A box seat in the presidential arena
If you want to find Neil Levesque, look to the back of the room. Or scan the edge of the crowd. When politicians and pundits storm into town in the weeks before the New Hampshire presidential primary, he likes to stand back. But he’s always at the center of activity.
As executive director of the nonpartisan New Hampshire Institute of Politics, housed at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, Levesque is happily engaged in a job that allows him to promote electoral politics and American democracy in action.
When he’s not with candidates who are out on the campaign trail, Levesque stages events at the institute for front-runners and long shots alike; assists the reporters and producers who cover them; and helps manage a dynamic academic environment for students and others interested not only in political science but in the color and commotion of authentic political practice.
“I’m just a facilitator,” says the 1993 Wheaton graduate with characteristic modesty. “I help politicians do their job.”
Friends, colleagues and politicos would argue he does a lot more than that.
Since becoming director in 2008, Levesque, 46, has raised the profile of the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm, a small liberal arts college founded in 1889 by the Benedictines and perched on a hillside overlooking the former industrial mill buildings of Manchester. As institute director, Levesque (pronounced “Laveck”) also serves on Saint Anselm’s cabinet, the school’s top administrative team.
Politicians have been stopping by the college for years—including every major presidential contender since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Today, however, the institute is a well-recognized center for politics, polling and public policy.
“The Institute of Politics is the leading political center of the state,” asserts former New Hampshire governor Steve Merrill. “That’s single-handedly due to Neil.”
Veteran political journalist Mark Halperin agrees that Levesque has taken the institute to a new level. “Neil saw a vacuum the institute could fill and leveraged its position, making it central to the way the New Hampshire primary works,” says the managing editor of Bloomberg Politics, which has teamed up with Saint Anselm during this presidential cycle to conduct polls. “He had a vision and executed it. The stakes were high. But Neil saw the assets here and rushed headlong into the national political firmament. That’s rare.”
Colleagues say Levesque is one of the most politically connected people in the state, whose influence draws to Saint Anselm major candidates, notable elected officials, authors and media personalities.
“We get at least one candidate a day during the presidential cycle,” says Saint Anselm president Steven DiSalvo. “It’s Hillary one day and Jeb the next.”
In mid-January, just weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Levesque is sitting at a diner in New London, north of Manchester, catching up on regional news and indulging in a slice of coconut crème pie. (“Sssh! Tell no one,” he says, a conspiratorial glint in his deep blue eyes.) He’s got about an hour to spare before joining Florida Senator Marco Rubio at the Sturm, Ruger & Co. gun manufacturing plant in Newport, N.H., an obligatory stop for presidential contenders keen to demonstrate their allegiance to gun rights and the Second Amendment.
Whereas some liken New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary to a quadrennial circus that ought to strike the tent and move on, Levesque sees something else: a civically engaged populace that takes seriously its responsibility to vet candidates.
“We should absolutely hold on to it,” says Levesque, who is chairman of the Presidential Primary Centennial Anniversary Commission, established by the New Hampshire Legislature last year to commemorate the primary’s 100th anniversary and educate citizens about its role in presidential politics.
“We work hard at this process,” he says, praising the “hand-to-hand” campaigning possible in a small state with a high voter turnout.
It’s a process that Levesque, a New Hampshire native, enjoys immensely. “For people who love politics, there’s no other place to be. It’s the state sport,” he says before heading off on a bright wintry day to meet Rubio.
During a brief hiatus between events, Levesque conducts a tour of the institute, situated adjacent to Saint Anselm’s main campus. The nondescript brick building sees more presidential campaign activity than any other in the United States, Levesque proudly proclaims. Lining the walls are historic campaign photos, political posters and memorabilia, from a handwritten note by Daniel Webster to whimsical bobbleheads and obscure buttons. (“Nuck Fewt” is a Levesque favorite, though he frets it may offend the former Republican House speaker, who’s apt to drop in again someday.)
Levesque keeps two offices, a formal one near his staff of three and an informal one where he likes to “disappear” (the nameplate on the door still says “Brother Isaac Murphy”). His official office bears the markings of the job—a desk piled with papers, books on politics, and a photo of himself with Caroline Kennedy.
Down the hall, in his second office, sports other than politics are on display: There is a photo of Kelly, his wife of 17 years, triumphantly completing a triathlon; a snapshot of Levesque showing off his catch of the day, a 600-pound bluefin tuna caught with his own boat off the shores of Portsmouth, N.H.; and a photograph of a coveted sailboat christened Aloft.
“When it gets stressful, this is what I want to look at,” he says of the 40-foot yawl, not his own.
Levesque loves boats, fishing and trapping lobsters. He owns a small sloop and a lobster boat that he keeps in Rye Harbor. When he’s not on the water, he hunts for boar, bear, deer and moose—any big game he can find in the wilds beyond Concord, the state capital, where he lives with his wife and 13-year-old daughter, Molly.
Behind the scenes
With just two and a half weeks to go before the February 9 primary, as TV and radio reporters assemble in the Common Ground café in anticipation of the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz, Levesque toggles among camera crews, campaign workers and students deputized to help with the upcoming panel discussion. By the time the bluejeaned Texas senator strides into the auditorium, the corn dogs are gone and Levesque has receded into the background.
