Years of Tales from the Campaign Trail

SEIU for Obama NH State Employees' Association Manchester president

Robin Williamson McBrearty poses for a photo in front of Air Force One at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport earlier this year. The Chapter 1 member, who volunteered extensively for his campaign and others, was there to greet President Obama, and even got a hug from the president.

Robin Williamson McBrearty has volunteered for a lot of political campaigns. Her first experience came when she was just 11.

“My dad was running for state senator and lost. I licked stamps and that sort of stuff,” said McBrearty, a Chapter 1 member who is retired from the Department of Health & Human Services, Division of Public Health Services.

Since then, she’s worked on gubernatorial, congressional and presidential campaigns, and even got a hug from President Obama. Such is the life of longtime political volunteers in this battleground state.

After those early political experiences, McBrearty didn’t get back into campaigning until the late 1970s, when she volunteered on Hugh Gallen’s first campaign for governor. McBrearty said she encountered a lot of conservative Democrats while working in the Manchester office, and was discouraged by the negative response she received from many. But politics have a way of surprising you.

“We went to this big party at the Sheraton Wayfarer and I was absolutely shocked that he won, because we’d been getting such bad feedback working in Manchester making phone calls,” she said.

The celebration ran late that night, and that caught up to her the next day.

“It’s very funny, because I had a personnel desk audit in Berlin, and I had to drive this guy all the way up to Berlin,” she said. “I was probably working on two hours sleep and a lot of excess hype.”

This year, she was one of many volunteers putting in regular hours making phone calls to voters.

“Canvassing is difficult for me, so I phone-banked for Annie Kuster, and I phone-banked at the Obama for America headquarters,” she said, adding she also phone-banked from the SEA’s offices.

All that work led to a unique opportunity, thanks to the Obama campaign. When Obama visited Manchester a few weeks before the election, his campaign offered to allow some top volunteers to meet his plane on the tarmac at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. As it happens, she was chosen to be there.

“We got to see Air Force One coming in, which in and of itself was a total thrill,” she said. “We were along the front of the fence so after he greeted all the dignitaries, he went along and shook everybody’s hands. Diane Schuett and I had on our SEIU T-shirts, and he was like ‘SEIU, you guys are so great, I love you guys’ and gave us a big hug.”

“I have not yet washed that shirt,” she said.

McBrearty said she’s even heading down to Washington in January for Obama’s second inauguration.

Through campaign work and volunteering at the Capitol Center for the Arts, McBrearty was able to attend debates for both parties leading up to the 2008 primary, something she counts among her favorite moments in campaigning.

She smiled when recounting an experience while working on Paul Hodes’ campaign in 2008. She was speaking with a doubtful woman on the phone as Hodes sat nearby.

“I said, ‘what if you could talk to the candidate?’ She said, ‘I’d like that very much.’ So I said, ‘Congressman Hodes, this lady would like to talk to you,’ ” she said. “So he picked up the phone and talked to her for 20 minutes, hung up and said ‘got her.’ ”

Mixed in with all the good, there are some sad memories. McBrearty said one moment really sticks out in her mind, from Gallen’s unsuccessful third campaign for governor.

“I remember the week for the election, going down to Shaw’s and he was just standing there greeting people all by himself … no hoopla, no buttons or signs or anything like that,” she said. I don’t know if at the time he was sick or not, because it was not very long after that that he was found to have some sort of terminal illness. It was very lonely and very sad.”

In her years working on campaigns, McBrearty said the biggest change she’s seen is the impact that polling has on daily activities.

“It’s like they shift midstream, like ‘we’re going to this today,’ ” she said. “Whereas when I was first starting out, it was ‘just go down the list.’ ”

Some things, she said, haven’t really changed, though.

“I don’t think anybody does any better than they did 30 or 40 years ago at crafting messages for phone calls,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘do you really expect me to read this?’ I hate when somebody calls me and they’re reading a message. Can’t you just talk to me?”

McBrearty said, when it comes to politics, being a Granite Stater is special.

“There are advantages to living in New Hampshire,” she said. “These are opportunities you’d never have anywhere else.”

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