Where’s Bill Shaheen?

Ex-Governor’s Husband Has Low Profile

Posted July 16, 2008 at 6:26pm

It’s been more than six months since Bill Shaheen — then New Hampshire co-chairman of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) presidential campaign — said those infamous comments about Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) past drug use that forced him to resign his position.

His wife, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), is now in the midst of one of the most competitive and expensive Senate races in the country, against Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.). Though Shaheen leads Sununu by double digits in publicly released polls, the role of her husband — a Democratic force in his own right — remains an unanswered question in her campaign.

So where in the Granite State is Bill these days?

“Well, depends on what the function is,” longtime Democratic National Committeewoman Anita Freedman said. “He has not been, I would say, as active, but he hasn’t been campaigning much publicly anyway since the Hillary thing.”

Freedman said she last saw Bill Shaheen at a party last month honoring her retirement from the DNC, but she doesn’t believe he is “hiding” from the campaign trail. In addition to being an activist and operative, she said, Bill Shaheen also has a law practice that keeps him busy.

“Knowing Bill Shaheen, who’s a real fantastic guy, if he thought in any way that he was going to, you know, impede Jeannie, I think he would automatically lay low,” Freedman said. “He’s just very, very supportive of her and other candidates.”

Other Democratic activists say they have not seen Bill Shaheen at events at all since his comments about Obama last December. And in a state that puts a premium on grass-roots activism and retail politicking, there’s no such thing as a night without a town committee meeting or campaign event in a presidential year.

The Shaheen campaign said it expects Bill Shaheen to do about eight events in the month of July, some with his wife and others as her surrogate.

Rockingham County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lenore Patton, an Obama supporter, said she doesn’t go to every event, but she has not seen Bill Shaheen since December.

“I haven’t seen him at all since then. Not anywhere,” Patton said. “It could be he’s taking a low profile because there are people who are still angry with him, but it could be that what he’s doing does not bring him” to the forefront of the campaign.

Bill Shaheen did not return a call for comment left at his law office. Republicans tracking Jeanne Shaheen’s campaign in New Hampshire report they almost never see the couple together.

But a behind-the-scenes role would not be unusual for Bill Shaheen, who has been an operative in New Hampshire politics for almost as long as he’s been married to the former governor: almost four decades. His wife, on the other hand, has been in public office since the early 1990s.

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said he first met Bill Shaheen when he ran Jimmy Carter’s New Hampshire campaign in 1975. Bill Shaheen also served as state chairman for the presidential campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

And because of his long track record in Democratic presidential campaigns, Bill Shaheen’s Dec. 12 comments to the Washington Post surprised many Granite State Democrats. Bill Shaheen was referring to a part of Obama’s memoir in which he wrote that he experimented with drugs in his youth.

“The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight … and one of the things they’re certainly going to jump on is his drug use,” Bill Shaheen told the Post.

Bill Shaheen stepped down from the Clinton campaign the next day and apologized in person to Obama.

“I can’t recall a time in either the Kerry campaign or the Carter campaign or in the Gore campaign where he said a negative thing on any of the other candidates,” Buckley said.

“Yes, he disappeared” after the Obama comments, said one New Hampshire Democratic activist. “He’s a behind-the-scenes man. He’s never been the front guy. What he’s good at is strategy and messaging, but he doesn’t need to deliver the message. In fact, if Jeannie is the one running, she ought to be the one who is delivering the message. It’s the same dynamic that was created between Hillary and Bill” Clinton.

But Obama New Hampshire campaign Co-Chairman Jim Demers said he was with Bill Shaheen at a party event last month in which he gave a speech on his wife’s behalf.

“I think he laid low during the final weeks of the presidential campaign, but he has been out and about since then,” Demers said.

And in a interview with Roll Call in Washington, D.C., in early June, Jeanne Shaheen said she expected her husband to have an increasing role in her campaign.

“I’m planning to have him come out on the trail,” she said on June 4. “He’s been working on some business ventures that he’s trying to wrap up so that he’s got more time to come out and be involved. And as this race heats up, I would expect him to.”

Buckley said he talks frequently to Bill Shaheen about state campaigns and he continues to be an “active adviser and supporter” to candidates all over New Hampshire. Buckley said he sat next to Bill Shaheen at a recent activist dinner in Portsmouth and at an organizational meeting, all of which he said Bill Shaheen attended on his wife’s behalf.

Bill Shaheen is also expected to make a major public appearance at the opening of the Democratic Party Headquarters on July 21 in Manchester. Buckley, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) and state legislative leaders are scheduled to attend, but Jeanne Shaheen is not — her campaign cites a scheduling conflict.

“It doesn’t appear that she’s going to be there, which is interesting,” Merrimack County Executive Committee Chairman Alex Lee said.

When asked whether he thought the campaign was trying to keep Bill Shaheen under wraps, Lee demurred.

“No more than Hillary was trying with Bill,” he said.