This week on The Trip podcast: Stonyfield Farms Chairman Gary Hirshberg talks sustainability, politics, and the role of money in the US elections.
It’s the 61st Annual McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner at the big Southern New Hampshire University arena in downtown Manchester. The state party is using its quadrennial flicker in the spotlight, and all the candidates who are here like moths to the flame, to pack an arena and raise a boatload of money—bleacher seats cost $25-50 and the tickets for the white linen rubber chicken banquet tables on the arena floor, where they’ve put me, must have cost much more.
They’re not serving wine at the tables, so I sneak off to ferry a camera lens or two for the photographer Shane Carpenter, who has been covering the New Hampshire primaries with me since 2004. As usual, the photographers are having more fun, camped out in a sort of media moat surrounding the raised stage. And there the candidates are, giving short stump speeches for the very thirsty crowd. We’re so close to them that Bernie’s wild eyebrows are almost reach out and tickle us. So close we can see the dust falling off of Biden’s anecdotes. Amy Klobuchar mouths “Thank you” at Shane when she’s done, as if she can tell he’s from South Dakota, a fellow northerner.
The last time Shane and I were in this arena, it was a very different night. It was Trump’s final rally before the GOP primary back in 2016. We roamed the floor as incognito as possible, but the media who didn’t have that luxury were penned in far from the stage and constantly heckled by the public and by Trump, who also distinguished himself by calling someone a “pussy” from the stage. It was blood-in-the-nostril madness that night, a very ill night, electric and angry, and just the memory of it brings me to the question on everyone’s mind at this dinner: who on this stage can beat Trump? An outraged liberal, or a conciliator, a centrist? This episode’s guest, Gary Hirshberg, chose his answer long ago. He was for Mayor Pete, which isn’t really the point of our interview, but it does vibe with his biography. As Chief Organic Optimist at Stonyfield Organic, he turned organic yogurt, of all things, into a megabusiness, long before that seemed possible, and in the process became a legend in the organic food movement and a progressive power broker in New Hampshire. We spoke a couple days before the primary over an early-morning spread of probiotic shooters and Finnish-style oatgurt and other hits for the progressive palate.
The joke all my life has been we don’t vote for anyone whose hand we haven’t shaken twice.
Nathan Thornburgh: I’m getting close on 20 years of coming back here for this particular primary. It’s something you grew up with. With the rate of change everywhere, New Hampshire may not be the first in the nation forever. What’s important about having it here? What don’t the haters understand about the New Hampshire primary?
Gary Hirshberg: I am a big believer in the retail aspect of what happens here. You cannot buy this election in New Hampshire with media. First of all, there’s no media outlet worth buying. Also, we have a long tradition of expecting to be able to meet and talk to candidates. The joke all my life has been we don’t vote for anyone whose hand we haven’t shaken twice. That does not have to be New Hampshire, to be fair, but it probably needs to be a state about the size of New Hampshire, because realistically, for this kind of living room, Grange Hall, meet at the coffee shop thing, it would be pretty hard to do it in New York or California, or large states. Most people here have met or heard from or seen at least a dozen candidates. I have a friend down the road here who’s literally hosted 12 candidates at her house.
Thornburgh: This cycle?
Hirshberg: This cycle, yes just now.
Thornburgh: That’s a lot of candidates.
Hirshberg: And in a neighborhood of 60 or so folks, on Friday nights they just routinely head on over to Ron and Jerry’s to meet whomever. It’s really, really critical, because, and again I give you exhibit A with Pete Buttigieg: A year ago it was four people. Nobody knew who he was, and yet at one point he was slightly ahead of Bernie. The point is, it’s an opportunity for somebody without those resources, who’s not a billionaire, to actually get on the map.
Thornburgh: This does feel like a very New Hampshire flex though, in a way that second-term Obama or Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have been, but first-term Obama was.
We’re not as diverse as other states, but we’re more diverse than people think. And what’s particularly important is that we’re a purple state.
Hirshberg: Absolutely. When Senator Obama showed up at Stonyfield, I’ll never forget people walking right by him: it was just Gary touring some Black guy walking around, people asking “Who’s he?” Unless you watched the Democratic Convention, unless you’re a junkie like I am, you didn’t know who the heck he was, and of course people in California never had that chance. But then we had him in our back yard a month or two later, and there were 200 people here, and nobody was decided that day. They knew it was early, it was the summer before, they knew that they were going to have multiple chances to see him again and other candidates. But here’s the thing about New Hampshire, is that we have been trained in this practice. It’s a two-way street. The candidates have to be real, you can’t fake it.
