While much of the country is embroiled in a political discussion on policing, race, and the urban ill of poverty, it’s hard to find any of those issues in New Hampshire.
But as the host of the nation’s first presidential primary, voters will probably query the contenders on them anyway — in their own fashion.
In the last 12 months, black unarmed men have died at the hands of police officers in Staten Island, Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, North Charleston, S.C., and Baltimore. The deaths served as flashpoints to a building fury and frustration that sparked nationwide protests that, at times, roiled into nights of riots.
But New Hampshire holds just a sliver of the American population — and the politically pivotal state has been criticized for being unrepresentative of an increasingly diverse country. Residents are overwhelming white, most have high school diplomas, and many hold college degrees. Most residents own their homes and earn more than the national average. Crime is low, and police abuse has rarely been a local issue.
“The differences on the ground are very different. However, the populace here is very knowledgeable about issues,” said Rogers Johnson, treasurer of the Seacoast branch of the NAACP. “You can walk into a room with 30 people in rural New Hampshire, and you will get a question like that. People study these issues and are much more knowledgeable than people give them credit for.”
Rex Lint, 71, sat in the basement of a Milford church Wednesday night, listening to former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, who stood before a crowd of about 50 mostly white and graying Democratic activists.
But Lint didn’t hear Chafee talk about his issue of concern, so the retired engineer and consultant asked afterward if “more needs to be done” with “all the cultural difficulties we’re having with police departments?”
Chafee recalled the riots in Watts in 1965 and following the acquittal of police officers who beat Los Angeles motorist Rodney King in 1992, suggesting the issue is not new. “We have to address it,” he said, before making a general call for good schools and greater opportunity.
Lint, who adopted his daughters from Ethiopia, said he was disappointed with Chafee’s response, suggesting the focus on education was too anodyne.
“I was hoping to hear echoes from him about, ‘This is really out of hand, we’ve got to do something about it right now,’ ” Lint said. “Not so much.”
Presidential candidates — declared and considering, Republicans and Democrats alike — have brought up the issue while on the stump in other parts of the country.
Former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, and policing at Columbia University last month. Martin O’Malley, former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, returned to his hometown after the violence. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has been vocal about lifting people out of poverty and reducing income inequality, and US Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky has been pushing for criminal justice reform.
In New Hampshire, party leaders said these are issues that can’t – and won’t – be ignored by voters when presidential candidates chat them up in coffee shops, bookstores, and town halls. They said state voters will probably just ask about them through a local filter.
“It’s just a big part of the news, people talk about it and so much so because you had back-to-back-to-back issues,” said Kathy Sullivan, the New Hampshire Democratic National Committee member. “To not understand what’s going on is to not be part of the conversation.”
For example, Sullivan said she fully expects to hear questions about criminal justice reform to specifically touch on jailing people whose crimes are addiction-related. New Hampshire is in the midst of an opioid “epidemic,” Governor Maggie Hassan said.
Sullivan also expects to hear those in her party, and Libertarians, bring up the militarization of local law enforcement agencies — a question raised nationally after heavily armed police officers in riot gear and using armored vehicles responded to initial protests in Ferguson, which were peaceful, using tear gas and rubber bullets. It was a question raised locally when Concord, N.H., purchased an armored vehicle for the regional special operations unit in a relatively low-crime area.
Republican National Committee member Steve Duprey said Republican candidates and activists have been discussing the so-called “opportunity gap,” which exists when citizens feel cut off from access to the so-called American dream.
“When you hear these politicians in both parties talk about what happened in Baltimore and why we haven’t made success and what we need to do to make progress, they are really talking about the opportunity gap,” he said. “I’ve got friends who construct houses and bankers and lawyers and they all feel the American dream is slipping away.”
And, he said, they want to hear presidential candidates — declared and pondering — talk about the economy, jobs, and the debt — issues pertinent to any part of the country.
Mark Vincent, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Committee, said there are some things that may not get discussed, such as measures to overhaul what he called local policing issues — use of special prosecutors to investigate police use-of-force cases, police hiring practices, and body cameras.
Presidential candidates should focus on threats to national security and not make it a priority to try and “micromanage the local police department,” he said.
New Hampshire is not alone in receiving criticism for its not-so-diverse demographics.
The two other early states on the presidential nomination calendar have caught flak for similar reasons: Iowa and, to a lesser degree, South Carolina. All three have been targeted by politicians from other states who argue the trio doesn’t deserve its early status.
And while some of these recent urban conflicts might not personally affect Granite Staters, Johnson said, how presidential candidates handle questions about them can be indicative.
And thanks to the national media trailing the candidates at each stop, their response to a question during a town hall in Milford could affect a voter’s decision in Miami.
“Outside of Charleston or Columbia, where are you going to find this issue to be most present?” Johnson asked. “Who are you really talking to? The local audience in South Carolina or New Hampshire, or the audience in major cities who want you to develop a policy?”