Sometime later this year, Carlos Cardona will endorse a presidential candidate. He will do so with a flourish. “There’s going to be a press release and a tweet,” he says, “and I plan on personally being with the candidate on the day I make my announcement. Hopefully that announcement will happen on my own porch.”
Right about now, you may be combing your memory banks, thinking: “Carlos Cardona, Carlos Cardona. Wait, who is that again? Is he one of those Silicon Valley billionaires? Is he a movie star?”
No, Cardona — 29 years old, 5-foot-5 with the slender build of a jockey, and 14 years removed from his native Puerto Rico — is the production director for a telemarketing firm in Laconia, N.H., a struggling former mill town of 16,000 located in the state’s most Trump-friendly county. He is also the chair of the Laconia Democrats, an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights and an unlikely New Hampshire political mogul. In a state that is 94 percent white, with a higher median age than any state save Maine, this youthful Latino has leveraged a timeworn local tradition — New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary — to accrue astounding political power.
I happen to be Cardona’s neighbor. I live 10 miles from him in a smaller Belknap County burgh, Gilmanton, home to 3,700 people and a single blinking stoplight. In May, I began stopping by his house parties and found myself swimming in evidence of just how connected he is.
Already, in the run-up to the state’s Feb. 11, 2020, vote, Cardona has brought 15 presidential candidates to his hometown. Nine of these visitors have staged meet-and-greet parties at Cardona’s house. When tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang visited Laconia, he spent most of the day with Cardona and then shared his cell number, saying, “Whatever you need, Carlos, I’m here for you.” After Cardona brought Elizabeth Warren to town, the senator personally called her New Hampshire host to thank him. Cardona says she told him, “I’m walking through the halls of Congress and about to speak on the Senate floor about impeachment.” (A Warren staffer confirms the call happened, though only Cardona registered the tragedy of its ending: Cardona was at work, in a concrete building with bad cell reception. He sprinted outside, his phone to his ear, and in the process got disconnected from the senator. He got voice mail when he called back.)
Now, on Memorial Day, Bernie Sanders is making his way to Cardona’s gracious eight-bedroom abode, which is painted pale lavender and situated a stone’s throw from the glittering waters of Opechee Bay. Three hundred Bernistas have gathered in Cardona’s flat, grassy front yard beneath thin, puffy clouds in an azure sky. An array of fruit trees blossoms before them, freshly mulched last night by Cardona’s partner of 13 years, John F. Swain, with whom he shares a 4-year-old daughter. Two flags — Old Glory and the New Hampshire flag — flutter from a high white pole, and Sanders’s longtime friends, the iconic Vermont ice cream purveyors Ben and Jerry, are here beneath a tent, personally doling out free scoops in plastic dishes. “Chunky Monkey! Cookie Dough!” says Jerry Greenfield, reciting the flavors available. “There you go! Take a bumper sticker!”
Over the past several weeks, the candidate’s staffers have made seven screening visits to Cardona’s home to sort through security issues. Two Sanders-financed plainclothes officers are now drifting through the crowd, savoring their own ice cream. But it’s Cardona who’s making everything run smoothly. Early on in the planning, he realized that the senator’s visit posed a question that would bedevil any sensitive host: Do you really want to bring an aging candidate known for his crankiness through a tangled mob on your front lawn?
Cardona approached his neighbors to ask if he could send a car — just one car containing a senator — down their driveway. Never mind that the neighbors both voted for Trump; Cardona can work both sides of the aisle. (He often meets for coffee with a local minister who favors conversion therapy for gays.) And so, here is Bernie Sanders turning into the neighbors’ driveway, en route to a remote gate that sits at the rear of the Cardona-Swain property. Cardona is standing beside that gate — waiting, pacing. He’s wearing a gold Bulova watch, a silky white shirt and a Bernie tie. “Are you nervous?” I ask him.
“I’m always nervous,” he says. He smiles, his face incandescent for a moment, but soon Sanders is there, bear-pawing his hand. I hear the shuttering of cameras nearby. Then the two men, young and old, step into the house, each one ensconced in his own scheme to reshape America.
