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In N.H., a Parallel Opportunity 


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Source: Washington Post (DC)
Author: Jonathan Finer, Washington Post Staff Writer
Published: Wednesday, December 31, 2003; Page A03 
Copyright: 2003 Washington Post 
Contact: [email protected]

Interest Groups Press Issues With Campaigning Presidential Candidates 

Keene, N.H. -- At a retirement home here on a recent Monday morning, a young man asked presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) about federal drug raids on people smoking marijuana for medical purposes. 

Two hours later and 80 miles away on the campaign trail, another concerned citizen waited patiently to ask former Vermont governor Howard Dean that same question at a town meeting in Exeter. 

That evening in Concord, the state capital, 10 protesters picketed the local Comcast cable television office because the company refused their ads outlining each presidential candidate's position on marijuana issues. 

An uninitiated observer could be forgiven for thinking a full-blown marijuana movement had sprung up in famously conservative New Hampshire. And that, said activist Aaron Houston of the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, was the point. "Everyone is paying attention now, and it gives us the opportunity to get our message out," he said. 

As the Jan. 27 presidential primary here nears, Houston's crew has plenty of company along New Hampshire's other campaign trail. Capitalizing on media attention -- and the unrivaled access to candidates the political culture here affords -- interest groups are waging a parallel drive to push their issues to the top of the national political agenda. 

Employing the same grass-roots tactics used by presidential campaigns in this state -- and in Iowa, where Democrats caucus one week earlier -- they distribute pamphlets door to door, advertise on television and turn up at events to make sure that whenever and wherever the presidential hopefuls appear, certain issues are discussed. 

"The vast majority of people who show up are regular voters who want to hear what [the candidates] have to say," said Jennifer Donahue, a political analyst at Saint Anselm College's New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "But there is a vocal, and very organized, subset, who are there to push an agenda. This has exploded in the last two election cycles." 

"You know you're going to get asked about some things over and over again," said Colin Van Ostern, Edwards's New Hampshire press secretary. "You just get used to it." 

During the 2000 campaign, a man in a rabbit costume soaked with fake blood followed Vice President Al Gore around the state to protest scientific testing on animals for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Gore also generated national headlines when, in response to a question from a Medical Marijuana Project volunteer, he seemed to endorse pot smoking by terminally ill patients, a break with Clinton administration policy. 

This year, interest groups with paid staff in this state are more sophisticated and involved then ever, veteran observers said. Most are locally run branches of national organizations. 

Perhaps most prominent are the ubiquitous, purple-T-shirt-clad activists of New Hampshire for Health Care (and its affiliated organization, Iowa for Health Care). Funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which claims 750,000 health care workers among its members, the group has placed signs in the Manchester Airport that greet every arriving candidate with "Running for President? You better make health care a priority." 

New Hampshire for Health Care, which wants its issue to be preeminent in the primary campaign, says it has signed up close to 50,000 supporters here and a team of 1,000 volunteers in their purple T-shirts. They have succeeded in passing a resolution at 121 New Hampshire town meetings calling on elected officials to offer solutions to help solve what they term a national "health care crisis." 

With seven paid staff workers here -- and an equal number in Iowa -- the group is as large and well organized as many presidential campaigns and is preparing a get-out-the-vote strategy to ensure supporters show up at the polls. 

Though the SEIU endorsed Dean, a physician, the New Hampshire group will not make an endorsement. "We want people to have the information they need to make an informed choice," said Matt Burgess, a spokesman for New Hampshire for Health Care. 

Then there is the New Hampshire chapter of the Sierra Club, which favors decreasing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. And the American Friends Service Committee's Granite State chapter advocates for peace, fair trade and affordable housing. 

The Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, which opposes the proliferation of atomic weapons, has two paid staffers in the state and aired television ads this fall. Every Child Matters, which promotes preschool health and social programs, held candidate forums at the University of New Hampshire in October and November, featuring several Democratic contenders. 

Not to be outdone, PETA deployed a man in a carrot suit, who it said is running for president on a platform of vegetarianism. 

"It's no secret why we pick New Hampshire and Iowa for these things. You really get a face-to-face conversation with candidates that people around the country don't get," said Catherine Corkery of the Sierra Club's New Hampshire chapter, who sends out weekly updates of the candidates' schedules to 5,000 members statewide and has helped train volunteers. 

Last week, as Edwards signed his book, "Four Trials," at a Borders bookstore in Concord, a young woman wearing a Sierra Club sticker waited quietly in line, clutching her copy. An Edwards aide told her there would be no time for questions. Undeterred, Elise Annunziata asked Edwards about fuel economy standards. "I appreciate what you guys are doing here," he told her, after a vague answer. 

Annunziata then hustled to her car to catch a Dean speech at a high school in nearby Pembroke. Standing in the back of the crammed auditorium, she waved a sign that said "Americans for Clean Energy" and cheered and whistled when Dean said he believes sport-utility vehicles and light trucks should be more energy efficient. "Him saying that on the record was a big step," she said. 

But some observers in these early primary states that have come symbolize the accessibility of politics say the heavy involvement of interest groups can lead to distorted notions of what is important to voters. 

"They tend to represent the more extreme wings of the parties, which creates a misleading sense of what people up here care about," said Donahue of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "It can also manipulate press coverage." 

The activists say they are simply exercising their right to be heard and are serving a valuable purpose. "These are issues we care about passionately, and we are trying to elevate their visibility through the campaign," said Martha Yager of the American Friends Service Committee. 

Over the summer, Yager's group offered weeklong training sessions for volunteers in the art of effectively bringing their issue to the candidates' attention during campaign events -- or what she calls "bird-dogging." 

Meanwhile, Houston of the Marijuana Policy Project has compiled grades for each candidate's views on marijuana issues on his group's Web site. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) gets an A-plus; President Bush, an F. 

One of Houston's charges, Linda Macia, sneaked into the filming of a half-hour infomercial for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) that aired in New Hampshire this month. 

In response to her question about medical marijuana, Lieberman told her: "You know what? I'm glad you're here, 'cause you've asked me that three or four times, and I told you I was going to look at the evidence and give you an answer." He said he could accept doctor-prescribed marijuana use by patients who do not get relief from traditional painkillers. 

"He's getting there," said Houston, the group's only paid employee in the state. "There's still a month to go." 

Related Articles & Web Sites:

Marijuana Policy Project

Marijuana Group Targets Vt. Legislators

Presidential Candidates Pressed on Marijuana Issue

Democrats on Weed

Democratic Candidate Backs Medical Marijuana 

Democrat Kucinich Endorses Medical Pot Use


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