Everybody lining the street outside Saint Anselm College last Friday was cold, but nobody was as cold, as cold for as long, or as visibly cold but as stoic about it, as a seventy-something New Hampshire resident named Brian Beihl. He and a merry band of colleagues from Open Democracy, a Concord-based campaign-finance reform group, had just arrived on foot from Veteran’s Park in downtown Manchester, three miles away.
After spending two hours waving homemade protest signs and calling for an end to big money in politics outside the Democratic debate, the entourage turned and walked back three miles back to their starting point, a second trek through the freezing night.
Mostly in their 60s and 70s, members of the group weren’t practicing a kind of activist “polar bearing” to get the blood flowing and feel alive. They were honoring their founder and former leader, Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who two decades ago fused the act of walking with the cause of clean government in an epic crusade that is now part of the state’s modern political lore.
“Every year we do longer walks that we call ‘Rebellion Walks,’” Beihl said. “We try to echo what Granny Haddock did and show determination that we can get this fixed. Because every issue you can think of—climate, health care, education—is not gonna happen until we get big money out of politics.”
His breath like smoke in the night, Beihl detailed the group’s work on campaign finance and adjacent issues.
“We work mostly in New Hampshire to fight money in politics and end gerrymandering,” he said, competing with the noise of a group of nearby Klobuchar supporters. “This includes everything from lobbying reform, transparency, closing the LLC loophole, and exposing dark money.”
Beihl added that Big Tech and Big Marijuana have emerged as new industries whose lobbying machines are distorting politics. (He clarified that the green spent to promote the other green was still mostly an issue in the Colorado state house.)
Granny D, who founded Open Democracy in 2009 at the ripe age of 99, one year before her death, was something of a late bloomer when she decided to “get this fixed.” Born in Laconia, New Hampshire, in 1910, she attended Emerson College in Boston before starting a long career at Manchester’s BeeBee Shoe Factory. She retired in Dublin, New Hampshire, with her husband just in time for the 1972 primary. Aside from joining protests in the 1950s against H-bomb tests in Alaska that would have destroyed Innuit villages, she didn’t get too involved in national causes or protest politics. Then, in the mid-1990s, she took notice of John McCain and Russ Feingold as the US senators began working on a bipartisan bill to restrict the influence of money and lobbying in politics.
In 1999, at the age of 88, Granny D decided to bring attention to McCain-Feingold by walking east from California. She averaged 10 miles a day for the next two years, arriving in DC to a huge welcoming crowd on the National Mall at the age 90. Over the next decade, she enjoyed a busy final act: She placed a strong showing in the 2004 US Senate race (220,000 votes) and was the subject of a 2007 HBO documentary, Run Granny Run. In 2009, she founded Democracy Coalition, and was seen lobbying in the state house on her centennial birthday, weeks before her death. Senators and editors publicly mourned her death.
In events related to the 2020 primary, the name of Granny D can be heard, here and there, in the speeches of candidates seeking to claim her spirit of reform, and connect with voters in a state where she is legend. At a rally held at Londonderry Middle School, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that being in the “home state of Granny D” inspired him to win and overturn Citizens United. Beihl would not offer his personal thoughts on Buttigieg or his preferred presidential candidate, but he did offer something else as a consolation.
“Would you like to hear a song by the Campaign Finance Corruption Chorus?”
Who could say no? Beihl and his chorus lined up, then briefly debated whether to debut a new song or play something from their songbook. They eventually settled on “Bought and Sold,” sung to the tune of “Silver Bells (Christmastime in the City).” It began like this:
Special Interest, Super PAC cash, buying all the airwaves
On the air there’s a gob of big money,
Interests laughing, bills are passing,
Making CEO’s smile,
On the K Street corners you’ll hear
Bought and Sold, Bought and Sold,
It’s Influence time in the country.
Ding a ling, ching ching ching,
Soon it will be election day….
Several people came over to listen, curious and amused. Among them was a reporter with the state NPR affiliate, who recorded the song with her big furry boom mic. If the clip was included in the station’s coverage of the scene outside the Democratic debate, then somewhere inside the off-key singing that went out over all of New Hampshire in the cold night, one week after what would have been her 110th birthday, was the determined little voice, still walking, of Granny D.
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Manchester Divided coverage of political activity around New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Follow our coverage @BINJreports on Twitter and at binjonline.org/manchesterdivided, and if you want to see more citizens agenda-driven reporting you can contribute at givetobinj.org.