Chris Pappas is a freshman congressman. He’s also an undecided New Hampshire voter. He’s going into the final weekend before Tuesday’s presidential primary looking for “a feeling” about one of the candidates. What’s going to produce that feeling? He’s not sure about that, either.
Pappas grew up in New Hampshire politics, helping his family run a Manchester restaurant that’s a frequent stop for politicians. By 7, he’d already met Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole, decided he was a Democrat (unlike most of his family), and determined that he liked Dole because he seemed to be more honest about raising taxes than George H. W. Bush was that year. In 1992, he saw former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska tend bar at the family restaurant, and the night before that year’s primary, Bill Clinton came in to watch an Arkansas basketball game in the kitchen with the staff.
“They still talk about it today,” he said.
By 22, Pappas was a state legislator—though, because New Hampshire has 400 state legislators, almost everyone in the state eventually gets to be one if they want to, which is why it comes with a $100 annual salary. In 2018, he was elected to Congress at the age of 38, the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress in his state’s history. Now he’s running for reelection, trying to keep up with what’s going on in his party and his district—including the massive generational change in Congress and the opioid crisis back home. He joined the latest episode of The Ticket to discuss what he’s looking for now.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: The cliché is that Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents. It’s not exactly clear what Iowa did this time. So what’s New Hampshire going to do?
Chris Pappas: I'm not sure what happened in Iowa either. And we'll see if we have all the final results before the votes are counted in New Hampshire.
Dovere: How do you defend your states getting to go first anymore?
Pappas: In 2016, people came to New Hampshire, heard about the opioid epidemic that was ravaging our communities, heard about some really heartbreaking personal stories. As a result, the national candidates all were talking about their plans to address addiction.
The intimacy of New Hampshire provides us with the opportunity to affect the conversation in a meaningful way. And that's why we're so proud of our primary … What happened in Iowa is a function of a complicated caucus system. That's not something you're going to see in a primary state, where the votes are going to roll in about a half hour after the polls close. We're going to have a decisive result unless, of course, it's, you know, a too-close-to-call race with a recount, which can happen in an election.
Dovere: You’re young—not yet 40—and you represent a district that skews older. How do you bridge that?
Pappas: Being someone of a younger generation, you actually find a lot of support from folks that are of an older generation. They're really looking to pass the torch on. And they’re excited to see people stepping forward to take ownership over what's happening in their community and in their country. It is hard to draw conclusions, but the real test here is going to be for Democrats: How does this process all come together in the end with a nominee that gains the confidence and an ability to build a broad coalition? There are so many voters in the middle right now that are dissatisfied with what they're seeing out of the Trump White House, out of Washington. They want change. We've got to have someone who's able to speak to those voters.
Dovere: You were at Harvard a few years ahead of Pete Buttigieg, though you didn’t know him. He’s spoken about wrestling with feeling then that he couldn’t be open about being gay and have a career in politics. Did you feel that?
Pappas: It was a struggle, and I think everyone dealt with it in their own way. And it certainly was a time period where it wasn't always safe or easy to be out. Maybe it was on a college campus, but probably not in a small town in New Hampshire or Indiana, for that matter.
Dovere: The opioid crisis has gotten more attention since 2016. What are we still missing about what’s happening?
Pappas: The profound and lifelong impacts that addiction has on individuals. You know, when someone is in recovery from opioid abuse, they're there for a lifetime. That's why, as policy makers, our job is so important—to make sure that we can sustain the funding and the efforts that we've tried to put in place. We also need to understand that it's not just about opioids. I mean, this crisis has gone from overprescribing pain pills to heroin to fentanyl. Now we're seeing a crystal-meth epidemic in my state and in other places … As a society, we need to make sure we're always looking at this as an illness that can be treated and not as a moral failing.
Dovere: Is it about economic factors too, people feeling hopeless?
Pappas: There are a lot of diseases of despair that have been impacting our community, certainly … The drugs have been on our doorstep for a number of years, but we really lacked the infrastructure of treatment and recovery services that maybe some other areas had.
Dovere: Do you know people who have been hit by the crisis?
Pappas: Everyone does: co-workers, high-school classmates. Everyone has someone in their family that has grappled with addiction. Most events I have, if this issue comes up, I'll ask for a show of hands of who's lost someone close to them. And it's, without question, two-thirds, three-quarters of the hands of the room. I had a cousin that was struggling for a long period of time and unfortunately was lost … Some families want to believe that someone is on the right track. But there can be a lot of false starts with folks that are in and out of recovery.
Dovere: Your colleague in the New Hampshire delegation, Ann Kuster, has endorsed Buttigieg. You haven’t endorsed anyone. Why not?
Pappas: I haven't figured out who I'm going to vote for! I have to vote absentee on Monday because I'll be back in D.C. on Tuesday, the day of the primary … This is a year where so many New Hampshire primary voters are taking a step back. They're excited to be a part of the process to hear from candidates, but they know this is a big decision to make and they don't want to get it wrong. I think winning for folks that are voting in the Democratic primary is really paramount. And I think they're just beginning to understand which candidates have an ability to deliver a victory.
Dovere: So you’re voting based on electability?
Pappas: Well, I think that's one consideration. And who do I want to run with next fall? I came out of a primary, when I ran for Congress, with 11 individuals. We did a couple dozen forums and debates around the district that had a pretty robust conversation. I think I was successful in that particular primary because I was someone with a track record who had worked on issues, but also I had an ability to talk to a broad range of voters.
Dovere: What are you looking for to make up your mind?
Pappas: There's a dinner on Saturday night that the New Hampshire Democratic Party is doing. All the candidates will be there. I'm attending a debate on Friday night that the DNC is sponsoring. So I think I'll get a feeling after those two events where I'm going to end up.
Dovere: When you decide, are you going to let people know?
Pappas: I don't know. We had a case recently go through court. You know, ballot selfies were illegal in New Hampshire for a while, according to the secretary of state. But that was reversed by a court decision. So I’ve been toying with the idea, do I do a ballot selfie and just sort of say, “Hey, you know, this is who I'm supporting”?
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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