press

The governor of New Hampshire does not live in the governor’s mansion. Instead, Maggie Hassan lives on the grounds of Phillips Exeter Academy, the exclusive 228-year-old prep school of the Northeast’s privileged set, where her husband, Thomas Hassan, has been the principal since 2008—a job that comes with lodging in a stately colonial on the school’s campus.

The Hassans' is thus the marriage of two New England institutions, and the house in Exeter has opened Maggie Hassan to charges of elitism. (The name, pronounced “HASS-un,” comes from Tom’s Black Irish ancestors, thought to be the result of some long-ago Moorish migration.) An attack ad aired during her 2012 campaign faulted her for living in "a half-million-dollar home that Hassan pays no property taxes on,” failing to mention her husband’s job and that they don’t own it. Before I visited their house last month, I imagined Maggie and Tom—who met at Brown—hosting tea for Brahmins on an opulent lawn, he in headmasterish tweed, she in, say, a Colonial-style powdered wig. More realistically, perhaps the end of the term would find her marking up budgets while he marked up final exams, or plotting strategy in a campaign war room next door to a pizza party of well-scrubbed junior WASPs.

But if I thought I would encounter a scene from Preppy Heaven, what I found instead at the Hassans' was rather more prosaic: the overscheduled life of a high-powered professional couple, one half of which just happens to get picked up for work by a state trooper. The house in Exeter turned out to be a symbol of what Maggie Hassan represents as a politician—just not in the way I expected.

At seven o’clock, Hassan, 56, descends the stairs to the kitchen, pantsuited and in stocking feet. Her 25-year-old son, Ben, who has cerebral palsy, is in his wheelchair being fed breakfast by his caregiver, Joyce; Hassan addresses him as “knucklehead”—the nickname is unmistakably, endearingly affectionate—while the family's adopted mutt, Honey Mae, bounds around her heels. The fridge displays snapshots with John Kerry and Michelle Obama alongside a magnet reading “Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast.” Exeter is 45 minutes’ drive from the capitol in Concord; when Hassan, a lawyer and former state senator, was elected governor in 2012, it was easier to commute than to move. Because New Hampshire is so small, most of its governors don’t move to the statehouse. Not since Mel Thompson in the 1970s, who hailed from a far-flung farm along the Appalachian Trail, has the governor made a home in the executive residence, known as Bridges House, which is used primarily for official functions.

Ben is the reason for his mother’s political career. His mind is alive and he hears everything, but he cannot speak or use his hands. The lofty old house has been fitted with special counters, ramps, and ceiling tracks to help him get around. More than a decade ago, when Hassan was a lawyer in private practice, her work to make Ben’s public elementary school accommodate his needs got her involved in disability-rights activism. In 1999, then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen—now the state’s senior U.S. senator—appointed her to a state education-advisory commission, and in 2002 Democratic Party leaders asked her to run for an open state-senate seat.

“I called my husband and said, ‘Isn’t it nice they called me and asked me to run? But of course, I can’t possibly—you know, job, kids, your job.’” Hassan is recounting this history from the front seat of an SUV as the trooper drives us from Exeter to Concord. (Her other state trooper, the one who takes her home at the end of the day, drives a minivan.) “And Tom just said, ‘You’d be good at it and we’ll make it work.’” So she ran, and lost, and ran again in 2004 and won. In 2010, she lost her Senate seat; in 2012 she was elected to her first two-year term as governor. She ran on a moderate platform that sought to thread the needle between the state's libertarian ethos and its increasing blue tilt, promising to invest in jobs and education while vetoing any proposed increase in taxes. So far, the opponents she has drawn for her reelection this year do not appear to pose a major threat.

Hassan is not the world’s most electrifying politician. Relentlessly on message, even in private, she speaks in the sort of scripted, too-boring-to-quote genericisms that drive reporters crazy: Solving problems ... bringing people together ... focused on innovation .... She is an assiduous handshaker and small-talker, but her plodding, evenly delivered speeches will not soon light up the national stage, and she lacks the affable schmooziness of her predecessor, former Democratic Governor John Lynch. Riding around with her during a 12-hour day that sees her crisscrossing the state—honoring New Hampshire math teachers, giving awards to high-school athletes, touring a veterans’ retirement home, two St. Patrick’s Day meals—sometimes seems like an unfunny episode of Veep, as the candidate and her communications director, Marc Goldberg, shuffle briefing books and takeout meals while worrying over how her jokes went over.

At a St. Patrick's Day lunch in Salem, complete with beer and a fife-and-drum corps, Hassan opens with a pair of comedic lines. The first lands: “It’s great to be here in Salem, straddling the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts—but enough about Scott Brown.” Brown, the former Massachusetts senator now plotting a comeback in New Hampshire, stands up from his table and grins, making a bring-it-on gesture. Hassan's other joke, a mock announcement for a plan to save the town’s old horse track despite the failure of Hassan’s push for a casino, is met with applause before she can get to the punch line and reveal that it’s a joke about moving the state legislature to Salem. “I don’t think they realized it was a joke!” she frets to Goldberg afterward.

Yet despite her lack of flash, there is something to be said for the sort of steady, even-keeled competence Hassan represents: A governor who will not likely gain national renown as a presidential prospect—though some in New Hampshire think she might run for U.S. Senate in a couple of years, a question she declines to address—but who simply does the job, day in and day out. She strikes me as a plugger, and that's an admirable thing to be. Hassan’s boosters describe her as hardworking, dogged, focused, patient, and tough. “Maggie lost a couple of elections, but that did not stop her,” Kathy Sullivan, the state’s Democratic committeewoman, notes. “She just never gives up, and she will always go the extra mile,” state Democratic chairman Ray Buckley says.

The two-year budget Hassan signed last July passed the Senate unanimously and the 400-member House with fewer than 20 dissenting votes—evidence of Hassan’s commitment to bipartisan compromise. She can also take a political risk based on personal conviction and succeed. In 2009, she was the driving force behind the bill that made New Hampshire one of the first states to legalize gay marriage. Some of her fellow Democrats wondered if the state was ready for it, Senator Sylvia Larsen, the leader of the Democratic minority, told me. But Hassan convinced them that “the time was right and we should do it because it’s the right thing.”

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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