Slow progress toward equity in New Hampshire politics

  • Carlos Cardona, Candidate for New Hampshire House of Representatives, for Belknap 3 poses outside the State House in Concord. —Courtesy

  • Alejandro Urrutia (far right) campaigns in Pelham for New Hampshire House of Representatives, Hillsborough 37. —Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 10/23/2020 5:42:32 PM
Modified: 10/23/2020 5:42:22 PM

Thirty-one year old Carlos Cardona of Laconia is an unlikely candidate to be seeking election to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in one of the state’s most pro-Trump districts this November, which might explain the national attention that he’s received.

Cardona is a Puerto Rican immigrant who works a day job at J.C. Swain Enterprise, a telemarketing firm, while pursuing a career in politics. He’s raising a daughter with his husband, John Swain, and is a fierce political advocate for LGBTQ and minority rights. Over the past two years he’s hosted several Democratic presidential candidates at his home, and last year he was the subject of an article in the Washington Post, which discussed his “startling political power” against all odds. This is all despite the fact that Cardona has never actually held elected office – he was defeated in a run for New Hampshire House of Representatives in Merrimack County in 2010.

Cardona’s foray into politics and the national attention he has attracted could be seen as a sign of progress in New Hampshire, one of the whitest states in the country. But Cardona and other people of color, LGBTQ and female politicians say there are still many barriers to entry for outsiders to New Hampshire politics.

“I have had multiple death threats over the last few years. … I’ve had times where I thought about quitting,” Cardona said. “But you know, that’s the climate we live in.”

Running in one of the nation’s whitest states

New Hampshire residents are 93.1% white, compared to 76.3% of the population nationally, according to census from 2019. New Hampshire has become more diverse since 1990, when 98% of the population identified as white, but there’s still a long way to go: our population is only 4% Hispanic or Latino, 3% Asian and 1.8% Black. Roughly 6% of New Hampshire residents are foreign born.

That can make it difficult for candidates who are a different race than most voters. Only 6% of New Hampshire elected representatives are minorities (as of 2016), and 29% are female (as of 2015)

For Cardona, the road into politics was never an easy one. As a kid, Cardona faced homelessness with his family that led them temporarily back to Puerto Rico prior to settling in New Hampshire. At the age of 15, Cardona came out to his family as gay, around the same time that his mother developed cancer.

Cardona describes this as an extremely difficult time in his life, which ultimately kick-started his political aspirations. At the time of his coming out, Cardona’s family struggled to come to terms with his sexuality and Cardona decided it was time to move out. Around 2006, he found himself homeless again and living on a friend’s couch. This was a time when youth homelessness was particularly high in the Granite State.

“I had to pay for my own high school education to get my diploma,” Cardona said.

Although he was underage there was a loophole in New Hampshire law, where teens who lived on their own were considered adults.

“School districts like Franklin saw homeless teens as a burden and not as a cause that they needed to help,” Cardona said. “So right there, that started shaping my political opinions. Jeanne Shaheen heard my story and she said, ‘you know, you should run for office.’ ”

Cardona first ran for office in 2010, but lost. He said he was met with political biases for being gay, Hispanic, and young. Fast forward to 2020, Cardona has become nationally-recognized, despite having never held office, and he’s hoping that New Hampshire voters are ready to get behind him.

A need for policy that reflects diversity

Cardona stresses the importance of representation, but insists that diversity alone isn’t enough. He is worried that even though we see diverse candidates, their policies don’t always reflect the change that voters are seeking.

“There’s two things that I believe about politics. There is inclusivity, which is how diverse you are, and then there’s policy. I don’t think that the mindset of politicians has changed, what has changed is what politicians look like,” he said. “I am not aiming to just have diversity, but to have policy reflect that. We need to be careful when we say things like ‘any Hispanic will do’ or ‘any woman will do’ or ‘any functioning adult will do.’ ”

During his own life, Cardona has lived through a lot of progress on LGBTQ rights. As a young gay man, he never imagined the life he has today.

“I remember coming out of the closet and wondering what my life might look like,” he said. “I didn’t think I would have kids, or own a house of my own, or a dog, or get married, or have a business … everything I have accomplished now. So it shows you how far we have come from when I came out at 15 to being 31 years old now.”

Still, there’s a lot of progress to be made, Cardona said. LGBTQ youth are still more likely to be homeless, for example, and some voters still don’t believe that LGBTQ people should have the same rights and benefits as heterosexual people.

“Our focus should not be on the fairytale story, but on the struggles of the people,” Cardona said. “I believe when we focus on the most vulnerable, and we lift them up, we are lifting everybody up. And everyone benefits from that.”

Although the 2020 election saw the first openly gay candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Cardona believes that Buttigieg “has a privilege that we as a society haven’t checked, because we got so excited that he was our first gay candidate.”

Cardona points to President Trump’s treatment of vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris – a Black and Indian woman – as an example of prejudice and misogyny in American politics.

