Pulp Friction

A New Hampshire Mill Town's Primary Concern: What Else but the Economy?

 BERLIN, NEW HAMPSHIRE—If this were anywhere else but a New Hampshire mill town on the brink of a presidential primary, Joe Lieberman's Secret Service detail might have yanked Mark Milstein out of his seat at the Tea Birds Café, just to play it safe.

The burly printer looked angry as he waited at a back table for the Democratic candidate to get around to him. When Lieberman came over and sat down, they shook hands and spoke for five minutes in tones so hushed that even the reporters sitting at the next table had trouble hearing. That's the kind of audience you command as a voter in New Hampshire these days.

George Bush may be trying to distract the populace with talk about space exploration, but Milstein, like his fellow Berliners, is clearly most concerned about the economy—and constantly annoyed about the loss of jobs overseas. Like so many other towns in America, Berlin, population 10,000, has just been buffeted by another round of layoffs. Foreign-trade policies aren't solely to blame: There are New Hampshire jobs heading for other states.

The siege of Berlin: Howard Dean's troops take over the junior high gym for a speech.
photo: Cary Conover
The siege of Berlin: Howard Dean's troops take over the junior high gym for a speech.


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Which is not to say that Milstein, like other Americans gazing nervously into their futures, doesn't want to be distracted, on a cold day, from the equally frigid New Hampshire economy.

"Why are you against the space program?" Milstein asked Lieberman during their little summit talk. The candidate hung tough, replying, "I'd still rather spend the money helping manufacturers keep jobs here." Milstein considered this, still looking sullen. "It's just something else to think about," he said, and then cracked bitterly about the current administration's attitude: "Dick Cheney makes Spiro Agnew look like the Virgin Mary."

A week away from the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic candidates have taken careful note of Berlin's troubles. They get that it's a Democratic island in a state that has more Republicans than Democrats and more independents than either. National politics has become as local as it could possibly get. All the contenders are prowling around this remote town (the locals pronounce it Berlin). During the same week Lieberman made his rounds in Tea Birds, Howard Dean spoke to a few hundred people in the high school gym. John Kerry's campaign signs are planted at the entrance to town, and Wesley Clark has already glad-handed workers during a shift change at the paper mill. Dick Gephardt, meanwhile, has been endorsed by the mill workers' influential union local. (That's the same mill, towns-people proudly claim, that churns out the pulp that Stephen King later uses to churn out his own.)

As of last week, none of the contenders seemed to have a clear-cut lead here, so Berliners had that chance, rare for ordinary Americans, to not only see them around town but even have a reasonable shot at grilling them directly.

As it turned out, Milstein's extraterrestrial questions weren't totally off topic.

"I don't agree with him," Milstein said about Lieberman's views on Bush's moon campaign. "That could create offshoot industries. You could mine asteroids for diamonds." Milstein pondered Lieberman for a moment and added, "He's not much of a visionary, in my mind."

The skyline of a mill town.
(photo: Cary Conover)
Berlin, of course, was shaken by 9-11. Unfortunately, that tragedy was its second in 24 hours. The town's foundation and its prime source of jobs, its century-old paper mill industry, went bust on September 10, 2001.

Cynthia Girard lost her job, and so did her husband, Roland. But they were luckier than most of their friends. Natives of this remote town in New Hampshire's North Country, they had worked at the mill since the mid '70s and had savings to draw on when their jobs disappeared. One of their two children had already grown up and left home, their cars still ran, and they owned their house. Thanks in part to occasional work that Roland, a machinist, picked up, they could pay their bills and keep their health insurance current.

Cynthia found work for a few months assisting the rest of Berlin's newly unemployed, more than 800 people who had worked for American Tissue, the company that the locals blame for running the mill into the ground. The Girards, who are in their forties, kept afloat until the mill reopened in June 2002 under new ownership, and they got their jobs back. But last October, when the testy market for paper again turned angry, Cynthia Girard and over a hundred of her co-workers were laid off, some of them for the third time.

"I have this hanging over my head," she said. "There's no other work here." Thankfully, she said, Roland still has his mill job. "Other people have lost everything. Their houses, their cars, even their kids' toys."

Like a lot of other Berliners, she's angry about the globalized economy. "NAFTA affects everything," she said. "They've been cutting wood up in Canada and sending it to Finland, where there are no environmental regulations." The paper comes back to the U.S., she said, available more cheaply than any product the small Berlin mill, with its antiquated equipment and its relatively high wages, could hope to match.

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