Politics

Blue Wave, Red Town

How my middle school guidance counselor became the first Democratic state representative elected in Bedford, New Hampshire, since 1934.

Sue Mullen.
Sue Mullen.
Courtesy of Sue Mullen

I grew up in Bedford, New Hampshire, an extremely Republican town of about 23,000 people that hadn’t elected a Democrat to state office since before World War II. That is, until earlier this month, when my middle school guidance counselor won her very first political campaign.

Sue Mullen, 62, bested six Republicans, five other Democrats, and one libertarian to become one of Bedford’s 6½ (it’s complicated) representatives in the state House. Despite the conservatism of my hometown, I wasn’t surprised to hear she’d won. Everyone’s kids know and love her, which means their parents know and love her, too.

Mullen also happens to be one of the first gay people I’d ever met, and certainly the first gay person I saw in a position of authority. To me, she represents the kind of small-time Democrat that can make a big difference in state and local politics: a leader with an intimate knowledge of her community and the ability to command respect and gain the trust of her constituents, regardless of their political party. (I’m not the only one who thinks so: She got a nice shoutout from Seth Meyers and Sarah Silverman, who also grew up in Bedford, on Late Night With Seth Meyers last week.) I spoke to Mullen about what New Hampshirites look for in a state rep, what she hopes to achieve in office, and what it was like running as a gay candidate in a Republican district. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Christina Cauterucci: When did you decide to run for office?

Sue Mullen: The Bedford Democrats got a hold of me in 2016 because they wanted me to put my name on the ballot, but I was working full time. [They] said, “Well, you’re not gonna win. We’re just looking for credible candidates.” And I said, “If I run, I wanna run. And if I run, I wanna win. You need to wait until I retire.” I retired in June of 2017. Even before I retired, people were saying to me, “What do you think you’re going to do with your time?” And I said, “I think I’m gonna run for political office.”

What job were you working when you retired?

I was the school counselor at the middle school. Probably the backstory of why I won is because I spent 39 years working for the school system, which means that literally three generations of voters in town knew me. But I also knew that I couldn’t win with just Democrats alone because there aren’t enough Dems in Bedford to support a winning candidate. You have to be a moderate, and you have to be able to work across the aisle with independents and Republicans. And I think that people believe that I have the capacity to do that, given the fact that in 39 years of working in the school system, no one’s political party ever came up.

How did you figure out how to run a campaign for the first time?

In September of last year, I went to a daylong symposium that was sponsored by the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation and an organization called VoteRunLead. They had a daylong workshop in Manchester, and my cousin who lives in Manchester sent me the link and said, “Hey, if you’re serious about running, maybe you ought to go talk to these folks.” It was super helpful, because what it did was give me a recipe for how to set up my campaign and what I needed to know in order to run. And because they are cultivating women for all kinds of offices—from local school board elections to senatorial campaigns—they basically gave you the advice to go find a campaign manager, to make sure you have a fiscal agent, to put somebody in charge of your social media, to have somebody in charge of mailings and signs—which are totally time-consuming, to be able to locate people who want them in their yards, get ’em up, and then get ’em down after the election.

We ran this campaign probably a little more zealously than anybody has ever run a New Hampshire state rep campaign. Everyone in town has laughed and said that it was as if I was running for president.

What was your involvement in politics before this?

Not much, other than I’m a pretty stalwart voter and I follow politics like everybody else does, through the media. I think you’d have to be living under a rock not to be committed to some sort of political awareness at this point in our history. But I’ve never held a political office before. I’ve never run for anything. My family was politically aware. The first time that I knew anything about politics was when John Kennedy was running for president. My mom worked on his campaign. I was 5 or 6 years old at the time.

Was there anything about Donald Trump’s election or the rise of Trumpism that compelled you to run?

There are two things that compelled me. One was that I have been heartsick over what I have considered to be an erosion of civility and respect among politicians. This idea that somehow or another the best route to get someone to appreciate your position is through intimidation or name calling, public shaming, bullying—that is so counter to my belief system in being able to use a measured response to problem solving that I actually ran on the platform of trying to do my part to bring civility and respect back to the process. And I think that resonated with people. Blind partisan politics was in existence way before Donald Trump was in anybody’s conscious mind. This adherence to blind partisan politics, I think, in some respects, has gotten us into this mess we’re in. And I think both parties own a certain amount of it.