“The president isn’t even focusing on Biden, he is focusing on Harris, calling her all kinds of names and it’s translating to the ground,” he said. “There are people in the community calling Harris a monkey, which is something that I used to hear a lot when Obama was running for office.”

Cardona said that New Hampshire overall still needs to make progress in it’s treatment of women and Latino residents. More than once he’s been asked whether he’s a citizen. He is, as are all Puerto Ricans.

“I think the fact that we haven’t yet had a female president shows us a lot about the state of our country,” he said.

Cardona said he grew up in a very matriarchal family, where women were in control. When doing voter outreach, he often finds the opposite.

“I’ve knocked on a lot of doors where the person on my list is female and the response is usually ‘well, I have to talk to my husband,’ or the husband will come out and say, ‘yes that’s my wife, how can I help you?’ Sometimes they say things like ‘I’m a Republican, and she’s not voting Democrat this year.’”

Women take to the stage

The political landscape has also seen a vast shift in opportunities for women to lead in representing New Hampshire over the years. New Hampshire has been one of the few states where women have successfully sought public office, said Valerie Roman, candidate for New Hampshire House of Representatives, Rockingham 7.

“We have witnessed so many women, such as Jeanne Shaheen, Maggie Hassan, Kelly Ayotte, Annie Kuster, and Carol Shea-Porter, successfully hold state and federal offices and have seen the N.H. state Senate and N.H. state House be chaired by women,” Roman said. “I was so proud when New Hampshire became the first and only state to send all women down to Washington for the Senate and House, while having a female governor at home.”

Roman said that she hasn’t seen female candidates face barriers in the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

“That is because so many other women have forged that pathway for the rest of us and it has become part of the norm,” she said.

The nation could learn from New Hampshire, where having female candidates has become normal, she said. Roman was happy to see that so many women ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, but would like to see more women on the Republican ticket too.

“Once that hard glass ceiling is broken and a woman becomes president or vice president, I believe it will happen more often, just as I believe it is now easier for America to elect another male president of color,” she said.

A first-hand experience with prejudice

Alejandro Urrutia, who is currently running for New Hampshire House of Representatives for Hillsborough District 37, has experienced prejudice during his time in New Hampshire.

“When I speak with people, they know my accent. And immediately, it makes me seen as a foreigner, even for some Democrats,” he said.

Urrutia, of Hudson, has worked with organizations including the New Hampshire Advisory Committee to the Federal Civil Rights Commission, the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, and the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees. He served as the president of Latinos Unidos de New Hampshire, a non-profit dedicated to Latino culture in New Hampshire.

Urrutia recalls times shortly after moving to Hudson in the 1980s, when white supremacist congregations came to town every year. The fact that white supremacists thought that Hudson welcomed their ideas challenged Urrutia.

“That made me want to become more politically active in the state,” he said.

This year, Urrutia hopes that his candidacy will push back on what he sees as a lack of progressive, diverse voices in the district. More than two decades after moving to New Hampshire, Urrutia is still alarmed by levels of racism and prejudice that he sees in the community toward people of color and Latinos.

“I have a global obligation,” he said. “One is to represent more progressive voices. And also, to be a Latino more active politically because people need to see us in a different way.”

Urrutia said there are still barriers to entry in politics for women, people of color and LGBTQ citizens, but he’s also seen progress, including more people from these groups getting elected.

“I have seen barriers from district to district but I have also seen how New Hampshire has changed. For people who live in Nashua or Manchester, I believe those communities are more open.”

Uruttia believes it would be easier for a Latino to be elected who is Republican, taking Hudson’s conservative nature into consideration. He said that perception can be a huge challenge for minority groups when it comes to breaking into local politics.

Urrutia mentioned President Trump’s border wall as coming up a considerably high amount when talking to members of his community about issues they care about, during the 2020 election cycle.

“When I make a phone call or knock on a door campaigning and I ask, ‘what is the most important issue that you care about here in New Hampshire?’ I hear ‘the wall,’ ” he said. When he reminds people that he’s running for state office and has nothing to do with that, they still point to “the wall” as the most important issue.

“That is telling me that there is a barrier between people and it makes us feel not welcomed,” Urrutia said. “But as Latinos, there are other issues that are more important to us. The economy, healthcare, education are the issues that are more important.”

Education and awareness to counteract barriers and prejudice

Cardona, Roman, and Urrutia all say that education and awareness about minority groups is critical, not only for the people of New Hampshire, but for all Americans. Seeing diversity can help dispel prejudices, like the idea that Latino students aren’t college material, Urrutia said.

“But all of those things can only change if we have people in their communities being represented” Urrutia stated. Seeing more people from marginalized groups in office will help continue to slow progress that New Hampshire has made. “That is going to make the change. The way to bring change is to become active, create a campaign for even local offices.”

Each said that there is value in diversity – a principle that America was built on.

“The more diverse the political environment with women and people of color, the better we are in understanding the perspectives and needs of diverse populations in our state.” Roman said.

Cardona agreed.

“The more diverse my circles are, the better I am as a human being,” he said. “I think that is what is going to make New Hampshire great and I think that’s how we can all benefit.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit

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