TILTON, N.H. — The late Doris Haddock, the New Hampshire great-grandmother better known as “Granny D,” once walked across the country to draw attention to the need for campaign finance reform.
For the past two weeks, a group of activists has been walking in her footsteps and in her honor — traversing 185 miles of New Hampshire, from north to south — to highlight what they see as a system of corruption in Washington surrounding that issue. By making grass-roots connections with voters along the way, through town hall-type forums and one-on-one conversations, the so-called NH Rebellion is challenging the next round of presidential candidates to take on the issue in 2016.
Pat Westwater-Jong, a friend of Haddock’s, was among the 50 or so marchers who stopped in Tilton, a town north of Concord, over the weekend. Having just walked more than 30 miles over two days, she said Haddock’s spirit was never far from her thoughts.
“She was a powerful, passionate, brilliant speaker,” Westwater-Jong said over the din of the bar at a roadside restaurant. “We’d spend hours at the kitchen table talking about how to fix this country.”
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and copyright expert who has turned his focus in recent years to government reform, conceived of the walk, which wraps up Friday, with a few fellow advocates. He said he was overwhelmed by the response from both volunteer walkers and members of the public whom they have been engaging.
Because of the state’s traditional “first in the nation” presidential primary, New Hampshire voters are “very sophisticated and independent,” said Lessig, who had aching legs, after a group dinner and debriefing. “And if they’re older, they’re likely to be a little tired of the routine.”
Organizer Jeff McLean said the current campaign finance system breeds “hopelessness and powerlessness” among voters, with major donors — corporations, unions — often making election outcomes seem inevitable.
“Politicians spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money from the same industries they’re expected to regulate,” McLean said. “We want to help change the system.”
The NH Rebellion walk’s final event will be a tribute to Granny D at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua on Friday. In addition to commemorating her work, the walk also honors the legacy of Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who committed suicide last year while facing a prison term for computer fraud. Swartz was an early planner of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that Lessig cofounded to encourage wider sharing of copyrighted works.
Lessig suggested scheduling the NH Rebellion walk to begin Jan. 11, the one-year anniversary of Swartz’s death. Friday would have been Granny D’s 103d birthday.
“It’s a nice sort of symmetry,” Lessig said. “For me personally, this is very meaningful.”
It was Swartz, Lessig said, who persuaded him to protest the influence of money in politics. Citing a July 2012 Gallup poll, Lessig said that voters have called government corruption the second-biggest issue facing the country, behind job creation.
Supporters of NH Rebellion are proposing various methods of campaign finance reform, including a law restricting big-money donors and a constitutional amendment adopted by a national convention called by state legislatures.
“The Founding Fathers literally put that in the Constitution,” said Mike Monetta, a march supporter who is director of organizing for Wolf PAC, a political action committee. “What happens if Congress is the problem? We have to give people another way to amend the Constitution.”
On Saturday, Monetta ate dinner with Alex Mazzola, a 26-year-old volunteer who was using a two-week vacation from his tech support job in Colorado to walk the whole route, and Bruce Skarin, a 37-year-old father of two from Millbury, Mass. Skarin is a scientist who does government research.
“My background is in root cause analysis,” Skarin said. “Working for the government, I see the potential to do cutting-edge research and development, but also the disconnects and the dysfunction.”
For all the country’s problems, he noted, the United States still can claim a budget much larger than that of any other nation. “I want to make sure my generation is not the one that threw it away.”
Committing to the protest has been exhilarating, he said.
“On a normal day, I’d be stuck in traffic an hour each way,” Skarin said. “Now I walk 20 miles having conversations with amazing people. It’s more energizing than anything I’ve ever done.”
He is one of the NH Rebellion’s 16 “through-walkers,” the core volunteers planning to walk the entire route, from Dixville Notch in the northernmost part of the state, to Concord, Manchester, and Nashua in the south. At the debriefing, organizers discussed the safety concerns of “day walkers,” those who have dropped in to support the movement by marching a day or two.
Volunteers have been encouraged to raise funds from friends and family to help defray the cost of the walk, which includes room and board.
“If you feel not so excited about sending a fund-raiser e-mail, I understand, and I’m happy to talk to you about this,” logistics coordinator Japhet Els told the group at the restaurant.
It had snowed much of the day. One volunteer raised his hand to offer fellow walkers some protection.
“I brought a bunch of bandannas,” he said, pulling one up over his nose to demonstrate. “They’re fantastic, and they’ve been recently laundered.”
That’s how the group was conducting its outreach, from one individual to another, Monetta said. He had personally engaged with several people that day, he said, “and every single one was not just supportive of what we’re doing, but ecstatic.”
He and his colleagues are trying to convince voters they have a voice to change the political system. “If they’re pushing us around — hey, we fight back,” he said. “The people always win.”