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Long active in State House, Kent Street Coalition turns to campaign trail

  • Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer (right) meets with members of the Concord-based Kent Street Coalition in Eagle Square outside Revelstoke Coffee on Thursday. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

  • Amy O'Rourke, back right, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, meets with members of the Concord-based Kent Street Coalition for a roundable talk on firearms restrictions at Gibson's bookstore, Thursday, Sept. 5 Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

Monitor staff
Published: 9/5/2019 6:24:31 PM

They’ve been a fixture in and outside the State House for years, a seasoned group of progressive activists with signs, pins, and slogans.

This year the advocacy group Kent Street Coalition has branched into the race for New Hampshire’s primary. 

The group hosted a pair of roundtable-style events in Concord Thursday, first with Amy O’Rourke, wife to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and later with billionaire activist Tom Steyer. Over coffees in Gibson’s Book store and iced teas at Revelstoke Coffee, small groups of about a dozen people sat attentively, testing the politicians with questions and doling out observations about Concord’s particular challenges.

Many were content to be perfectly direct.

In a pointed exchange, Rob Claflin voiced some qualms with Steyer’s plan to declare a national emergency on climate change and give Congress 100 days to pass a bill to address it. 

“This is sort of like ‘Oh gee,’ this is just like Trump,” the Concord resident said. “We’re gonna throw .... more flames on the fire and start blowing things up.’” 

Steyer, a longtime donor to progressive causes, defended the idea, arguing that while Congressional action was ideal, partisan divides made it impractical.

“I am a believer in coalitions – I’m a believer in going to the people and building grassroots support on the things that matter, and I’m absolutely determined to do that,” he said. “But in terms of the climate, we don’t have the time. We literally don’t have the time. And we can’t take the risk.”

Others at the Steyer event, held in a nook of Eagle Square behind the upstart coffee place, peppered Steyer with queries ranging from community banking and impeachment of the president, which Steyer supports, to the state of racism in the country.

At O’Rourke’s event, the conversation stayed primarily on gun restrictions, a month after a deadly shooting in El Paso, Texas, O’Rourke’s hometown, and days after candidate Beto O’Rourke argued in favor of gun “buybacks” of assault weapons if elected president.

The role is a new one for the group. Formed in 2016, and named after the Concord street some members call home, the group has from the beginning sought to bring together progressive-minded locals shaken by the election of Donald Trump. And while the organization is not party-affiliated and won’t be making an endorsement in the primary race, it’s made its mark in the State House.

Sign-laden demonstrators have been a visible force outside the House and Senate chambers and in the Legislative Office Building for years, advocating for firearm restrictions, environmental laws, minimum wage, increased health care spending and mental health treatment, among others.

At first, the group was simply a reaction to Trump, said Louise Spencer, a founding member and resident on the eponymous street. But then it evolved.

“We realized that … we really need to build change from the bottom up, and make sure there is that strong foundation at the state and local level, and that we really need to have a strong system,” Spencer said.

But with the Legislative session over – for now – the political energy has shifted to the White House.

For Claflin, the organizer of the day’s meetings, the purpose of the 2020 events is not so much to sway the race in any one direction. Rather, he said, the meetups should engage their members and help them delineate their choices.

“We want to educate our membership,” he said. “(And) we want to involve our membership. Because we think that’ll pay dividends knocking on doors.”

But if Kent Street’s members aren’t looking to be kingmakers, they aren’t afraid to engage more directly when it comes to the issues. The organization has put together meetings with presidential campaign staffers to focus on specific topics, like health care, to drill deeper into policy, Claflin said.

Most notably, the group flexed its muscle to inject one particular topic into the race for president: the status of a child migrant facility in Homestead, Fla. In piercing question after question at Democratic town halls this spring, activists with the group asked for pledges from the candidates to visit the for-profit facility, which they argue should be shut down.

Eventually, more than half of the candidates did, according to Spencer.

To Spencer, that balance – between listening and advocating, organizing but not endorsing – makes for an eclectic mix.

“It really is a combination,” she said. For members of the group, candidate engagement means “engaging with the candidates is an opportunity to move the dial,” she said.

Addressing Steyer on Thursday, Spencer turned back to the 2016 election. The aftermath was the primary catalyst for the group’s formation: Dismayed by the political environment, the Concord progressives needed a way to divvy up resources and more effectively fight for their priorities.

“We also recognized that by working on them together, we are much more effective, much more powerful, and that we can enjoy being with one another, and know that we’re not alone,” she said.

“Classic grassroots,” Steyer returned. “That’s the classic model of grassroots in American democracy.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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