The annual McIntyre Shaheen Dinner of the New Hampshire Democratic Party is, according to the Boston Globe, generally a relatively calm affair. I’d say it usually draws a couple hundred party bigwigs and donors for a sit-down dinner where accomplishments are shared, mutual gratitude is expressed and, when necessary, plans are made to expunge Republicans from the state’s body politic.
Every four years, however, the event is bigger and noisier as primary fever takes hold. And in those years when the Dems’ presidential nomination is truly up for grabs, the Shaheen Dinner is bedlam. It is held, fittingly, in the (hockey) arena of Southern New Hampshire U, in downtown Manchester, 25 minutes’ walk from my lodgings. It is the only event here I’d needed to purchase a ticket for. I had bought a ticket in advance — $20 general admission — as it was expected to sell out.
I’d returned from the Sanders town hall in time to wash up and change, but still had not eaten anything today. I eyed the field of round tables on the main floor with white tablecloths, floral centerpieces, and waiters scurrying to and fro with laden trays. Also on the main floor, I noted enviously, was a long bar with a squadron of industrious bartenders. Best not to think of it. But the outer hall walkway surrounding the tier of the arena held concession stands, so all was not lost.
The outer hall was jammed too with all manner of tables, booths and exhibits put up by the campaigns of the various candidates. A photo booth for Buttigieg, literature from the teachers’ union, a guy advocating legalization of heroin (sure, why not?), a table of Warren paraphernalia, a life-size upright cardboard photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to stand next to for selfies (yes, she is really short), Sanders supporters handing out light-up red Bernie signs, tables of 20-somethings fighting climate change, fighting sexism, getting out the vote, enlisting counters for the census; all of them yammering, greeting friends, plotting next steps, barking at passers by; it was a souk of social causes. It was glorious.
It was also confusing to one who didn’t know the drill. The long oval hall surrounding the inner seating area had gateways every twenty feet or so, marked with the numbers of the sections they led to. Some of these entry ways seemed to be guarded by professionals, like a man with a CBS logo on his shirt; that entry was next to the door of a suite labeled ‘CBS party.’ Others were more loosely watched over by campaign volunteers. I went down a couple of these gates into the arena and surveyed the seats: all full. Finally I asked an arena guard where the plain old general admission seats were. He said I could (in theory) sit anywhere in this main level, above the arena floor, but in practice the candidates’ staffs always grab territories for their volunteers and supporters. Did I have a candidate? I told him I liked Buttigieg and he looked at a little list he had. I could see the candidates’ names written with numbers next to them. “Looks like he’s got sections 112 to 119.” He told me to watch the numbers over the entryways, and pointed me in the right direction.
Even at that, the first couple of sections I entered were full. I finally found a Pete section with some seats remaining in a couple of rows, and moved in. Everybody was friendly. Almost all of them had on yellow Pete 2020 t-shirts. Where do you get those? At the Pete table outside, couple of sections down. I parked my coat and gloves and notebook, then excused my way back to the aisle to get a t-shirt and some food.
Pete must have been doing well (or the staff had planned poorly), because they were all out of t-shirts. The girl behind the table said they were getting more in and would bring them through the rows for those who hadn’t got one. (This ultimately didn’t happen.) I had more luck at the concession stand: two hot dogs, some french fries, and a large Coke, for $19.75. Better prices than Yankee Stadium, although the hot dogs weren’t as good, and the ketchup tasted funny to me, clearly some brand I didn’t know.
I got back to my seat and ate – with brief interruptions to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and for the national anthem, sung by the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus.
The place was full, and deafening. Different candidates’ sections would chant in competition with each other, or blow horns, or – we in the Pete section – rattle our plastic hand-rattlers.
The stage was a raised square in the center of the main floor, with a walkway leading to it. We in Buttigieg country were pretty lucky as we more or less faced the stage, at an angle; the Bernie camp was behind the stage on one side of the walkway entrance, and the Warren camp behind the stage on the other side.
Every now and then a big roar would go up when one or another candidate would emerge at the top of his or her sections to inspire the faithful. Pete did this, and we yelled. Elizabeth Warren did it too, across the way, and her sections erupted.
The program began with a welcome from Manchester’s mayor – she’s evidently a Democrat – and the party’s chair. Soon after, one of New Hampshire’s senators, Maggie Hassan, came out to big cheers. She said some hellos to celebs in the crowd, including Michael J. Fox. Then the star of the show, the Granite State’s senior senator Jeanne Shaheen came out to Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best” and the whole place went wild. And it was time for the candidates.