“He doesn’t try to dominate the event,” says Merrill, the former New Hampshire governor who has known Levesque for more than 20 years. “He lets authors and pols take control.”
Merrill thinks Levesque’s self-effacing manner is a key to his success. “People from the far left and far right trust him. He’s truly bipartisan. That’s why he can attract politicians from all around the country.”
Politically speaking, Levesque admits he’s mellowed over the years. A lifelong Republican, from a family of Republicans, he recalls “sticking out” during his junior and senior years at Wheaton (he transferred from Nichols College in Dudley, Mass.). He wrote commentaries from a conservative viewpoint for the student newspaper and went against the majority of his peers at Commencement when he sported a mortarboard emblazoned with “Bush ’96.”
That’s George Herbert Walker Bush, whose 1992 defeat made a lasting impression. In fact, Levesque dates his passion for politics from the night Bush, the incumbent president, conceded to Bill Clinton. It was a transformative moment for the young political science major wondering what he should do for the rest of his life.
Bush looked right into the camera, Levesque remembers, and urged young people not to be deterred from public service by the “smoke and fire of a campaign year or the ugliness of politics.”
“That’s when I knew,” says Levesque.
Inspired by Bush’s words, Levesque returned home to Nashua and wrote to Hugh Gregg, a former Republican governor and patrician political insider who had served as state chairman for a number of presidential campaigns.
“I love the state like you do,” Levesque told Gregg. A tireless booster of New Hampshire and its primary, Gregg was naturally drawn to the young graduate’s enthusiasm for the Granite State. Thirty minutes after receiving Gregg’s call, “I was in his office, in a chair Nelson Rockefeller, George Bush and Ronald Reagan had sat in,” Levesque remembers.
That was the start of a career grounded in New Hampshire politics. Gregg, who died in 2003, proved a valuable mentor. “He and I talked every day and he helped with different opportunities, and I got to see what a great New Hampshire statesman was up close,” Levesque told the Union Leader last year. Gregg founded the New Hampshire Political Library, which was eventually folded into the Institute of Politics.
From Wheaton to New Hampshire
A year after graduation, in 1994, Levesque took a job with the campaign of Representative Charles Bass, another Granite State Republican with a long political lineage, who represented the state’s Second District from 1995 to 2007 and again from 2011 to 2013. After serving as Bass’s campaign manager, Levesque rose to become state director, a role that required him to manage staff, handle constituent casework, track lawmaking in both Washington, D.C., and Concord, and schedule events in a sprawling district with boundaries that stretch from the Massachusetts border to the mountainous North Country near Canada. He helped cut bureaucratic red tape for major projects, including approval for new roads.
Levesque drove the congressman almost everywhere. “That gave him a feeling of how things were going and made him more effective, being out on the road with me,” says Bass. Long hours in the car also cemented their friendship. They often listened to books on tape, books such as Charlie Wilson’s War and Michael Beschloss’s Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963–1964.
“He’s very well read,” notes Bass, now a lawyer in private practice. “He’s always talking about books, particularly on politics. He knew more about the lives of elected officials than almost anybody.”
Indeed, Levesque says Wheaton’s library was his favorite spot on campus, a place where he discovered the political biographies he favors.
And while Levesque says he hasn’t read much fiction since college, he appreciates a tall tale.
Bass recounts how the two would listen to authentic Irish jokes on some of those long drives to town halls and shopping malls. Levesque made it a point to collect new jokes every year so that the congressman had fresh material for the St. Patrick’s Day circuit, when “just about everyone was drunk but me,” Bass recalls, laughing. “We had a great time.”
Bass lost his bid for re-election in 2006. Suddenly, Levesque was out of a job he had held for a decade. He worked for a time in wealth management at Morgan Stanley but was, according to those who know him well, miserable.
The chance to direct the Institute of Politics, which had been overseen by a rotating crew of faculty members, seemed like an excellent fit—and offered a box seat in the political arena.
“I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do,” says Levesque, who demurs when asked if he’d ever like to run for political office himself. “I see what elected officials go through, and it’s a grueling process.”
While acknowledging that elections are more partisan and less civil than in the past, Levesque argues that money is not the most pressing problem—there are plenty of billionaires on both sides, he observes. Furthermore, he asserts that most politicians are better people than voters and a scornful media generally assume. Overall, they are smart, hardworking, patriotic and “trying to do what’s best for the country. Money is not what they’re in this for.”
The problem in politics, Levesque says, is people. “Americans don’t take time to get involved or understand civics.”
A few days before the third Democratic presidential debate, staged at Saint Anselm in mid-December, a labor dispute prevented New Hampshire’s most influential television station, WMUR, from participating. In a pinch, ABC News turned to Levesque, asking him to join moderators David Muir and Martha Raddatz—more evidence, note colleagues, of the respected and impartial role Levesque plays as the institute’s director. Campaign managers know him to be a fair referee, whatever his personal politics.
The event may have been the apex of Levesque’s political career, suggests Bass with only a hint of humor. “We were emailing furiously” right up until airtime, he says, chuckling about the fact that Levesque couldn’t decide whether to wear his reading glasses for his national TV debut.
When the cameras rolled, a pair of dark-rimmed eyeglasses framed his face. And he was standing in the aisle far from the bright lights of center stage—as if not wanting to call too much attention to himself.