CONCORD MONITOR: Behind the scenes of Politics & Eggs: What’s the deal with those wooden eggs anyway? As originally appearing in The Concord Monitor
By SUSAN DOUCET
In the world of pro sports, athletes have long followed a tradition of signing anything from baseball mitts to trading cards.
In New Hampshire presidential politics, the stars sign wooden eggs.
Any aspiring president who wants some notoriety and an audience of politically well-connected business people makes sure to speak at one of the Politics & Eggs forums, a collaboration between the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and the New England Council.
But before the speakers take the stage, they are given a task. A basket of wooden eggs – the namesake items of the series – is placed in front of the speaker, who must sign the glossed shell.
Asking the candidates to sign these wooden icons, the same size as real eggs, was not part of the original plan for a political event designed for local business people. But as the series has grown, so has the prominence and tradition of the wooden eggs, establishing them as political collectibles.
Over the last two decades, collections of these eggs have popped up on office shelves, bureaus and bedrooms across New England as the presidential primary forums and tokens have gained fame.
Made in Maine
When Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, first spoke at Politics & Eggs, he only had a slight familiarity with the tradition surrounding the wooden eggs.
“He said, ‘I need to get one of those eggs,’ ” said Larry Zabar, executive vice president of The New England Council. “He knew there was something about eggs.”
Gingrich came to the New Hampshire event in 2006 and in 2011, as a Republican presidential candidate.
Just shy of two decades since its founding, most Politics & Eggs speakers now know about the symbols of the event.
“It’s been branded, that’s the way to put it,” said Politics & Eggs founder Fred Kocher.
But many attendees and speakers may not realize that the New Hampshire politics eggs are not New Hampshire made. Thousands of the eggs make their way to the Granite State each year from Maine.
The wooden eggs, each 2 ¾ inches in diameter and 2 ½ inches tall, come from Kemp Enterprises Inc. of Farmington, Maine. The process of creating the eggs – from raw wood blocks to slightly oblong orbs – can take up to 10 weeks.
“It’s a fun thing to do,” Kemp Enterprises sales representative Carol McNally said of the Politics & Eggs orders. The company, in business since the 1970s, has been making the forum’s eggs since 2006. (The previous manufacturer was based in Laconia but went out of business, Kocher said.)
Since its founding, the company has used the same method to make the eggs, she said.
“That’s one thing about wood, you can only turn it one way to get the design you want,” McNally said.
The process starts in a forest and ends in a Farmington wood mill.
The wood used for the eggs is either birch or maple. The chopped tree must be cut and dried before the eggs can be made from it, or else collectors can have a cracked egg.
Once they’ve been varnished, they get imprinted with the Politics and Eggs logo. A sketch of the logo – an image of a cracked egg shell with the White House resting in it – is made on a piece of metal and then printed on the nearly complete wooden eggs. (The design was created by a Concord woman, Kocher said.)
“And the (finished) egg is what you see in front of you,” McNally said.
This year’s egg reads “Presidential Primary NH 2016.”
“All we change on that is just the year,” McNally said. “They like that clear varnish with the green print.”
Each egg costs $1.32, she said. But it’s the personalization at each forum with candidates’ signatures that makes each egg memorable.
“You never know, when you meet one of these folks, where they’ll end up,” said frequent Politics & Eggs attendee Patrick McDermott, director of external affairs at Hinckley Allen law firm.
The eggs, although crafted at the Maine company for less than a decade, have been a staple of the event since its initial forum in 1995.
“The wooden eggs, we started out with those immediately,” Kocher said.
Jack Kemp, a Republican, was the first Politics & Eggs speaker in August 1995. At its start, the series was held at breakfast time, and the menu usually included eggs.
“Back then it was a subscription event,” said Kocher, who formulated the idea for the series on a drive from Cleveland to New Hampshire while working for then-presidential candidate Bob Dole. The idea was to allow New Hampshire business people an opportunity to interact with candidates and politicians.
“We sent out a subscription so that businesses could sign up a year ahead of the primary,” he said.
It was at that first event that Kocher recalls the initial egg signing. A young woman walked up to Kemp and asked him to sign an egg.
“It’s been that way ever since,” Kocher said.
But others involved in the series recall the first signing happening a few years later. Larry Zabar, executive vice president of The New England Council, said the tradition started when Arizona Sen. John McCain spoke in 1999.
“I watched somebody go up to him with a black Sharpie pen and an egg and I was thinking, ‘What is she doing?’ ” Zabar said.
Zabar said he has attended each of the more than 100 Politics & Eggs events – with one exception. This February, Zabar missed Carly Fiorina’s Politics & Eggs appearance because of a snowstorm.
“(I’m) still kicking myself,” he said on missing the Republican presidential candidate’s appearance.
So far this year, Politics & Eggs has had 12 speakers, 11 of whom are presidential candidates. (A 12th presidential candidate, Donald Trump, was a Politics & Eggs speaker in 2014.) The forums happen in the mornings and afternoons, and eggs aren’t always on the menu.
“Because it’s been going on so long now . . . it’s so easy to get them to come to Politics & Eggs,” Kocher said.
And with each forum – in addition to the speaker’s campaign message, opinion on current affairs or other political topics – comes the autographed eggs.
Kocher’s collection is now so extensive, it takes over his entire bedroom bureau.
“There’s no room for anything else,” he said.
Zabar’s collection is tucked away at his home and McDermott, who has been to about 30 of the Politics & Eggs forums, has some eggs in storage and some displayed in his office.
“They are great conversation pieces when people come in,” McDermott said.
Stories and memories from the two decades of speakers are easy for organizers and attendees to recall. And Kocher also remembers who did not attend. President Obama has never been a Politics & Eggs speaker.
“My memory was that they were just focused on big events,” Kocher said of Obama’s campaign.
Most candidates make time for the forum while campaigning in the first in the nation primary state.
“Each time we have a primary now, I’m just amazed how easy, frankly, it is to get the candidates to come to it,” Kocher said. “It’s got this national reputation that amazes me. . . . It’s a surprise, but a nice one.”
So far this year, Fiorina, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Dr. Ben Carson have been Politics & Eggs guests at the forums either in Manchester or at the Bedford Village Inn. (Of that group, Bolton is the only one not currently exploring a presidential campaign. He considered a launching a campaign but decided against it earlier this year.)
The forum’s reputation now attracts not only the presidential candidates, but also a wider range of attendees and members of the national media.
Politics & Eggs was referenced in an episode of the TV show The West Wing as “one of those annoying Granite State traditions. Like the actual voting.”
“A producer for the show was in NH doing some research on the primary and attended a P&E event and thus the eggs ended up in an episode,” Emily Heisig, senior vice president of communications and federal affairs at The New England Council, wrote in an email.
When Kocher envisioned the political series nearly 20 years ago, he did not anticipate the forum with its wooden eggs making its way into a popular television show or becoming a “must stop” for candidates, as The New England Council now describes it.
“I hoped it would keep going,” Kocher said. “You start something, you don’t know if you’re going to get the support to keep them going. . . Something just hit the right button. This hit the right button.”
(Susan Doucet can be reached at 369-3309, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @susan_doucet.)