Pete Buttigieg actually went first, and gave a good but not great speech. (Each would have ten minutes.) In one of his lines, to the effect that we must not further divide ourselves in our fight with the ‘divider-in-chief,’ he said we cannot go around saying that if you’re not a revolutionary then you are just for the status quo. This drew yells from Bernie land, although I couldn’t tell whether they were yelling in favor of revolution or in opposition to being accused of demanding that dichotomy.
Between speeches I asked the woman next to me, a labor lawyer from Alaska who represents the firefighters union, whether she thought it was good to go first, or last. She thought that was an interesting question, but that was as far as we got. It wasn’t a setting for a lot of conversation.
Amy Klobuchar followed, and got emotional mileage out of her FDR story, which I’d heard before, about the reporter asking a man crying as FDR’s funeral train went by, whether he had known the president. “No,” said the man, “but he knew me.” Klobuchar said Trump has no empathy, and roused the crowd with her peroration, “If you have to choose between nursing care for your aging parents and child care for your kids, I know you … if you have to choose between filling a prescription and buying groceries, I know you” and so on, “and I will fight for you.”
Joe Biden was next. His speech was more rambling, and he brought notes up to the podium, which neither Pete nor Amy had done, although he did not often look at them. He did get the applause of the entire crowd with his finish that “We must defeat Donald Trump.”
Andrew Yang then strode out, tieless as usual, and did some arithmetic, saying (presumably because of the Electoral College) that “each New Hampshirite is worth one thousand Californians.” I trust he was joking; it’s a wild exaggeration. He said we need to change how we view people; our economic view won’t work as “the net [economic] value of a mom raising kids at home is zero; the value of a community volunteer is zero; the value of artists – sorry, artists – is zero.” He even finished with a joke of sorts: “I am the ideal choice because the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.” It’s clear he’s having a great time campaigning.
Tom Steyer followed and blistered the hall with an aggressive address. There is no point just trying to be nicer guys than the Republicans; to defeat Trump “we have to kick his ass on the economy.”
Elizabeth Warren walked on to huge cheers from her camp, which is large. Her entrance song is “9 to 5” of course. She said she’s been “winning unwinnable fights pretty much all my life.” And “This is our moment.” She waved vigorously to all corners of the arena, and busted a couple of (brief) dance moves as she exited – to the song “RESPECT.” She’s very animated — looks like her advisers have told her to show she’s got more stamina than Joe or Bernie.
It’s hard to capture the scene in a photo, since all of it was loud, and so much of it involved movement of signs and lights, but here’s a picture I took while Warren was speaking:
Bernie went next, to rapturous cries from his sections. He brought notes with him, which he checked a couple of times. He showed some dry humor in observing up front that “I detect differences of opinion” in the hall. He asserted that “four years ago it was ‘radical’ to urge a $15 an hour minimum wage” and “radical” to propose free public college tuition, or to say that “healthcare is a human right,” but these are not radical positions any more. He left to “Takin’ It to The Streets.”
Deval Patrick followed. He said that usually in our country, hatred shouts but kindness is only whispered. His imperative was that now is the time to “Shout kindness.”
By the time the next candidate, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, took the stage, many in the crowd were starting to leave. To my ears, Bennet does not have a commanding speaking voice. He had little following in the arena.
The final speaker was Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. I felt a bit sorry for her, and for Bennet, as they need a boost here to continue their candidacies but were speaking to a half-empty hall. She joked that the organizers had ‘saved the best for last.’ She did not seem a vibrant speaker, and I exited during her speech.
The hot dogs seemed rather a distant memory by now, and breaking up the cold walk home was a good idea, so I stopped at the Red Arrow for dessert: apple pie (warmed, but no ice cream) and coffee. I had my big Pete 2020 sign with me and leaned it against the back wall in hopes no one would step on it. I sat next to three guys visiting from Italy (Manchester is very cosmopolitan this week) and talked with the one next to me. His name is Gaetano diTomasso, and he is a history and politics student. He’s going to a Biden town hall tomorrow that’s on my schedule too, so I might see him there. I described the wild gala I’d seen tonight.
And I remembered what Jeanne Shaheen had said this evening about New Hampshire’s event: “This is how we do democracy.”