Why All Candidates Embrace The Shipyard, But The Shipyard Doesn't Embrace All The Candidates

Oct 13, 2014

Kevin Gross, a pipefitter at the Shipyard, says he trusts his union to endorse candidates with his interests in mind.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

There’s a painted blue line surrounding the entrance to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Over that blue line, political campaigning is not allowed, but just a few inches on this side of it – politics are in motion.

Over the last few months, Shipyard unions have endorsed at least five candidates, most of them Democrats. 

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is a major economic engine on both sides of the Piscataqua, so it gets a lot of attention from politicians.  On top of that, 6,000 people work on the yard each day, placing their votes in both Maine and New Hampshire.  Courting the shipyard vote just makes sense.


Not A Monolith

At Town Pizza in Kittery, a group of 8 Shipyard workers share pizza pies and place bets on NASCAR drivers – a weekly ritual. A few from this crew say they vote Republican every time.  But union pipefitter and Shipyard contractor Kevin Gross estimates about 80 percent of Shipyard workers vote Democratic. In large part, that’s because of consistent Democratic endorsements from the yard’s four labor unions.

“I think they be lookin’ out for our best interests, to be honest,” Gross says.

The Upper Hand

While Democrats may have an advantage at the Shipyard via unions, there’s another group with a leg up come election time: incumbents like Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Carol Shea-Porter, and Maine Congressman Mike Michaud.

These three accompanied Vice President Joe Biden to the yard in September, where they addressed a large crowd of Shipyard workers. They have more access to the Shipyard than a civilian candidate would, because of their current seats in Washington.

Vice President Joe Biden visited the shipyard in September
Credit NHPR / Emily Corwin

Republican strategist Jamie Burnett says while campaigning is not allowed on the shipyard, the line can be hard to draw. “I think there are official events that can seem and look very political,” he says, “but I suppose you chalk that up to trappings of incumbency.”

Shaheen’s opponent Scott Brown was actually born at a hospital on Shipyard grounds, but wouldn’t qualify even for the full tour, let alone a speaking opportunity here.

Nobody’s Against The Shipyard

Of course, it’s not just the folks on the shipyard candidates are trying to woo.  Not only is the shipyard a cultural icon on the Seacoast -- it pumps an estimated $666 million dollars into the local economy each year.

Because of that, says Republican Strategist Jamie Burnett, politicians “all endorse the Shipyard, but they may not all get the endorsement of the shipyard.”

Burnett learned this when observing former GOP Congressman Jeb Bradley’s 2006 reelection campaign.  The previous year, New Hampshire’s entirely Republican delegation worked hard to keep the shipyard from closing during the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure process.

“And I remember when the 2006 election rolled around,” says Burnett, “the labor unions endorsed Carol Shea-Porter and I didn’t understand that at all.”

Union president Paul O’Connor says endorsements are about more than who has gone to bat for the Shipyard.  They have a lot to do with candidates’ views on labor policy.

Workers Support GOP Senator Susan Collins

However, it is not impossible for a Republican to gain support from at least some of the yard’s unions. In August, Maine GOP Senator Susan Collins won the backing of three shipyard Unions. 

Standing on that same blue line just outside the Shipyard gate, Collins said she was “touched,” and “pleased” to receive the endorsement so rarely bestowed upon a Republican. 

Not present, however, was Paul O’Connor and the Shipyard’s largest union, the Metal Trades Council. That endorsement – went to the Democrat. 

CORRECTION: the original broadcast  of this story stated Jamie Burnett had worked for Republican Senator Jeb Bradley. In fact, he worked for Republican Senator John Sununu.