LACONIA, N.H. — Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney leads the sixth-largest city in the United States. But on Tuesday, he was the opening act for afternoon bingo in the community room at a New Hampshire nursing home here.
“It’s beautiful here and it’s not as cold as they said it’d be,” Kenney told about a dozen residents gathered to hear him speak — bingo cards already laid out on folding tables behind them.
“You still got the Liberty Bell?” one resident asked.
“Yeah, we still have it," Kenney responded.
Later, he drove south and pulled on a parka for a walk through downtown Concord, where the temperature hit a high of 14 degrees and a local reporter asked a Warren aide how to spell Kenney’s last name.
Being a political surrogate can be a bizarre exercise in humility. Surrogates act as stand-ins to cover more ground for the candidates they support, to show the breadth of a coalition, and in some cases, to use their star power to draw audiences. It’s unclear how effective they are in actually converting voters to a candidate — but in the critical three weeks leading up to the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, campaigns are relying heavily on them.
Among the people stumping this week: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be in Iowa for Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ashley Judd will be in New Hampshire for Warren, and USA Curling gold medalist coach Phill Drobnick will be in Iowa for Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Even non-senators are deploying more surrogates in the final sprint. Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta is heading to New Hampshire for former Vice President Joe Biden, and comedian Dave Chappelle has announced he’ll do two shows this month to benefit his candidate, Andrew Yang.
Kenney, the highest-profile mayor to endorse Warren, also stumped for her in Iowa in December. He calls her tough and ethical, while adding he thinks it’s time the country elect a woman. This was his first trip to New Hampshire, which votes Feb. 11. It was paid for by the Warren campaign.
In nine hours stumping in the state, Kenney kept busy but never spoke to a group larger than 12 people. He spent call time dialing up New Hampshire Democratic mayors and other elected officials to seek their support for Warren — but only one picked up the phone, and she had to call him back later.
At one stop, he spent close to 25 minutes talking to a woman who owned an environmentally friendly boutique. By the end of the conversation, she remained undecided.
But in New Hampshire, that kind of person-to-person exchange is commonplace. Residents expect to get time from candidates and surrogates. They are so steeped in campaign outreach they say their authenticity radar is heightened.
“I liked him. I did,” Amanda Hackett, the store owner, said of Kenney. “He seemed, like, honest behind his eyes.”
For a mayor known to sometimes scowl at the day-to-day politicking required of him in his own city, New Hampshire was a breath of (cold) fresh air. And his deferential style seemed to connect with voters — particularly at the nursing homes.
“It’s nice to get out of your city sometimes. Everyone’s always at you for something, complaining about something,” Kenney told the seniors in Laconia. “It’s nice to come up somewhere where people don’t really know you.”
Throughout the day, Kenney talked about common issues across the two states, like opioids — several residents said they had family members struggling with addiction — and health care. In promoting Warren, whose campaign paid for the trip, he talked about the many women in his own cabinet and his recent appointment of a female police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw.
He told residents about the recent passing of his father and wanting his 80-year-old mother to feel secure, tying it back to Warren’s plan to expand Social Security. He fielded questions ranging from her positions on issues like term limits to what he thought of Ben Simmons and the 76ers’ chances this year.
“I’m a 61-year-old white guy. Everyone thought I was gonna be with Biden,” Kenney said while campaigning. “I just thought something different is necessary.”
He said in an interview that he thinks Warren can appeal to people much in the way he does: “I think the one thing, good and bad, about me — whether I’m angry or whether I’m happy — it’s authentic and I think people see her authenticity and respond to it.”
Kenney’s not a hard-ask kind of surrogate. In conversations, he never overtly asked people to vote for Warren, just chatted while wearing her button.
At one point, a local reporter asked Kenney about his subdued vibe.
“I’m doing my best within my little ability to do it,” Kenney said, shrugging. “I wouldn’t call myself this huge celebrity where people are gonna flock to me when they don’t know who I am.”
By the end of the day, Kenney had visited three nursing homes, two small businesses, and the Manchester field office, where he delivered pizza and well wishes to volunteers. He broke once for a cup of chowder and half a sandwich.
His gentler touch seemed to work at the three senior centers where Kenney spent most of his day. While a few in the crowd dozed off or walked out early, two people said they’d vote for Kenney if he were running.
The most-asked question of the day was whether Warren’s more progressive stances would alienate fellow lawmakers or moderate voters. Could she really get anything done in a divided Congress? For all her talk of being a fighter, could she unify and compromise?
“In 24 years as a legislator, I’ve learned there’s always some compromise, some amendment,” said Kenney, a former member of City Council. “You start out with guns blazing and you wind up getting 70 to 80%. ... You have to collaborate, and I believe she has the ability to do that.”
That resonated with Rose Marie Lanier in Concord. “I’m 76 and it’s like, I’ve been hearing all my life, you gotta be in the middle, blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “I’m gonna be dead soon, I want to start way out here so at least we wind up in the middle.”
Kenney was less convincing for Jordan Lassoff in Laconia. “He seems like an OK guy,” Lassoff said. “A typical politician. But I’m voting for Bernie.”
At his last stop, Kenney said he admired how seriously residents take their role as early presidential voters, and noted that he felt welcomed by people regardless of their political preferences.
“It’s different where I’m from,” Kenney said. “In Philadelphia, it’s blood sport.”