And then in New Hampshire, we’ve had a lot going on. The House leadership in New Hampshire, which was Republican, proposed a bill to establish what they called an educational savings account, but in reality it was an opportunity for parents who did not send their children to public school to be rebated the amount of money that the state was contributing to each child’s education. Of course, that takes the money out of the public school budget. That was a huge issue for me. I want to do everything I can to make sure that public schools aren’t being shortchanged by shortsighted decision-making. There’s also the opioid crisis. New Hampshire has the second-worst problem with opioids—I think we’re second to West Virginia. We’ve got to be looking at coordinated efforts between medicine and mental health to provide services for people who not only are addicted but to their families and also to develop prevention programs.

How many volunteers did you have?

Hundreds. I raised over $18,000 from 200-plus contributors. I spent a considerable amount on the campaign, because it’s super costly to get signs printed. We had somewhere between 250 and 300 signs up on people’s lawns. And I did two townwide mailers, postcards that went into every single home in town. The truth is, I sent out one mailer to family and friends in January indicating that I was going to run and asking them to donate. And I never again asked for any money. I never again brought it up at a meet-and-greet. People just responded to that one mailer, which was super helpful, because once I had that money, then I could really go at it aggressively in terms of marketing—you know, branding myself to the town.

What was election night like for you?

We had let people know that we were going to Chen Yang Li. Do you know where Chen Yang Li is?

Hell yes, favorite restaurant in Bedford!

Right, so Kimmy Chung, who owns Chen Yang Li, is a friend of mine. So my family and workers went to Chen Yang Li, and by 8:15, I knew that I had won it. I was interviewed by BCTV, Bedford Community Television. And when I walked into that restaurant, the crowd exploded. There were probably, I’m gonna say 85 to 100 people there at Chen Yang Li. It was surreal. But it was incredibly exciting to recognize that even in the Republican stronghold of Bedford, New Hampshire, when it came right down to it, they voted for a person, not for a party. For me and I think for a lot of people like me, it’s hopeful. It’s hopeful that we’re not all going to become just blind and jaded by the current political climate, that we can still hold onto the hope that people can run on a platform that’s based on decency and fellowship, and have people respond to it.

What kind of time commitment does your new job require?

The official legislative session runs from January to June. You have to be on-site every Wednesday. And depending on the committee work you’re doing and the status of the bills that relate to that committee, it could be a day or even two days more per week. And the salary, by the way, is $100 a year, lest you think that I’m getting rich on taxpayer dollars. [Laughs.]

Is there something about your experience as a guidance counselor that you think will prepare you to be a legislator?

When you’re a school counselor and you’re involved with teachers, parents, and kids, you’re sort of juggling the perspectives of those three constituent groups. Problem solving, generally, around issues at school has to do with compromise more than anything else. Making sure that everybody could live with a decision but nobody got everything they wanted at the expense of someone else.

Was there any part of you that felt you were fighting an uphill battle as a gay woman in a district dominated by members of the party that opposes gay rights?

Oh, certainly. I don’t think you can be running for office as a member of a minority group without thinking about whether or not that minority status is going to have a negative impact on you. But I think—I don’t know, Christina, you can probably answer this question more than I can, but because I worked in town for 39 years, I don’t think I was perceived as being a gay threat. You know, all those people that are afraid we’re going to push our personal agenda and somehow or another suck unsuspecting people into the tribe or whatever.

I do know that there was some chatter about it. We’ve got some conservative Christian groups up here. It was kind of veiled criticism. When they were talking about candidates, they would refer to me and my wife, yet they would not refer to other candidates and their spouses. You know what I’m saying? There has been some speculation on whether or not that was sort of a conservative alarm bell. But things have evolved and changed in such dramatic ways since I started teaching in Bedford in 1978. I think Bedford reflects the same kind of attitudes as the rest of the country, and that was that my sexual orientation was just not an issue.

How does your wife feel about being a political spouse?

She was the first person that I discussed this with, and obviously it had to be a joint decision—because she was indefatigable on the campaign trail, was with me at virtually every meet-and-greet and every event that I attended. And she has not stopped telling me how proud she is of me for doing this.

[My wife] Sue and I had a civil union when civil unions became legal in New Hampshire in 2008. We actually had a civil union on Jan. 1 in our dining room with a friend of ours who is a justice of the peace. We didn’t have the actual wedding until July. The reason we did that was we were so fearful that something would happen in the New Hampshire Legislature that would reverse the decision, that we felt like we had to jump on it as soon as we could on Jan. 1, 2008. I think it’s ironic that I’ve just been elected to the same body that I was fearful might in fact renege on my civil union, which is now a marriage.