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The state’s top politicos are vetting 2020 candidates on their way to New Hampshire

Wrought iron railing surrounded a small park in the center of Louisburg Square. John Tlumacki/Globe staff/file

They’re regular stops on any presidential candidate’s New Hampshire itinerary: A diner visit in Concord. A town hall in Nashua. A house party with activists in Portsmouth.

Now add a Massachusetts location to that circuit: A stately living room in Louisburg Square.

At least that’s the pitch from some of Massachusetts’ political elite who are sponsoring invitation-only, off-the-record sessions with White House hopefuls. The events, informally called Conversations 2020, have mostly taken place at Chris Gabrieli’s home on Beacon Hill, and the guest list includes roughly 120 of the biggest political contributors and activists in the state.

The goal, they said, is to allow members to find a candidate they like and actively support that campaign — either by organizing volunteers, serving in a policy role, or, yes, giving and organizing political contributions.


The region has long been considered a blue ATM for progressive and liberal political candidates who swoop into the metro area to pick up checks — often en route to the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. What makes these sessions different, organizers said, is in addition to the deep-pocketed donors, they also invite the state’s top activists and policy pros with an eye toward diversity in professional background, race, gender, age, and sexual orientation. The founders say they even invite a few Republicans to the sessions.

Organizers aim to re-create the intimacy of a New Hampshire house party — a political tradition in which a few dozen neighbors and community members pepper questions at a candidate in someone’s home — but for an engaged Bay State group with a track record of involvement in campaigns.

“Obviously this group includes people who have been known to ‘max out’ on a contribution, but also people who lead groups with young African-Americans or others who are experts in driving small contributions or are experts in certain policy areas,” said Gabrieli, chairman of the state’s Board of Higher Education and a former gubernatorial candidate.


So far, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and former governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado have made their respective cases at different sessions. Invitations recently went out for Representative Seth Moulton, who is scheduled to make an appearance next week.

“We understand this is a bit of an unorthodox offer to campaigns to have an event south of New Hampshire, but our thinking is that we will make this easy, where it is either on your way to or from Logan and near Interstate 93, and you have this group of people who could be quite helpful to you,” said Gabrieli.

The events are often in the evening, and between 70 and 80 people typically attend the conversations, which include a question-and-answer session with the candidate. At Gabrieli’s home on Beacon Hill, oil paintings of his children adorn the walls alongside a gold-framed art collection. Guests dine on cheese, crackers, and white wine.

But the meetings, which began in April, also might be the closest thing to early campaigning taking place in Massachusetts ahead of the state’s presidential primary, which is scheduled to take place three weeks after New Hampshire’s, on Super Tuesday.

Although multiple candidates pass through New Hampshire every week, the presidential action in Massachusetts has been limited to a few fund-raisers and events: Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg made public appearances in the Boston area in April, and former vice president Joe Biden swung through the city on Wednesday.


The series began with a conversation between Gabrieli and Linda Whitlock, who served under three Massachusetts governors and was head of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston. They said they were struggling to figure out who they would back in a sprawling Democratic presidential primary that now includes more than two dozen candidates.

“We thought it would be useful to gather together Massachusetts residents, some of whom we have worked with in years past, and begin to have conversations with the candidates and kick the tires,” said Whitlock. “Our collective perspective is that no one can remain on the sidelines during this election, and just watching the campaign on television, and just talking about it with friends and family members is not enough.”

They later called Alan Solomont, a former US ambassador to Spain who gathered donations for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. The trio of founders established some ground rules and started to create a list.

One candidate who has declined the Conversations 2020 invitation: Senator Elizabeth Warren. Her campaign told the group they believe such an appearance would violate her policy of giving special access to high-dollar donors.

The group has also invited Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, as well made overtures to Republicans who once were thinking about running for president, such as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and former Ohio governor John Kasich, who both announced last weekend they won’t run.


The only person not invited? President Trump. Although this informal group aims to be bipartisan, its members do share a similar goal of defeating the White House’s current occupant.

Among those who regularly attend the gatherings is Cortney Tunis, the executive director of Pantsuit Nation, a grass-roots group and nonprofit that came out of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat.

“I feel really blessed to meet candidates in this way and talk with them directly,” said Tunis, a 36-year-old African-American woman who lives in the Fenway.

Back Bay resident Rebecca Leventhal, a frequent donor, said she found the gatherings unlike others in Massachusetts politics.

“Often politics nationally and in Massachusetts is very transactional,” said Leventhal, 37. “Here there isn’t a specific ask for money, but the ask is to engage and listen.”

And this, according to Solomont, is the atmosphere they were trying to create.

“We wanted it to be like having a living room in New Hampshire and to give a group in Massachusetts — you know a very active group of people who are concerned with our civic life and political life — an opportunity to gather like they do in a New Hampshire living room and meet the candidates and kind of take our own measure,” Solomont said.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: