New England College climbing the state’s political ladder

  • New England College in Henniker, Dec. 15,2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • A "welcome new students" sign is seen outside the Simon Center at New England College in Henniker on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Classes begin on Monday. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

  • Ohio Governor John Kasich talks to the crowd during a town hall at New England College in Henniker on April 3. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

For the Monitor
Published: 6/2/2018 11:39:22 PM

Michelle Perkins said it

“I’d like to think we’re becoming a place where the (presidential) candidates go when they’re in New Hampshire,” the New England College president told the Monitor.

Saint Anselm College, home to the renowned New Hampshire Institute of Politics, is the mecca of schools in the first-in-the-nation primary state when it comes to visits from White House contenders.

But the Henniker based New England College – which offers both undergraduate and graduate studies – saw an increase in visits by presidential candidates in the 2016 election cycle, compared to four years earlier.

“Ever since I’ve been president of New England College, we have worked to attract and invite presidential candidates to campus,” Perkins explained.

The school’s off to a good start so far during these early steps in the 2020 presidential election cycle, with two high profile visits.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 Republican White House candidate who may primary challenge President Donald Trump in 2020, spoke at the college in April. And last month former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro – a possible Democratic presidential candidate – delivered the college’s commencement address.

Helping her in courting the candidates is New England College political science professor Wayne Lesperance.

He explained that he’s built up a relationships with the campaigns over the years, and they’ve come to see the school as a place that provides “an environment that’s friendly and easy.”

He said his approach to the campaigns has been “no matter what the ask was, let’s find a way to say yes.”

Lesperance said the big difference last cycle was Perkins’ leadership.

“Any obstacles that we might encounter, she’d say we are going to clear those obstacles,” he recounted. “So I had the support at the top level from the president of the college in terms of making this all work out for us. We never really had to say no to anybody.”

Jim Merrill agreed.

The longtime New Hampshire-based Republican consultant and veteran of numerous presidential campaigns said “there’s no question that the IOP at Saint Anselm has been, is, and will remain the gold standard in New Hampshire. They’ve done a great job providing a great venue for candidates.”

But he complimented New England College.

“I’ve brought candidates there before and found them to be very gracious and accommodating, and so I certainly think as we enter a new presidential primary cycle here, I think New England College is smart to position itself as another can’t-miss venue for candidates who come through the state,” Merrill said.

The way Lesperance looks at it, New England College isn’t trying to compete with Saint Anselm College.

“They are the gold standard. They have lock on so many things over there that we’re not going to ever take away from them. But I think what we can do is we can play in a different way and have our own share of opportunities,” he said. “There’s plenty of pie to go around.”

Lesperance touted the town hall style meetings his school holds with the presidential candidates.

“Our claim to fame is that our students and the folks in the surrounding towns have an opportunity to come for a town hall meeting with a person who want to be the next president of the United States,” he offered.

And he highlighted that “we have folks coming in from as far away as Keene and the Seacoast for events here. NEC is very open and accessible so folks know they can get in and be part of these experiences.

“I don’t think we’re in competition with them. There are certain things that Saint Anselm has that we don’t have. They have an awesome Institute of Politics. They have the advantage of geography,” Lesperance said, noting that Saint Anselm’s Goffstown campus is minutes away from Manchester and the state’s major airport.

“One of the biggest challenges I had early on was convincing campaigns that we’re not on the other side of the Connecticut River, that we not in this remote village two hours away from Manchester. We’re really just a drive up the road,” Lesperance recalled. “And when they got here, they said ‘that wasn’t as far as we thought it would be.’ ”

Perkins said that the presidential visits are “a wonderful experience” for her school’s students.

“Civic engagement is one of the three pillars of our academic mission, whether undergraduate or graduate. It’s critically important, no matter what the major, that students experience and learn to become more civically engaged and responsible citizens,” she explained.

Lesperance – codirector of the school’s center for community engagement and leadership – said “we believe that our challenge is to prepare citizens for the future. Why not take advantage of the first-in-the-nation primary and make that a centerpiece of the education we do.”

The visits by presidential candidates also give New England College national visibility, and that helps with recruiting students from across the country.

“It puts us on a national stage. The candidates are here. You see our banners and our logos when the candidates are speaking and that resonates across the country,” Perkins highlighted. “We enrolled last year the largest class in our history. And it looks like we’re going to repeat that this year.”

And Lesperance added that “we tell students you will meet the next president of the United States by coming to school here. That fits in nicely with our efforts to attract students from out of state. It’s just smart marketing for us. It takes advantage of our first-in-the-nation status.”

This summer the school begins construction on a new 350 seat theater. It’s expected to be completed by the autumn of next year, just as the 2020 New Hampshire primary goes primetime.

Perkins is hoping the new theater will help the school land a presidential primary debate.

“That’s something we’ve wanted to do and haven’t had a facility to hold 350 or so people,” she said. “Our new theater will do that.”

Lesperance – who’s leading the lobbying effort – said it would be a “real crowning achievement.”

“I want a presidential debate at New England College,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can to make that happen. I’m leveraging every relationship I have to get folks interested in having one of those events with us.”

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