Like many longtime politicians, Debora Pignatelli has closets packed with campaign signs, legislative license plates, and other political paraphernalia, but the most interesting pieces of her collection may be her house’s walls.
Pignatelli lives in Nashua and served for many years as a Democratic state lawmaker and executive councilor. She’s also hosted plenty of presidential candidates; four of them left permanent marks on her home in the form of signatures on her walls. It’s unusual décor, and Pignatelli says the scrawled names are almost always a conversation piece among house guests.
“People are surprised,” she said. “They’re not sure if they’re real.”
New Hampshire’s political landscape is covered with collectibles, making it easy for Granite Staters to maintain stashes of antique campaign buttons and bumper stickers. But some local politicos have a knack for acquiring rare or quirky items that reflect the state’s outsized role in national politics.
“New Hampshire citizens, a lot of them have direct and personal contact with candidates,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “As [those candidates] move along through the state, they leave behind speeches and handwritten notes and all sorts of interesting things.”
Levesque presides over probably the state’s most expansive collection of political memorabilia, with hundreds of thousands of items. Some notable pieces: the itinerary Dwight Eisenhower held during a 1955 visit to New Hampshire; a basketball signed by President Obama; and the champagne flute Ronald Reagan used to toast his victory at the 1980 debate, where he proclaimed, “I’m paying for this microphone.”
The collection is growing. At least once a week, a local politico in the middle of downsizing will give Levesque a box of items.
“On a financial level, they’re probably not worth much money, but as far as New Hampshire history goes, they’re quite fascinating,” he said.
Equally fascinating are the stories behind some of these items. For Pignatelli, her collection of candidate signatures started when a visiting staffer for Michael Dukakis accidentally left a pen mark on her wall. They made the staffer sign the scribble, and a tradition was born.
“We thought it would be a really good idea, since we have a lot of candidates come to our house,” she said.
Al Gore and Dick Gephardt signed above the phone. John Kerry put his signature in the dining area. Under the staircase are large, looping letters spelling out “Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Not everyone’s prized political possessions are quite so obvious. Former speaker of the New Hampshire House Donna Sytek has an eclectic collection but cherishes two items in particular because of the memories they evoke.
The first is Republican Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book, a manual for running for political offices big and small. Sytek was a supporter of Alexander’s 1996 campaign, and she received the book as a gift after he dropped out of the race.
“It’s just a fond remembrance of a campaign I was so proud to be a part of,” she said. “And it’s good advice. For anyone.”
The booklet is a nod to both Alexander’s penchant for plaid flannel shirts and his tendency to give advice while campaigning.
“I had heard his speech so many times, I could give it by the end,” Sytek said. “He had these wonderful words of wisdom.”
Her favorite is #121: “Find the good and praise it.”
Sytek also has a tote bag signed by all of the New Hampshire delegates to the 1980 Republican National Convention. It was her first time attending a national convention, and she remembers riding a bus to Detroit with the rest of the delegation. The bag, she says, is a reminder of that road trip and the general mood of the era.
“That was such a hopeful time,” she said. “Reagan had such an optimistic message.”
Sytek isn’t the only person with a collectible that evokes memories of many highway miles. Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, once owned a PT Cruiser used as one of Joe Lieberman’s “Joemobiles.”
The Joemobiles were shrink-wrapped cars common at Lieberman events during the 2004 campaign, and Buckley’s was especially popular because it had a license plate that read “Joe2004.” The car crisscrossed the state, racking up nearly 70,000 miles before Lieberman quit the race.
“It was in every parade,” he said. “It was everywhere.”