Step One: Assemble the Ingredients, Naturally
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
CONCORD, N.H. -- In the early evening of July 2, Sen. Barack Obama arrived at the end of a long gravel driveway belonging to Gary and Meg Hirshberg. In the back yard were 250 people -- potential supporters, potential donors -- waiting to hear from him. First, though, Obama had more important business--he handed Meg Hirshberg a card for her 51st birthday.
In this state, where every voter is flattered, indulged and generally chased after, the Hirshbergs are particularly big game. Gary is the chairman and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, the organic yogurt and smoothie concern, a man who turned what had been a fledgling business based at a ramshackle farm into a $300 million behemoth that has been relentless in its support of environmental causes.
Moreover, he and his wife have become "verifiers": a well-known couple who have studied the issues and met with candidates, and who can persuade undecided voters and independents to at least consider a particular candidate. "What you get with Gary and Meg is a whole network," says former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. "They work for you and get you out in front of people. And because the network respects Gary and Meg, you're going to get a second and third and even fourth look."
Vilsack should know. The Hirshbergs had eyes for him during his quickie campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. On Feb. 23, Vilsack announced that he would drop out. He couldn't keep up with the Axis of Cash: Clinton, Obama and Edwards. Obama called Gary a couple of minutes later.
Several others -- John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson--would soon follow.
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The Hirshbergs made it clear that their choice would be a tactical one. Their main concern? Finding someone who can defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state's primary, by custom the first in the nation.
"It would be hard enough for any woman," Meg Hirshberg explains. "But she has higher negatives than anyone on either side of the aisle. I don't believe we can start out with someone who, at the starting gate, is disliked by so many people. I'm not justifying their dislike. I think a lot of it is unfair, but I can't make it go away and neither can she."
Gary and Meg narrowed their choice to Obama or Edwards, despite the fact that neither had the résumé they'd found so charming with Vilsack. Yes, Edwards had been a senator, not a governor, but that lay in the past. Besides, they adored Elizabeth. And while Obama is a sitting senator, they felt he wasn't yet "of Washington," a man whose emotional distance from the capital's dirty business would resonate with voters.
The wooing began in earnest on April 2, when the couple first met Obama in a room at the Manchester airport. Gary stressed the importance of environmentally friendly business practices, while Meg grilled the candidate on his lack of extensive experience at the federal level. According to the Hirshbergs, Obama said he'd prove his mettle during the campaign, that in a teeming field he'd show himself to be a fighter, worthy of their support. When she expressed her love of "The West Wing," Obama, they recalled, said he did, too, that he wanted to be just like President Bartlet on that show.
The same afternoon, the Hirshbergs hosted John and Elizabeth Edwards at the Stonyfield plant in Londonderry. It was Elizabeth's first trip to the state since she had announced that her cancer had returned. As a result, the pair had drawn a plethora of reporters. After holding a question-and-answer session for the Hirshbergs and their employees, the Edwardses toured the plant with the Hirshbergs. Elizabeth would periodically reach out to Meg, herself a breast cancer survivor. As journalists garbed in lab coats and hairnets followed, Gary described the eco-friendly procedures used at the plant.
Later Meg would say, "I love John Edwards, and Elizabeth is just an amazing, amazing force."