We live in a nation of 327 million people. How did one private citizen accrue such inordinate power and access? The answer begins, of course, with the special status of New Hampshire, which since 1920 has hosted the nation’s first primary — all but requiring presidential hopefuls to flock here in droves. To win the state, candidates can’t just be telegenic. They need to get into residents’ living rooms, up close and personal, and they need local power brokers to host them.
Sprightly young Carlos Cardona has now become one of those go-to hosts. Roger Carroll, the managing editor of the Laconia Daily Sun, says the reason is simple. “There are no super high-profile Democrats in Laconia,” he says. “Carlos is Laconia’s Democratic Party chair, and nature abhors a vacuum.”
Personally, I think that Cardona is more a shaper of circumstances than a beneficiary. The guy somehow has the ability to be everywhere. In 2007, when, he says, a state trooper pulled him over and asked to see his birth certificate, Cardona filed a complaint that reached New Hampshire’s governor and soon found himself on a gubernatorial task force aimed at improving troopers’ rapport with minorities. The same year, Cardona joined a New Hampshire-based LGBT coalition backing Barack Obama and found himself dining with Michelle Obama. He told me he’s met the former first lady multiple times, and when I asked him for proof, he sent me Michelle-and-Carlos selfies. On text message, he’s manic. Each time I write him, his response bubbles up instantly on my screen.
In New Hampshire, where presidential politics is a thriving industry shored up by a chummy clique of underpaid young campaign staffers, Cardona is a well-liked insider. About 50 support personnel from seven campaigns recently came to his house for a party that culminated with a late-night lake swim. Andrew Yang was onto something when he signed up to be Cardona’s first Laconia visitor, reckoning, “Everyone wants to work with Carlos.”
But I’d say that Steve Marchand, a New Hampshire Democrat who ran for governor in 2018, summed up the situation best when he and I met at a Yang campaign rally that Cardona had orchestrated. “That guy!” Marchand said as Cardona sprinted about the room, shaking hands, sending texts and straightening tables. “I love his motor!”
And where are you now?” It’s a dank, chilly May afternoon, and Cardona is standing outside a modest Laconia home, not his own, talking on his cellphone to a staffer for long-shot presidential candidate Eric Swalwell who, in his scrambling through the hinterlands of New Hampshire, has drifted off course.
“Oh,” Cardona says. His free hand is cupped to the earpiece, shielding the wind. “Okay, okay.” We’re here on the curb because Swalwell, a 38-year-old California congressman, has accepted Cardona’s invitation to discuss opioid addiction at a men’s sober house on one of Laconia’s grittier backstreets. The house is sided with asphalt shingles. It looks out onto the parking lot of the Salvation Army, and across the street is a vacant lot.
For Cardona, who is wearing a sleekly tailored, checked button-down shirt and a different gold watch, it was important to bring a candidate to this place. Last year, 12 people died of opioid overdoses in Laconia; this in a state that at last count had more such fatalities per capita than all others save Ohio and West Virginia. In 2009, John Swain’s brother Josh died at age 26 after a long fight with heroin addiction. “We can do things differently,” Cardona says. “We could make sure that there are good wages in our communities, good educational opportunities. We can’t keep bringing people to such a brink that they take their own lives with drugs.”
When Swalwell arrives, finally, in a minivan, there’s a flurry of activity. Swalwell’s wife, Brittany, is traveling with him, as are the Swalwells’ two kids, a toddler and a baby. There are car seats, a stroller and myriad blankies; the congressman, who played college soccer, finds himself standing under the hatch, moving gear around with muscular panache. Cardona watches admiringly. “That’s what a working dad looks like in 2019,” he tells me.
Inside the sober house, eight residents crowd into a small kitchen. The men are tattooed and stubble-chinned and wearing ski hats and chamois shirts against the unseasonable chill. They make confessions — about, for instance, buying drugs in prison — and Swalwell affirms them with calm, understated remarks. A couple of times he looks over at me and asks to go off the record, so he can speak without inhibition. “I’m from rural Iowa,” he says, “and there are similar issues there.”
Watching Swalwell, Cardona nods appreciatively, agreeing with him, and I remember something he told me earlier: “I’m going to give every candidate a fair chance.” Will little-known Eric Swalwell be the one he endorses?
