Student wins election to N.H. House seat

November 27, 2018
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer
RuprechtWith Marcie Hornick

Denny Ruprecht on the Saint Michael’s campus one recent snowy day in the header image. Above, Ruprecht campaigning with Marcie Hornick from the county attorney race. (top photo by Danielle Joubert ’20)

Saint Michael’s College student and newly elected New Hampshire state representative Denny Ruprecht ’21 says a lesson he learned growing-up hardscrabble in rural blue-collar New Hampshire is that “the greatest thing government can do is make sure nobody is left behind.”

“I tell people that in my family we were able to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps — but social security gave us the boots,” Ruprecht says. The direct-talking and personable sophomore political science major surprised a lot of people this past November as a Democratic candidate in solidly Republican New Hampshire by knocking off a one-term incumbent for a House seat representing the Grafton District 15 in the New Hampshire Statehouse.

Ruprecht recalls how his mom — widowed young when Denny was just three — worked hard at several jobs to support four kids after his factory-worker dad’s early death. Impressions from those times profoundly impact his politics today, he says, and throwing his hat in the ring last year in the legislative race felt like the natural next step in a young life that has been saturated with political opportunities, both self-made and serendipitous.

Though not the youngest person ever elected to such a seat in the small state, where youthful public servants are not so uncommon, the 20-year-old will be among the youngest lawmakers during his coming two-year term.

Molding character

Ruprecht says he started working to help out his family and get some spending money at the age of nine, wrapping smoked meats and cheeses for family friends who ran what is reputedly America’s longest-continually operating general store in his hometown of Bath, NH, in the upper Connecticut River Valley.

In those younger years, he and his sister would talk about the presidential races, and his mother set a good example by always voting. “Where I live in rural northern New Hampshire is still pretty Republican dominated,” says Ruprecht, who describes the prevailing values as “frugal, traditional … hard-knocks.”

His own political views are not necessarily in lockstep with such positions, but knowing people personally seems to supersede those considerations. “I think my dad was more a Republican, but my mom was always a Democrat; the 2008 presidential election is when I really started paying attention,” says Ruprecht. For a time once he had his license he drove a family vehicle that had been a mail delivery jeep with the steering wheel on the right, making him comfortable approaching things from all different angles, he says with amusement.

Social studies and history always were his favorite subjects starting in middle school. In high school he was a class officer (vice president twice), a member of the Student Council (president his senior year), and active in a YMCA Youth in Government program through which, for four years starting as a freshman, he would attend mock government assemblies that actually took place in the real New Hampshire House chamber. It taught him Robert’s Rules and provided valuable experience with procedures that will be part of his new position.

Ruprecht feels his early familiarity and comfort level with work paid off in his campaign this past year, though his strategy was to hold back early: “I was really quiet until the last two months before the election, which I think was to my benefit – it was a gut thing.” During the final push, he says, “I would go to parades, sit on the back of a truck and pass out campaign literature, and I’d go to a lot of political party events. I also did some door-knocking and phone-calling and ran a lot of campaign ads and had interviews in local papers.” He managed to raise $6,000 for all that, some from unions, some via Act Blue, a crowd-source funding site for Democrats. “I’d also go to talk and people would say, ‘how can I help, here’s a check,’” he says.

Inspired by Sanders

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign inspired his  stepped-up involvement in politics while still in high school, though he says: “I’m more moderate than Bernie, but what I really respected about him when I first heard about him was his call for others to get involved, and I really heeded that call.”

Motivated by Sanders, Ruprecht began writing letters while in high school to representatives concerning recycling, a major issue in New Hampshire since, as Ruprecht sees it, his home state is not as advanced as Vermont in that area. “One of my state legislators, Sue Ford, got back to me and I developed a relationship with her as my sort of mentor – she suggested I get involved with New Hampshire Legislative Youth Advisory Council” – it’s a group that helps guide lawmakers on youth issues.

He also worked for the Sanders presidential campaign in 2016, volunteering and attending rallies with friends while working for the campaign in his home state. That work got him a chance to attend the last Democratic National Convention as a page. He had at least brief encounters with candidate Sanders and his wife, Sen. Cory Booker, all three members of Vermont’s Washington Congressional delegation, former Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, and the civil rights hero John Lewis. His favorite speaker at the convention was Bill Clinton, whom he enjoyed hearing live. Ruprecht also was impressed after meeting Julian Castro, Barack Obama’s secretary of labor, he said.  Takeaways that Ruprecht mentions from his budding political career include being able to “roll with the punches” and “to stay grounded right now – but I think I’d like to be involved in national politics down the road.”

Given such nonstop immersion in politics, “nobody was surprised when I decided to run,” he says. The state senator he had worked for on campaigns told him how that senator had run for the Statehouse at about the same age that Ruprecht was, so he encouraged him to try it too. “To be honest, I didn’t’ think I was going to win – I had the expectation I would lose, but all the stars aligned I guess,” he says.

Ruprecht says he had looked at Saint Michael’s while in high school after winning its Book Award and liked it a lot, but he went to UNH briefly based on finances before transferring. While he enjoys Saint Michael’s very much, he says, the fact is that to start his Statehouse career, he’ll need to take time off from school and then reassess the next best move. He’ll live at home, and commute about an hour and a half to Concord for Tuesday-through-Thursday sessions, perhaps staying down there those three days and sharing sparse living quarters with somebody. “Where I live, everybody drives long distances to get anyplace,” he says.

It’s about people, issues

He’s focused on the issues as a new lawmaker much as he was in the campaign, based primarily on his discussions with his constituent neighbors. He’d like to see property tax reform in his state that would benefit the largely property-poor residents in his district, by having property-wealthier towns paying a fairer share through broader-based taxes, even though New Hampshire historically has resisted such taxes fiercely. He also supports the biomass industry – “woodchips for energy” as he puts it — since logging is a major industry in his district. And he advocates for developing more infrastructure in his district such as roads and better cellphone service and broadband access. He also wants to assure that the once-discussed but now-dormant idea of sending electricity from Canada to Massachusetts via power lines through his state stays dead, due to environmental considerations.

Ruprecht says all new lawmakers are assigned to a committee though he’s not sure yet where he’ll land. “You give your top four choices, which for me are Environment & Agriculture first, then Education, though that’s in greater demand, then Fish &Game/Marine Resources, and finally Recreation and Development.”

He senses that his family is happy about his recent success, which for Ruprecht is more than enough. “We’re sort of a stoic family and not big talkers,” Ruprecht says, “so it’s just not how we operate as far as all hugs and expressing feelings — but they’re supportive, I can just tell. We don’t have to talk about it.”

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