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Blue Collar Roots A Focus Of Both Democrats Vying To Be N.H.'s Next Governor

As they introduce themselves to voters, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Molly Kelly and Steve Marchand are both playing up their modest origins.

The particulars - Kelly was a single mom, Marchand is the son of immigrants who never graduated from high school - are a clear contrast to Governor Sununu. But this focus also makes them something rare in recent state politics. 

Attend a Molly Kelly campaign event and this bit of personal history comes up often. “As a single mother I raised three children while working on my education at Keene State College. I worked three jobs, I managed family housing dorms. I waitressed once a week at Papa Gino’s.”

And catch Steve Marchand in front of voters and it won’t be long before he drops this bit of bio: “Born and raised in Manchester, first generation American, folks came down from Quebec in the 1960s. Mom, 11th grade education, gets a GED, starts an electrology business in the basement of the house. Dad, 8th grade education, becomes a carpenter at age 14.”

Both candidates went on to better things.

After college, Molly Kelly went on to law school. She never passed the bar but says her law degree helped her move from jobs in education and health care, to work as a financial planner, and ultimately to the state Senate.

“That law degree has opened up all the doors that I needed and my family, like 10 years in the state Senate, like running for governor. It is a real foundation I have about the law, and the premise of New Hampshire, and the laws we have here.”

Steve Marchand also says his education - undergraduate and Master’s degrees from Syracuse University - set him on his way.

Marchand worked in government consulting for Andersen and Maximus before going out on his own. He also directed corporate relations at UNH.

He says that background, as much as his time as Portsmouth mayor, has shaped his approach to politics.

“People want a state that’s going to be an amazing place to start and raise your family, and to start and grow your business, and to do it in a way that has progressive values and but that has an auditor’s sensibility about how to do them with the optimism that can only happen if you are the son of an immigrant.”

Marchand and Kelly’s stress on their hardscrabble roots isn’t typical in New Hampshire. But in this political moment, when Donald Trump occupies the White House and the corner office is held by Chris Sununu, son of a former governor and brother of a former U.S. senator, the contrast may be good politics.

“When you can reach down and say to folks, I know, I see, you are struggling I’ve been there, my family is there, It gives you an opportunity to bond with folks," says Jackie Cilley, who ran for governor in 2012.

Cilley lost the Democratic primary to Maggie Hassan that year. But throughout that race, Cilley, who was then a state senator out of Barrington, stressed her tough childhood in Berlin.

She was born there to parents who never finished the 8th grade and worked her way up to teaching management classes at UNH.

Cilley says her background drove her into politics. But she says if candidates are going to put their struggles at the core of their pitch, they should expect voters to want to see how it translates into policy.

“Pell Grants, housing assistance, food assistance – I told you what did it for me. Those things, you damn right I’m going to continue to champion that kind of hand up,” Cilley said.

Marchand and Kelly have about two months to spell all that out. In the meantime, primary voters can expect more details like these.

From Marchand: “You know, as somebody whose family filed bankruptcy because we had a healthcare crisis and did not have insurance when I was a kid. I know what that feels like.”

And from Kelly: “I cleaned the laundry rooms in those apartment complexes. And I had a rural paper route. It wasn’t easy.”

Which probably makes even the hardest day on the campaign trail feel like a snap.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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