No, as it turns out: Swalwell dropped out in July. But even if he’d stayed in the race, his odds of winning over Cardona weren’t looking great. Later in the afternoon, as he hovers near the back of a crowd of 30 people sitting in folding chairs in his kitchen, Cardona asks Swalwell a question: “Do you support making Puerto Rico the 51st state?” Swalwell pauses a moment, searching. Then he punts. “I think,” he says, “that we need to let the people of Puerto Rico decide.” Cardona takes in Swalwell’s answer with his arms crossed, his expression blank. “Okay,” he says. “Thank you.” I can almost see the bubbliness he’s carried all afternoon dissipate into thin air.
Andrew Yang comes to Laconia on a hot Friday in June, and moments after stepping into Wayfarer Coffee Roasters, a cafe, he enfolds Cardona in a warm embrace that ends with the pair standing side by side, grinning for the two TV cameras on hand. “The future president of the United States,” crows Yang, referring to Cardona. “The sky’s the limit for him!”
Soon Yang, who’s making his third Laconia visit of 2019, winds into his stump speech, sans microphone. Twenty or so cafe-goers pull their chairs in to listen as a few others remain remote and disinterested, peering into their laptops. “It’s not left. It’s not right. It’s forward!” Yang declaims before noting that he’s got roots in New Hampshire. “I went to Phillips Exeter Academy,” he says, citing a snazzy boarding school.
I can’t help but think how different Cardona’s origins were. The activist grew up in a zinc-roofed, dirt-floored house in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Aguadilla, a small coastal city in Puerto Rico. Cardona’s father was a butcher for a supermarket chain, and he made $250 a week. As a young child, Cardona supplemented the family’s income by selling chicken eggs, gathered from a backyard pen, for a dime apiece at Aguadilla’s street market.
When Cardona was 5, his maternal grandfather began carrying him on his shoulders to political rallies. Luis Lebron Morales was a scarcely literate janitor, but, as Cardona remembers, “he wasn’t afraid of anyone.” Once, at a city council meeting in 1996, Cardona says, his grandfather stood up and accused Aguadilla’s mayor of cutting off the electricity in neighborhoods that did not support him politically. Cardona’s mother, Maira Lebron, recalls handing her son a dollar around the same time. “When I’m older,” she remembers him saying, “I’m going to be on a dollar bill, just like George Washington.”
Cardona’s parents divorced when he was 12, and soon after that he moved inland, along with his mother and two younger brothers, to Caguas, the native city of his mother’s new boyfriend. Life became harder. As Cardona’s mother sought treatment for cancer, her possessive partner beat her. “Sometimes I’d see my mom bruised up and crying,” Cardona says. “Sometimes my brothers and I had to get in the middle of the fight to stop it.”
“I thought the nightmare would never end,” Cardona says. “But then my mom met up with an old friend, and she bought us all plane tickets to the U.S. We left without telling him.” When Cardona and his family landed in Haverhill, Mass., 45 minutes north of Boston, in 2005, it seemed at first like heaven. But Cardona was 15 at the time, and as he began exploring his sexuality, he tested his mother’s Catholic sensibilities. When he came out, on Mother’s Day 2005, she told him, “Just leave the house.”
Eventually, through a New Hampshire friend he’d found on MySpace, Cardona met John Swain. He ran away from home to live with his new love just outside Laconia, in Franklin, N.H. He was still 17 and miffed that Franklin wouldn’t allow him to enroll in its high school without parental consent. Intent on changing that rule, he ran for the Franklin school board and won. He’d become, according to his Twitter bio, New Hampshire’s “youngest elected official.”
Nonetheless, he felt — and still feels — inextricably tied to Puerto Rico. His father remains in Aguadilla, and Cardona talks to him almost daily, in part because his dad is, at age 50, in poor health. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, Carlos Cardona Sr. drank contaminated water and came down with leptospirosis, a bacterial disease. Power outages and floods separated him from medical care for weeks, and the disease eventually worked its way into his nervous system. He now suffers convulsions and is unable to work.
