The hamburgers and hot dogs were all consumed by the time Michael Avenatti arrived and delivered what the Donald Trump-loathing crowd was hungering to hear.
“When you are the party of Davids, you cannot afford to show up without a slingshot,” he told several hundred picnickers on a pleasantly breezy Sunday in rural southwestern New Hampshire.
“I believe we cannot be the party of turning the other cheek,” Avenatti went on, pointedly differing with those — including, most prominently, former First Lady Michelle Obama — who counsel grace in the face of enmity. “I say when they go low, we hit harder.”
Avenatti, who soared to fame as legal counsel for porn star Stormy Daniels and, not incidentally, a ubiquitous tormentor of President Trump, brought his possible White House campaign to this early primary state in a tableau that seemed to perfectly capture these surreal political times.
He was greeted with curiosity, enthusiasm and no small degree of skepticism.
“I think I want him for my attorney,” said Denise Clark, 64, a semi-retired teacher from nearby Milford, who took in the politicking and picnic beneath a safari hat and dark sunglasses. “I’m not sure I want him as president of the United States.”
The exertions of the 47-year-old Newport Beach lawyer could just be another publicity stunt, or way to buff his ego. “I have not decided whether I’m going to do it,” Avenatti said of a full-fledged run for president.
“My life would be a lot better if I did not,” he added in an interview before leaving Los Angeles for New England, by way of a Saturday night fundraiser for Democrats in Tampa, Fla.
Whatever he chooses, Avenatti’s visits this month to Iowa and Sunday to New Hampshire — the states that begin the presidential balloting — and well-practiced stump speech have already thrust him to the fore of a Democratic debate over how best to seize back the White House.
“We’re not going to beat Trump by out-Trumping him,” said Jennifer Burton, a Democratic consultant working in dozens of campaigns and legislative contests across the country.
“Voters want sanity,” she said, rejecting Avenatti’s fire-with-fire prescription, “and balance and reason and dignity.”
Bob Mulholland, a longtime California Democratic Party strategist, firmly disagreed.
“Democrats are normally too intellectual and too nice,” he said. “A guy like Avenatti says, ‘Give me the gloves, I’ll get in the ring and let’s start boxing,’ and that’s good. He’ll attract some people who normally wouldn’t pay attention.”
Whatever happens going forward, Avenatti has Trump wholly to thank for his presidential prospects.
His nationwide celebrity stems from his representation of Daniels, an adult film star tangled in ongoing litigation with the president over an alleged July 2006 one-night stand. Beyond that, the only reason Avenatti is taken even somewhat seriously as a White House prospect is the presence of his nemesis in the Oval Office.
“At this point in the campaign Trump was a joke, too, and he managed not only to win the nomination but become president,” said Mark Mellman, a decades-long veteran of Democratic campaigns, who won’t reflexively dismiss Avenatti as he once would have. “Our definition of impossible needs to change.”
Avenatti has taken the first step toward fleshing out his political profile by outlining his stance on several issues, hewing largely to Democratic orthodoxy in support of “sensible” gun control, legalized abortion, a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” and, tilting leftward, favoring government-run healthcare or, as advocates prefer, “Medicare for all.”
He has also demonstrated, repeatedly, a Trumpian capacity to grab attention. When the administration began separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, Avenatti immediately jumped into the legal fray.
It was a new area of endeavor for a plaintiffs’ attorney accustomed to suing corporations, but one with political dividends. One client was a 9-year-old boy whom Avenatti accompanied to Guatemala last week to rejoin his mother — a scene his pro bono counsel made certain to chronicle on Twitter.
In a crowded field of prospects, Avenatti’s main distinction remains the fact he is so unlike other possible contestants, in both background and temperament.
“If the Democratic Party thinks they can nominate an experienced politician that is very similar to the other 16 or 17 individuals that [Trump] beat the last time, and get a different result, they’re fooling themselves,” he said in his interview with The Times. “That’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
For now, it’s all about first impressions, and many of Avenatti’s reviews from Iowa were quite favorable.
Scott Brennan was among a small group of Democratic activists who dined with Avenatti during his visit this month. He said people “underestimate him if all they do is think of him as Stormy Daniels’ lawyer. He’s more thoughtful than that.”
“Objectively, I would say people want the anti-Trump this time around, someone who could actually bring people together,” said Brennan, a former state party chairman who is staying neutral so far. “But in this fractured world, I don’t know if that’s a winning strategy. The old rules are all gone.”
Still, Avenatti faces formidable obstacles beyond his unusual provenance and lack of a ready political infrastructure. (Back home, he is one of half a dozen California Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Sen. Kamala Harris and billionaire Tom Steyer, possibly vying for the mantle of favorite son, or daughter.)
The bigger-name Democratic prospects — among them former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Harris — have yet to set foot in Iowa or New Hampshire.
That makes the going easy, as it always is for candidates in this early, unchallenged phase of the campaign.
David Axelrod, who knows something about ushering an underdog to the White House, likened running for president to a pole-vault competition.
“You can smartly clear the lower bar, but each time you clear it, the bar gets raised,” said Axelrod, a senior strategist to former President Obama. “They may see you as an interesting character. They may appreciate your performance on TV. But as they start thinking of you more seriously, they want to know what you know, how you answer questions.”
Avenatti’s legal practice, which has yielded a slew of enemies and piles of unpaid bills, would doubtless face considerable scrutiny.
He personally guaranteed nearly half of a $10-million judgment owed to a former lawyer at Eagan Avenatti, his Newport Beach firm, which emerged from bankruptcy protection in March. Since then, according to the Internal Revenue Service, the firm has defaulted on more than $880,000 in back taxes, penalties and interest owed to the U.S. government. Avenatti and the IRS are negotiating a deal for payment.
Avenatti is unfazed. “Show me somebody that hasn’t had any controversy in their past,” he said, “and I’ll show you somebody who shouldn’t be the president of the United States, OK?”
Trump, for his part, was unimpeded in his march to the White House by half a dozen bankruptcies.
He did, however, enjoy considerable advantages that Avenatti lacks. As a celebrity real estate developer and former reality TV star, he was vastly more famous. His immense personal wealth financed his early exploratory efforts and, for many star-struck fans, enhanced Trump’s appeal.
And despite his popular image as a political outsider, Trump had considerable inside experience, having long navigated the government corridors of both New York and Washington.
Not least, Trump had a message, “Make America Great Again,” and a brace of pugnacious promises — building a border wall, revamping U.S. trade policy, draining the Washington “swamp” — that meshed with his pile-driving personality.
On Sunday in New Hampshire, Avenatti sought to expand his image beyond the barracuda lawyer of cable-TV fame. He recalled mowing lawns, shoveling snow and working at McDonald’s and Marshalls while growing up in Missouri.
“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth and, no, we never had a gold toilet in our house,” he said, referring to Trump's renowned opulence.
The reception was encouraging, his 25 minutes of forceful remarks punctuated by boisterous cheers and frequent applause. Even so, he has some ways to go to prove his political viability.
“I agree with nearly everything he said,” said Becky Hudson, 53, a party volunteer from nearby Lyndeborough, as the ever-quotable not-quite-candidate waded into the inevitable thicket of news cameras. “I think he needs a little experience, though. I’m stuck on that.”
Barabak reported from San Francisco and Finnegan from Greenfield.