MANCHESTER, N.H.—Here he is in his campaign headquarters, the front seat of his Toyota Camry, driving along downtown Elm Street, past banks reluctant to lend, storefronts somewhat empty, and people living paycheck to paycheck in a state, country really, where take-home pay is perhaps the largest issue beneath the surface of a season filled with voter anger toward a stagnating government: Lou D’Allesandro, 76 years old, a New Hampshire state senator for 20 years, a Democrat on Tuesday’s ballot, a living reminder, a relic perhaps, of a time when a politician’s principal task was listening to constituents and performing.
He takes a left on Bridge Street heading toward the west side of a city where he represents nearly half the citizens. He is wearing a blue UNH pullover, blue shirt, tan pants, and a perpetual smile, and is talking about the race for the United States Senate between incumbent Jeanne Shaheen and Scott Brown, who used to be in the Senate and used to be from Massachusetts, when his cell phone rings.
“Hello,” Lou D’Allesandro, one hand on the wheel, says, a smile in his salutation. “Nick, how are you? ...Yes, Nick … I’ve arranged for your daughter to get that job … It’ll be part-time to start and then I think we can get her on full-time … She’s got to go to work every day, Nick … Can’t quit, okay? ... Good, I’ll get back to you tonight with the particulars … Okay, talk to you later.”
And here it was, the definition of politics: a full-service industry before it fell hostage to consultants, focus groups, pollsters who have turned the simple proposition of helping people into an expensive assault on the senses of anyone simply trying to live a normal life.
At one level, campaigning remains an art of sidewalk commonsense, one not totally reliant on tools like Twitter, Facebook, blogging, commercials, cable TV, or radio talk shows. Few things can compare to the social cement of a firm handshake, a genuine smile, recalling a name, remembering a favor asked and a favor found. All that is old-school and a disappearing discipline.
“Now, there’s a great sign,” he says, pointing to a “D’Allesandro for Senate” poster at the top of the rotary where Bridge Street joins the west side of Manchester. Beneath the bold lettering there is a picture of Lou and his wife Pat, both smiles brighter than street lamps.
“Jeanne has some good signs around too,” he says, heading down South Main Street. “I think she’s going to win it Tuesday. She’s got a good ground game and nobody dislikes her. Plus, he’s not from here.”
Shaheen is New Hamsphire’s senior senator and the state’s former governor. She is fighting a strong, well-funded opponent in Brown, who lost his Senate seat to Elizabeth Warren, who beat him like a rented mule when he lived across the border in Massachusetts two years ago.
“I think she was surprised at how many resources the Republicans poured into New Hampshire to beat her,” D’Allesandro says of Shaheen, taking a right on Mast Road toward Sarette’s garage, past Jacques Flowers and Dickie Boy Subs.
“Donnie Russo,” Lou says, quietly, “He owned Dickie Boys. Hard worker. One of 13 kids in his family. Never gave me any money for the campaign but he’d feed us election nights. Died young. In his fifties. Massive heart attack. Wife’s a recovery-room nurse. Wonderful woman. Just helped get her a passport.
“But this guy, Scott Brown, he’s everywhere. He’s made for retail politics. He’ll crush a shopping mall, shake every hand. Then he’ll go on TV and get in the debates and try and scare people telling them the Taliban is crossing the border with Ebola. Crazy.”
Lou pulls into the lot at Sarette’s, where regular gas is $2.99 a gallon. He starts laughing as he sees Bill Sarette walk toward him. D’Allesandro spent a morning last week pumping gas for customers here.
“Billy, I didn’t tell ya,” he says, “but this one woman came in, told me to fill it up and I did. Fifty-one bucks worth and then she tells me all she’s got on her is 20 bucks. Cost me 31 bucks to work for you.”
“Hard times, Lou,” Sarette says, laughing.
Sarette, is 54, one of eight children. The business began with his father and the son has been here “all but two years of my life. I wasn’t here when I was 19 and 20. Two fun years. Other than that, right here.”
Sarette is a Republican who pays little attention to party labels. “I’m voting for Jeanne,” he declares.
Why? “The guy isn’t even from here,” Sarette says. “He says he’s from here because he has a summer camp or something here. Hey, I’m not a moron. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know us.”
“Still a small state,” Lou D’Allesandro adds, “and a small town. It’s about relationships. Look at me: Fifty years in the same house. Fifty years married to the same woman, the magnificent Pat. The business is about more than TV ads or handshakes, it’s about relationships.”
“You got that right, Lou,” Sarette agrees.
Now, state Senator Lou D’Allessandro, former teacher, high-school football coach, college athletic director, instructor at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, is back behind the wheel, taking a right on Boynton Street, driving a mile or so before pulling into a gas station owned by Saeed Ahmed.
Ahmed is 39. He was born in Pakistan and came to Manchester in 1999. He is married with three children. He is now an American citizen, and he rushes out of his station as soon as he sees D’Allesandro, as if a wonderful gift has just arrived.
“My friend, my friend,” Ahmed says, hugging Lou, shaking his hand. “I was going to call you today. I need more cards. More signs too.”
“Remi,” D’Allesandro says to his campaign manager Remi Francoeur, who is with him, “can we get Saeed more cards and signs today?”
“Done,” Francoeur says.
“Saeed came here speaking no English,” D’Allesandro says. “We helped him with that. Helped him start a business. Helped him get a loan. He pays all his bills. He now owns three stations—two in Manchester, one in Derry. His kids are in school here. He owns his own home, pays his taxes. He is a great American.”
“Whatever you need,” Saeed Ahmed tells his state senator. “I’m for Shaheen. I’m for you. I’m for America.”
Now Lou is back in the car, driving along the Merrimack River and the old brick factories that formed the spine of the Amoskeag Mills, once the economic engine, the paycheck, for thousands. Many of the buildings have been brought up to date and now house other, newer, smaller companies. New Hampshire, like so many other states in the northeast, has seen the work go from wool to shoes to electronics to finance. They’ve seen the work go to North Carolina, Texas, and other regions as history and a corporate lust for lower power costs and bigger tax incentives have left so many behind with smaller paychecks, haunting economic insecurity, and incomes that simply do not keep pace with the cost of getting through a single week.
“She has to win,” Lou D’Allesandro is saying about Jeanne Shaheen. “And I think she will because she has a much better get-out-the-vote operation. It’s close but she’ll win I think because people know her. They’re angry at Obama, at politicians in general, at no jobs, at a lot of things but you can’t eat angry. You can’t eat fear.”
As he says this, he is pulling into the parking lot of the Puritan Backroom restaurant. There, he bumps into Irene Messier, who is 92 years old.
“Lou, I already voted for you. Early voting and I voted for you and I voted for Jeanne too.”
“Thank you, Irene,” Lou D’Allesandro, a man fully invested in politics and people tells her. “I really appreciate it. It’s always better to be one ahead than one behind. Thank you.”