The Puerto Rican statehood question is a litmus test for Cardona. “I have four criteria for candidates,” he tells me when we meet on his porch one afternoon. “How do they see Puerto Rico? What is their policy toward opiates? The environment and education.” Cardona pauses as I scribble in my notebook. “Actually,” he continues, “there’s a fifth criteria. You have to come to Laconia. If you don’t come to Laconia, you don’t get my vote.”
Whenever Cardona is able to lure a candidate to town, he does his best to ensure the experience is affecting. In February, presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii, allowed Cardona to spend over two hours taking her around the city’s downtown in a snowstorm before they drove, just the two of them, to another New Hampshire city. In the process, Cardona told Gabbard — who early in her political career was staunchly anti-gay — the painful tale of his coming out to his mother. In June, Gabbard told me, “It was inspiring to talk to someone who’s been through so much adversity and felt not anger, but a real desire to help his community.”
Now, on his porch, Cardona says something that makes me think that maybe Gabbard will be his presidential pick. “I love an underdog,” he says. “Popular candidates just go with the flow. It’s the underdog that makes the most changes.”
Cardona’s partner, John Swain, has different political views. A 38-year-old Belknap County native, Swain tells me at the Sanders rally that in 2016 he voted for Trump. “Hillary was just too tied into Obamacare and corporate taxes,” he explains. “I know: I’m gay — I should support the Democrats. But I can’t do anything that would put me out of business.”
Swain owns the telemarketing firm Cardona works for. Launched in 2010, JC Swain Enterprise serves major resorts by calling prospective clients and scheduling them for visits at vacation spots where timeshare condominiums are for sale. In 2015, according to court papers, it was earning $3.5 million a year. Swain and Cardona are able to drive matching white Chevy Tahoe SUVs as they reside in a circa 1872 mansion built by a hosiery magnate. (Both men’s mothers also live in the house, along with one of Cardona’s brothers.)
But it’s not been an entirely smooth ride for either Swain or Cardona. In 2002 — before he met Cardona — a then-22-year-old Swain was convicted of a felony and sentenced to 22 months in prison after he tried to sell crack to a New Hampshire state police officer. Later, in 2010, Cardona was arrested on a domestic violence charge after a friend of his called the Franklin police to report that he and Swain were fighting. He was never convicted, but the row made local newspapers and, in a conservative town largely disdainful of his activist politics, he found himself in hot water. He resigned from the school board.
Then in 2012, shortly after buying the home he now shares with Cardona, Swain stepped into a New Hampshire gun shop, Average Joe’s Hunting & Fishing, and bought a Taurus pistol. In seeking a permit for the weapon, he did not disclose his 2002 felony and was soon found guilty of falsification. He was strapped with an ankle bracelet for a year. In 2014, his drug problems resurfaced when police found in his office over 100 pills, some of them containing buprenorphine, an opiate. Swain was handed a suspended sentence. “John’s forever going to struggle,” Cardona says. “I just know that we love each other — and that I will continue to support him.”
I sense, as Cardona and I stroll around downtown Laconia one gray afternoon, that he has the same devotion to his city. We’re communing with a place that is, like any wounded person, a mix of both potential and ravages. Cardona and I park by a high-end bicycle shop, MC Cycle & Sport, then pass Raw Fitness, a yoga and personal training studio. Inside an abandoned barber shop, there’s nothing but an American flag and a handwritten sign announcing the barber’s new address. Many storefronts have display windows that seem unchanged since the 1980s. We meander eventually to the Belknap Mill, built in 1823. Cardona tells me how he came to the four-story structure, now a concert hall and rough-hewed office building, in 2007 to take in a campaign speech by then-Sen. Barack Obama. “I made my first political contribution ever that day,” he says. “I put a $5 bill into a can.”
In 2018, Cardona ran for state representative. In a race with eight candidates vying for four seats, he placed last — but the contest was close: Incumbent and victor Peter Spanos, a Realtor, came in first, with 2,985 votes to Cardona’s 2,337. During the campaign, Cardona ruffled feathers when he published, in the Laconia Daily Sun, a letter saying, “If you like broken roads and potholes everywhere, just vote for Peter Spanos.”
Three aggrieved letters to the editor ensued, and one correspondent, Republican state Rep. Tim Lang, of Sanbornton, was reminded “just how low politics has sunk.” “Carlos,” he wrote, “went after your fears, not your hopes.”
