Editor’s Note: With just two days until the election, the Globe is focusing on the formative moments in the public lives of the two women vying for the US Senate in New Hampshire. The estimated $100 million contest will reverberate well beyond the Granite State, with the winner possibly determining control of the Senate. For our profile of Maggie Hassan, click here.
In campaign ads, US Senator Kelly Ayotte plays basketball with her daughter and runs in the nearby woods sporting a green Red Sox cap. On social media, she posts pictures of her children in Halloween outfits with the hashtags: #proudmom #candy #costumes #memories.
Her carefully crafted message: I’m your friendly neighbor — who just happens to be a Republican.
But for most of her professional career Ayotte carved out a much different reputation as a hard-charging prosecutor, a ladder climber, and someone who sought and earned notches in her belt that would look good in a political campaign someday.
To this day, Ayotte has spent more time working in New Hampshire’s Department of Justice than she has in Washington.
And in that role, the state first came to know her through three high-profile moments that have defined and tested her as much as her election to the US Senate six years ago.
Ayotte, who grew up in Nashua, attended college and law school in Pennsylvania but then returned home to join a private practice. In 1996, she became involved in her first big case when she was assigned as a public defender after an armored car robbery that left two guards dead. During the trial Ayotte proved herself particularly adept in the use of DNA evidence. She represented one of the five charged in the case. All were found guilty.
When the case was over, New Hampshire Attorney General Phil McLaughlin — who had been reading about her work — reached out to see if Ayotte would be interested in taking an open position in his office. She was.
From there, Ayotte quickly earned the top spot in the state’s homicide division. While there, she took her first turn in the spotlight when she led the prosecution against two teens who eventually admitted to killing two Dartmouth College professors in their home. It was a grisly case that captured national attention.
Ayotte recalls being in a Nashua courtroom waiting for a jury’s verdict in an unrelated case when she got the assignment. She then spent two weeks living out of a Days Inn during the initial investigation.
“I had never experienced anything like all of the media attention before. There was national and international media there, and for a long while I didn’t have any answers,” Ayotte said. The case eventually ended in guilty pleas. But it was the first time that Ayotte would appear on statewide television in a consistent way. People began to recognize her around town. After that case. she was viewed as one of the state’s rising stars.
“She was a fantastic attorney,” McLaughlin recalled. McLaughlin is a Democrat who was appointed attorney general by then-governor Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat whom Ayotte has served alongside during her six years in the Senate.
McLaughlin who is now retired, said that when he sees Ayotte in the news these days he sees the same person he hired years ago. The same held true when they recently ran into each other at an event.
“She is a nice person; there were hugs, but I would never vote for her,” said McLaughlin, a partisan Democrat.
A few years after the Dartmouth case, she briefly served as the governor’s legal counsel under Republican Craig Benson before he appointed her to be attorney general, an unelected position in New Hampshire.
Just 36 years old and pregnant with her first child, Ayotte immediately signaled she would be taking a hands-on approach to the more high-profile matters that her office dealt with.
By the time she was sworn in, Dan Mullen, head of the civil division, had already prepared and argued a case before an appeals court defending the state legislature’s right to pass a parental notification law that required teenagers to inform their parents before obtaining an abortion. The law, which appeared to go against existing court precedent, was now headed to the US Supreme Court.
“She took over the case herself, which was her right, but I remember asking her in that first meeting if she had ever been been to the Supreme Court. She said she hadn’t. We booked a ticket,” recalled Mullen, who headed up the office’s civil division.
“She always struck me as more dogged than she was competitive,” Mullen said. “But we had to do a lot of practice, because we knew she was going to be in the spotlight. She ended up being a natural.”
Ayotte, who opposes abortion rights, did not make an argument specifically about abortion, but on states’ rights. She lost the case.
Ayotte was renominated as attorney general twice by a Democratic governor. Eventually, when Republican US Senator Judd Gregg announced his retirement, he endorsed Ayotte to be his successor and helped set up her campaign.
In interviews with her circle of colleagues who knew her during these times, one word kept coming up: “Ambitious.” They didn’t all mean it in a bad way.
“You’re never in the right place at the right time as often as Kelly Ayotte has been without possessing ambition and poise in equal measure,” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor who has closely followed Ayotte’s career.
Ayotte prefers a different word.
“I was aggressive,” she said in an interview.
And this was particularly evident when it came to her stance on crime. The death penalty had been back on the books for 36 years at that time, but had never been used. That changed, with Ayotte, however, who sought the death penalty in two cases. In one case, a millionaire businessman found guilty of hiring three hit men who beat a man to death was spared execution by a jury. In the other case, Ayotte, as attorney general, personally tried a man convicted of killing a Manchester police officer.
It is unusal in New Hampshire for an attorney general to personally appear in court, but she was the one delivering the closing statement directly to the jury.
“There is only one verdict that satisfies these principles. Let your verdict speak with one voice. The state of New Hampshire asks you to render a unanimous verdict sentencing the defendant, Michael Addison, to death,” she said.
The jury agreed, and as a result, Addison could be the first person executed in the state since 1939.
Throughout her two campaigns for Senate, Ayotte has constantly referenced her time as a prosecutor. In her first campaign she ran an ad featuring the police officer’s widow, in the case involving the death penalty sentencing. In her final debate against Hassan this past week, she used her background to explain her relationship with law enforcement, her experience with the state’s opioid crisis, and her stance on gun control.
She said that focus on security also informs how she looks at issues in the Senate.
“I am naturally drawn to issues of national security because of my background dealing with security in New Hampshire,” Ayotte said. “Some of my proudest moments are when I look back at that time.”