Informed Analysis: Littleton shows a path for communities wrestling with political division

By Jordan Applewhite

April 16, 2024

Following a contentious anti-LGBTQ crusade from Republican State Senator and Littleton Select Board member Carrie Gendreau, voters delivered a blow out victory for North Country Pride co-chair Kerri Harrington at town elections TKTK. Gendreau attracted a whirlwind of outrage last year after making disparaging remarks about a rainbow mural promoting social inclusion.

Rather than apologize or walk back her comments, she used every opportunity to double down, at one point referring to her LGBTQ constituents as “abominations”. Months of turmoil followed with no attempt by the Select Board to resolve the controversy, culminating with the town manager resigning in protest.

To characterize this election for the seat formerly held by Gendreau as simply a referendum on her divisiveness, however, obscures deeper lessons that could benefit Democratic organizers in rural districts all over the state.

Rather than focusing her campaign on Gendreau’s chaotic leadership, Harrington ran on a no-nonsense platform of local solutions to pressing local issues, building coalitions around everything from fixing the sidewalks to housing members of a local homeless encampment. She showed care and attention to everyone she spoke with, especially to those wary of her affiliation with the LGBTQ community.

Political campaigns aren’t rocket science, but winning a difficult district is a grind. Harrington’s campaign featured a level of direct voter contact typically found in more active, better resourced state legislature campaigns. With only 6 weeks from filing until town elections, every day required progress.

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The candidate educated herself on the local issues through one-on-one meetings with leaders in town government, activists, and business owners all over the political spectrum. She made over 500 calls to voters, and just as many texts and DMs. She organized letters to local papers from influential supporters, and sent a GOTV mailer. She was the only candidate with an active presence on social media, which she used to deliver her message directly to voters.

So what can rural candidates and organizers learn from this? Winning rural campaigns requires actual campaigning. It’s not enough to put up a few lawn signs and stand around Main Street hoping for chance encounters with persuadable voters. It requires strong candidates, those with a proven record of community involvement, and a personality that thrives on interpersonal contact.

Strong candidates don’t think they’re better than the voters they need to win over. When Gendreau attributed her anti-gay and anti-trans agenda to her religious beliefs, some organizers and democratic activists pushed back not just on the hate but on religious institutions themselves.

This is a mistake. Anyone who’s ever volunteered at a local pantry or community dinner knows that religious convictions drive many good hearted people to serve their communities. Harrington respected faith communities by working with them to spread a message of inclusiveness. As a result, she garnered support even from some self-identified evangelicals. Faith communities can be among the strongest social institutions in rural districts. They can’t be ignored, or worse, derided.

That lesson extends to all types of voters holding views you might disagree with. In difficult districts you can’t afford to write anyone off. In easy districts, refusing to engage open-heartedly with oppositional voters makes for weaker candidates. The work of rural organizing is not simply winning, but healing political divisions.

Gendreau’s political future is uncertain. She is still the North Country’s State Senator and has not given any indication whether she plans to run for reelection. Sources indicate a desire from some NH Republicans to mount a primary challenge against her. Finance reports demonstrate little in the way of the fundraising Gendreau needs if she plans to win in November.

With the pathway to institutional support for her senate campaign narrowing, why did Gendreau choose not to run for reelection to the select board? Was it a desire to not do more damage to a place that she loves? If so, the decision is commendable. Sometimes the best thing a leader can do is step aside and make space for a fresh approach.

Author

  • Jordan Applewhite

    Jordan Applewhite is a community organizer focused on the North Country of New Hampshire. They co-founded a dive bar in Littleton called Slim Pickin's which serves a growing population of people who like to stay out past 9 on weekends.

CATEGORIES: POLITICS | RURAL

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