Cardona contends his candidacy suffered because in Laconia he’s perceived as a newcomer. Lang disagrees. “New Hampshire is a melting pot,” he tells me, “and being a lifelong resident is no criteria for public office. I myself have lived in all four corners of the country.”
A week after losing the election, Cardona chose to assert his standing as a local by writing a second letter to the Sun. “I feel more Laconian today than ever,” he wrote. “It’s not being born here that defines us but what we do for our community.”
As much as I personally look forward to casting a crazily consequential vote in New Hampshire’s primary in February, I realize there’s something distorted about a political system that accords my small, cragged state — population 1.3 million — such massive clout. And what can really be said in defense of how sharply the New Hampshire primary concentrates power in the hands of a few people like Cardona — the city and county chairs, the aristocrats of New Hampshire politics, the kingmakers who enjoy an unequaled opportunity to mingle with, and also shape, the future leaders of the free world? Here — forgive me — I have to resort to the local vernacular: Jeezum Crow! It’s completely ridiculous!
And yet, even if you disdain the system that gives individuals in New Hampshire inordinate power, you still have to admire Carlos Cardona for making the most of it. The game of politics is about working the rules, however absurd, to your advantage. That’s exactly what Cardona has done, in the process displaying two quintessentially American virtues: pluck and civic-mindedness. This man is an absolute outsider in his community, a transplant from a beleaguered island that has no voting power in the U.S. Congress. His personal life has been beset by challenges. And still he has dived headlong into the political fray.
At one point, I asked Swain what bound a Trump-supporting businessman to a frenetic liberal like Cardona. His answer was quick and clear. “I love Carlos,” he said, “because he’s a fighter.”
Swain was right. Cardona is always wheeling, always dealing. The last time I meet him, at Wayfarer, the coffee shop, he tells me that he’s just lined up candidate Seth Moulton to come to his home for a house party. “Seth Moulton?” I ask, bewildered. “The Marine from Massachusetts who was cut from the debate roster? He’s really going to have to do a major relaunch, isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Cardona acknowledges, “but he’s starting in the right place. He’s coming to Laconia to meet with Carlos.”
In the minute or two I spend grabbing my coffee, Cardona plunges into a Twitter war. Beto O’Rourke has just altered his stance on Puerto Rico. In March, O’Rourke had said, “The only way” to solve Puerto’s Rico woes is “to ensure that they are a state, they have two U.S. senators who can vote.” Now, he’s just gone all Swalwell on Cardona, telling a group of Latino policymakers, “I want to make sure that Puerto Rico can decide its fate. As president, I will follow the decision of the people.”
“I’m disgusted,” Cardona says, “especially because Beto has an LGBTQ policy that I love.” In January, Cardona was part of the New Hampshire “Draft Beto” team. But now as I’m sitting across from him, he dashes off a text message protest to Soham Pandit, deputy director of O’Rourke’s New Hampshire campaign. Not 20 minutes later, Pandit volleys back with a painstakingly crafted three-paragraph defense of his candidate. O’Rourke, he writes, is simply “opposed to forcing anything upon them without their input. But it doesn’t change anything about what he said in March.”
Cardona shows me the text, and his lips twist into a sour curl as he shrugs, indifferent. “Anyway,” he says, “I’m 99 percent sure now who I’m going to endorse. I’ve even knocked on a few doors to promote this person.” Then he adds as a qualifier: “Behind the scenes, just to feel out the ground.”
He won’t tell me who his candidate is; the endorsement is still pending. Earlier, though, he had said of Elizabeth Warren, “She’s a beast when it comes to policy.” I start doing the math — the friendly phone call, the lavish praise. “So,” I ask Cardona, trying to be deft, “what do you think of Elizabeth Warren’s rise in the polls?”
I watch for the glimmer of a smirk, some hint that I’m right. Nothing — and Cardona takes this moment to stress that he’s keeping his options open. Indeed, he tells me, he could shift his allegiance even after making an endorsement. “I’ll keep listening,” he says, “to whoever keeps coming to Laconia. We’re all persuadable until the day of the primary.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incomplete quote from a text message by Soham Pandit to Cardona.
Bill Donahue is a writer in New Hampshire.