Carol Shea-Porter tells an anecdote about an elevator ride with Republican colleagues after one of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses.
She stepped into the car and attempted small talk.
“I saw you all sitting on your hands,” she quipped, meaning the Republicans had not clapped during the speech. “What’s up with that?”
The joke didn’t go over all that well with one man. He snapped, “Because your president’s a liar.”
Everyone fell silent until he exited. Then she and one Republican colleague started over. He put out his hand and introduced himself. She did likewise.
“You know, we really don’t know each other,” he said.
She agreed. Members of Congress may work together but really don’t know each other personally.
“That’s President Obama’s fault,” he said. “He should have had us to the White House.”
Perhaps so, Shea-Porter replied. But maybe John Boehner, then House Majority Leader, shared some blame for not doing more to encourage camaraderie.
But ultimately, they concluded it was up to them, the individual members, to break down fences, she said.
“Nobody ever said we couldn’t talk,” she said and added Congress owes it to the American people to work together to do the people’s work.
“There are many good people on both sides of the aisle,” she said. Nonetheless, “Congress is split, and so are the American people.”
Perhaps no better illustration of that split among U.S. voters can be found than in the closely watched 1st District, which has since 2010 veered back and forth between Democrat Shea-Porter and Republican Frank Guinta.
Shea-Porter beat Jeb Bradley to win the seat in 2006 on her first bid for political office.
Then Guinta defeated her in 2010. Fast forward to 2012 when she came back and beat him. Then, in their 2014 rematch, he prevailed.
If they face off again – and both would have to win their primaries to make that happen – it would be historic.
She’s running again, she said in a telephone interview this week, for the same reason that motivated her in 2006 — because the American Dream is out of reach for too many people.
The middle class and the poor still lack access to opportunity, she said. College should be affordable, and the elderly should be able to retire with dignity.
Shea-Porter, who grew up in a big three generation family, said she has seen the issues the elderly face at home.
Her grandmother and her father’s uncle lived with them, and so did various cousins, aunts, and uncles.
“My mother set the table for 20 every night,” she remembers. “It was fun.”
Sure, the economy is better now, she allowed, than when the country teetered on the brink of economic depression. “The Democrats were able to pull it out,” she said, but “the work is incomplete.”
As of today, the U.S. has experienced 57 or 58 months of private sector job growth, she said, but added “we still have problems,” such as flat wages. She voted in 2007 to raise the minimum wage, in three stages, but Americans’ pay has still not kept pace.
“What American workers are looking for,” she said, “is a piece of the American Dream. They’re not asking for an incredible paycheck. They want a reasonable wage so they can pay a mortgage or their rent, feed their children, keep a car or two in the driveway, save for retirement and have a “little left over” to take the family out for a movie and pizza on Friday night.
“We’ve been there before,” she said, meaning that’s how she remembers life when she was growing up in New Hampshire. “We need to bring that back again. That’s what really drives me.”
Shea-Porter decided to go into politics after a volunteer stint helping victims of Hurricane Katrina. Since she started, she has refused to accept money from corporate and business political action committees. She continues to stand up for campaign finance reform, she added.
“I volunteered for a month after Katrina,” she said. The federal government had a miserable response. That’s what started me.”
Being in Congress means “being able to change people’s lives through effective legislation,” she said.
During her time on the Hill, she obtained funds to replace Portsmouth’s World War I Memorial Bridge and to aid local institutions, such as the Manchester Veterans Administration, and the University of New Hampshire. Federal dollars paid for UNH programs related to autism and to the environment, she said.
Turning to policy, Shea-Porter explains she worked for the new GI Bill of Rights, helping combat veterans continue their education. As a former military spouse, she is committed to veterans’ issues and served on the House Armed Services Committee, which she called the most bi-partisan in Congress.
Every fiscal year that committee passed the National Defense Authorization Act. Shea-Porter included a “lot of legislation in that bill,” and she said her Republican colleagues did also. “I voted for theirs, too.”
On the Armed Services Committee, she helped overturn the “Don’t ask; don’t tell” policy to protect homosexual service members from losing their careers.
And on the Education & Labor Committee she helped increase Pell grants for college bound students and changed the rules so students can apply directly to the government. That “took out the middle man,” she said, meaning the banks no longer take a cut and students can apply directly to the government.
She also voted with Democrats to save the auto industry.
But Shea-Porter is glad she opposed the Troubled Asset Relief Program. It was a tough vote with so much at stake, she said, but she read the bill carefully and concluded that measure “was too tilted toward the banks.”
Also, although health care reform “still has its problems,” more New Hampshire residents have coverage now, she said. Medicaid expansion has helped people who didn’t qualify because they didn’t have children, and Obamacare money has been used here for mental health treatment and drug abuse treatment, including opioids.
Shea-Porter also started the Asthma and Allergy Caucus on Capitol Hill and became a charter member of the Make it in America group.
“I spent six years” in Washington, she said. “There are a lot of things you do.”
She may be a familiar face in New Hampshire, but people may not know she likes to write children’s stories.
She’s never published them; she wrote them for her own children.