You can’t buy it, but the voters have to be real too for this to work, and they have to take it seriously and they do, and now you have multi-generations who’ve grown up. I mean, my three kids have grown up expecting this, and they’re good at it and they’re not shy, and yet yesterday two days ago we had a youth climate forum downtown. I was the opening speaker and one of the hosts, and we had a graduate student, an undergraduate student and a high school student for every one of the candidates who came, and the questions I have to say especially from the high school students were astonishing. I mean, I practically had tears in my eyes all day, because the sophistication of the questioning, the sincerity, the thoughtfulness.
I’m not saying that you have to be from New Hampshire to have all those adjectives, I’m just saying that people here have a sense of entitlement and empowerment to do that, to put the screws into these folks, which they need. It needs doing. I’m not opposed personally to other states doing this, or moving it around. I know a lot of my fellow New Hampshirites would be horrified to hear me say that, but I will say we do it extremely well. There’s something about the size and shape here. We’re not as diverse as other states, but we’re more diverse than people think, but what’s particularly important—and this is the key point for me—is we’re purple.
Hirshberg: We’re one-third, one-third, one-third. Look at the bumper stickers in my parking lot at Stonyfield and you’ll see. There are still bumper stickers about Jane Fonda out there. We are a tri-partisan state. Libertarian and Independents are just as big a block as Democrats or Republicans, and you can’t win without getting some of them, so it’s being tested this time around with something like 39 candidates on the Democratic side.
Because there is no place for moderate Republicans, with their incumbent. And they’re shopping too. I have had the honor of hosting Pete Buttigieg at a couple of rallies, and Pete has done a particularly good job of going to the red towns in the state. I’ve grown up here, so I know a lot of these folks. I’ve got farmers and all kinds of people here, colleagues and friends. I stood on the stage with him in Wolfeboro, and there were a group of veterans in the front row, many of whom were in wheelchairs, and I knew that group. I knew there were a few Democrats, there were a few Republicans, and there were definitely a few Libertarians. They’re out shopping too, and it’s critical that we be talking to all Americans, all stripes, not just Democrats. We do that very well here, and if there was another state that was equally purple and equally scaled, and equally not dominated by media, then fine, let’s move it around.
Thornburgh: That does always strike me as a question that doesn’t get asked in the arguments against New Hampshire. What replaces it? Besides television ads or national debates, which are very limited.
Hirshberg: They’re terrible formats. These short-form answers and people yelling and interrupting. I think there are two questions that we have to come to grips with right now. One, is the caucus system working? And I’ve been in the Iowa caucuses. It is a circus. I mean, it’s amazing to watch, it gives you a little bit of hope and it gives you a little bit of terror as you watch the first tier of folks not make 15%, and then you watch the almost cannibalistic behavior as the winning groups come over and drag people off. So one question is the format, and then the other is the states. New Hampshire does have a law which requires that we be first, so that will have to be dealt with. If Iowa switches over to an election, that probably means that New Hampshire is going to be a week before them. I am very sympathetic to the question of our demographics, and I think that it would be great to have another purple state that’s more diverse, somewhat early in the process.
Having the first primary is an incredible responsibility too. People take it seriously, and this year you see that more than ever. I brought a bunch of friends to the debate last night. The proportion of undecideds is at now, 72 hours out from this primary, the greatest in my lifetime. People who normally have their minds made up six months ago are still weighing up. And I’m going to work for whoever the nominee is, because from any number of points of view—but mostly as a climate change advocate and somebody who’s been working on climate for 45 years—I know we cannot have a denier-in-chief any longer at this critical time.
We could talk about judgeships, we could talk about lots of reasons we can’t handle four more years of Donald Trump, but the top of the list is the dismantling of the EPA, the ignorance of science, and the denial of climate science. So, I would kill to have any of the candidates. But I’m 65 years old and, I heard Howard Dean recently say, “I’ll never again vote for anyone older than me,” and I’m in that same camp. We’re leaving this mess to your kids and mine, and I think it’s time not just for a generational switch in terms of chronological age, it’s time for a generational shift in terms of how we do politics. We’re excessively partisan, and obviously it’s gotten worse with this guy who’s a divider, not a uniter, in The White House.