A New Hampshire mom walks her talk for Ron Paul
The underdog presidential candidate captures support from a New Hampshire nonconformist who's been teased by the big boys, too.
Before her recent leap into presidential politics, Kelly Halldorson, in bell-bottoms and Birkenstocks, would have struck most folks as little more than a slightly crunchy soccer mom. She drives a Chevy Suburban, home-schools her three children and, in free moments between her kids' ballet and hockey practice, does Pilates.
Then, in July, she watched George Stephanopoulos interview Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the maverick Republican presidential candidate. And her life changed.
"What's success for you in this campaign?" Mr. Stephanopoulos asked that Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
"Well, to win," Representative Paul said.
"That's not going to happen," Stephanopoulos shot back.
"Do you ... do you know for absolute?" Paul asked, looking a little like a deer in the headlights as he groped for a reply. "Are you willing to bet your every cent in your pocket for that?"
"Yes," said Stephanopoulos, grinning.
Recalling the exchange recently, Ms. Halldorson frowned and shook her head.
"Acch!" she says of Stephanopoulos, on an evening stroll near her home in this former mill town, a 20-minute drive northwest of Portsmouth. "The arrogance was just seeping from him. Since when did journalists become prophets?"
And so a political activist was born.
Halldorson had never so much as sunk a campaign sign on her lawn. Now she was sitting with her kids around a laptop at the kitchen table and plotting a solitary protest march through the summer heat. Her plan: walk 38 miles, in a hand-made Ron Paul Revolution T-shirt, from her home here to the steps of the state capital in Concord.
The pundits had written Paul off as a footnote to the 2008 race. She resolved to prove them wrong.
"This way, someone will listen to me," she recalled thinking. "And listen to him."
Despite single-digit poll numbers, Paul is famous for the fervency of his following, a motley group that ranges from gun lovers and tax haters to pacifists and libertarians.
But Halldorson's story illustrates something more: the alchemy, often as political as it is personal, that can turn an ordinary citizen into a campaign soldier.
In many ways, Halldorson's road to Concord began in childhood. She grew up in a public housing project next to a highway here, raised by a single mother who for a time was on welfare. She went to school with kids who lived in bigger houses, wore fancier clothes, and were often not allowed – because of their parents' prejudice – to visit her in the projects.
As a teenager, she cultivated a defiant identity. She scrawled "Question Authority" on the covers of her textbooks. She decorated her jeans in hand-drawn peace signs. Once, she heated a peace-symbol earring with a lighter and tried to brand her hip, leaving a smudgy burn.
When students walked out of Dover High School in 1991 to protest the first Gulf War, she hung back, to protest the protest, even though she agreed with their message. Most of her classmates, she felt, were just looking for an excuse to skip class. "I was grumpy," Halldorson says, laughing at the memory. "I thought the kids weren't being authentic."
Adrift after high school and searching for her own kind of authenticity, she enlisted a pair of children she baby-sat to paint flowers on her Volkswagen Golf. Then she drove to Southern California with her boyfriend, who would later become her husband, and moved in with an aunt.
Halldorson's worldview, she says, took shape after the 1994 earthquake that devastated nearby Northridge. Her aunt, Ellen Fitzmaurice, a strong-willed libertarian, gave Halldorson Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and ranted against what she saw as the wasteful federal response to the disaster.
Halldorson left Los Angeles convinced that people should rely on each other, not the government, when things get rough.
After she and her husband, a construction worker, returned here, she tried to live by that code. When private school got too expensive, she chose to teach her children at home rather than send them to public school. When her son Griffin chipped his tooth, she went to a community dental clinic that paid for his care from private donations rather than government subsidies.
She has pulled herself up, too. Though she never went to college, she took extension classes, landed work as a freelance graphic designer, and started to devour books on history, science, and politics. She and her husband are behind on their heating and doctors' bills and struggle some months to pay rent. But they have finally made it to Silver Street, the thoroughfare of stately Victorians where the rich kids lived when she was a girl.
"I dreamed all my life of living on this street," she says outside her house, looking up at the three-story structure.
She'd heard of Paul, a onetime Libertarian Party candidate, whose opposition to taxes, government social programs, and the Iraq war in many ways jibed with her own. But as the 2008 presidential campaigns rolled into New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary, she also came to see him as a fellow traveler: a long-shot who'd been dismissed too early, a nonconformist teased by the big boys because he was a little different.
After reading transcripts of his speeches on his Congressional website, she remembers thinking, "There's really somebody out there."
Her plan to walk 38 miles to Concord came as a surprise to Paul's local campaign staff.
"She just called me and told me what she was going to do," recalls Jared Chicoine, the campaign's New Hampshire coordinator. He says he received her news release at the same time the media did.
"I remember calling her several times and saying, 'What can we do for you?'" he says. "I was willing to follow her in a vehicle, willing to do just about everything to make sure she had what she needed. She said she had it taken care of."
Saturday, Aug. 4 dawned hot – temperatures would reach the 90s – confirming some of her relatives' worst fears. Halldorson is spirited and petite, but no athlete. "I just said, 'Do you really think you ought to be doing this?'" recalls her mother, Ann Grenier. Her husband, Jeff Halldorson, was more blunt: "I thought she was nuts."
Kelly stepped onto Route 9, the rural highway running west to Concord, at 5:30 a.m., with a campaign sign and a backpack of campaign literature and CDs she'd burned with radio interviews of Paul. The walk was fine through lunch – mile 15 – at Susty's Radical Vegan restaurant in Northwood. Clusters of Paul supporters on the roadside cheered her on. A news reporter swooped in to check on her progress. Paul himself made a surprise call to wish her well. But in the afternoon, as the sun beat down and her toenails began to snap off, she grew weary. Through a miscommunication, her husband was waiting with water in the wrong place.
Just as she was ready to sit down, in despair, on the pavement, she says, she spied three people on the roadside: a trio of Ron Paul supporters, one holding a cold bottle of water. "Oh, my word!" she recalled. "It was like an oasis."
She climbed the steps of the state capital in Concord at 9:30 p.m., tired but triumphant.
Paul says the Stephanopoulos interview gave the campaign a number of unexpected boosts.
"People got angry," says Paul, who drew the support of 3 percent of probable GOP voters in the latest national poll. "That meant they sent more money. It was just another stimulus."
It has also lent Kelly Halldorson's life a new kind of momentum, and a sense of the impact one person can make. News coverage of her walk drew e-mails from around the country. "Kelly's my hero!" one wrote. "Thanks for the inspiration," said another. A Texas man posted a photo online of a T-shirt he'd designed, with the inscription "Paul/Halldorson 2008."
Her kids have made accommodations with her new calling. Zoë, 9, has become a little helper: She wrote "Ron Paul" in crayon on a scrap of notebook paper, fastened it to a wooden stake with a Ron Paul bumper sticker, and plunged it into their front lawn.
But Griffin, 11, is more ambivalent. He likes Ron Paul, he told his mom. But, he's also told her, "you're too crazy about him."
A few days after her walk to Concord, Halldorson started her next project: a roadway trash pickup she hoped to take national. "I decided we could help Ron Paul clean up not just Washington but the whole country," she wrote in the news release.
And so this soldier marches on.