LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In the old days of American politics, a single party boss could hold an iron grip on state politics, and their endorsement could make or break a political candidate. Those days are gone, yet 2020 presidential hopefuls still covet those local endorsements. From New Hampshire Public Radio's "Stranglehold" podcast, Jack Rodolico explains why.
JACK RODOLICO, BYLINE: New Hampshire's longest-serving state senator is a Democrat. He's 81 years old. And his office is covered in photos, pictures that show a thin line between his personal and political life.
LOU D'ALLESANDRO: My wife, my daughter, John Kennedy when he announced for the presidency in Manchester, N.H.
RODOLICO: His name is Lou D'Allesandro. And peppered around the walls of his office are photos of him with powerful people - people you would not expect to be friends with someone this low down the national political food chain.
D'ALLESANDRO: I pinch myself all the time. I walk into this building, I pinch myself and I say, I'm a New Hampshire state senator. How good does it get? How good does it get? I'm one lucky guy.
RODOLICO: How lucky a guy is he? Think about this. Former President Bill Clinton once personally called D'Allesandro to ask him to back Hillary Clinton when she was running for president.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HILLARY CLINTON: Lou D'Allesandro has been a friend of mine a long time, and I thank him very much for his support and his friendship. Thank you, Lou.
RODOLICO: In the state Senate, D'Allesandro represents a chunk of Manchester, the biggest city in New Hampshire. It's a trove of voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state. And would-be Democratic hopefuls seek him out to get in front of those voters.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
D'ALLESANDRO: It is my privilege to introduce to you my friend, Senator John Edwards.
And it is an honor and a privilege for me to introduce the United States senator from Delaware, Joseph Biden.
RODOLICO: This time around, D'Allesandro has endorsed Biden. And so it's worth asking - can D'Allesandro deliver votes on primary day?
JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: I think it's an open question what local endorsements have ever meant to presidential campaigns.
RODOLICO: This is my colleague here at NHPR, Josh Rogers. He's a political reporter who's now covering his fifth presidential primary. Josh says campaigns in 2020 have all sorts of digital tools - tools that reach way more voters than a speech by a local politico. And that leaves a more interesting question on the table. If the campaigns aren't getting much from these endorsements, what are the local endorsers getting?
ROGERS: There is one very well-known Democratic Party activist who - my understanding, like, kept a moldy cookie from a Christmas party they attended at the White House on their kitchen counter.
RODOLICO: This - this is a real thing. There are lots of politicos in New Hampshire whose offices and homes are filled with little mementos from presidential hopefuls, although as far as we know, there was only one with a moldy cookie from the White House.
ROGERS: Moldy - it's in plastic. I do think that's in some way emblematic of our political culture prizing access with people running for president or people who become president and really kind of leave it there.
RODOLICO: It is a heady experience getting personally courted by people who want to be president. Here's state Representative Kristina Schultz.
KRISTINA SCHULTZ: Yeah. Phone calls, emails - I got a text from one of the candidates when I was in the hospital this summer. That was very nice.
RODOLICO: It is nice, but it's not always an ego boost. Here's state rep Bob Backus on what endorsements like his bring to presidential campaigns.
BOB BACKUS: Frankly, not much.
RODOLICO: Yet local politicians still endorse. Democratic presidential campaigns keep flooding the inboxes of political reporters with long lists of endorsements. But you know who you won't find on any of those lists? This woman.
EVA CASTILLO: We tend to be just used as a face.
RODOLICO: Eva Castillo - she's an immigration activist. She has endorsed presidential candidates in the past. But she says she felt used by the campaigns, tokenized.
CASTILLO: And so that's why I don't endorse anybody personally because I'm not the token anything for anybody.
RODOLICO: State Representative Gerri Cannon has similar concerns but still sees power in her endorsement as a politician who's transgender. She endorsed Senator Cory Booker.
GERRI CANNON: I said, I don't want them to overuse me as a transgender representative. On the other hand, I know that's important. There are transgender people that need to know they can stand up for a candidate.
RODOLICO: So what do local politicos get from endorsing a presidential candidate? Maybe they elevate an issue close to their hearts. Maybe they're just flattered. I brought this all back to state Senator Lou D'Allesandro. I asked him, what does he get for his endorsement?
D'ALLESANDRO: I got a great wife. I got a great family. What else can I ask for? What else could they give me that I don't have?
RODOLICO: I mean, how do you put a value on face time with the most powerful people in American politics?
For NPR News, I'm Jack Rodolico in Concord, N.H.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he had help reporting that story from Josh Rogers and Casey McDermott of NHPR. They're part of the team that makes the podcast "Stranglehold." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.