A new breed of candidates are seeking to claim one of the five seats on the Executive Council, a unique government body that checks the governor’s power by voting on contracts and agency head and judge appointments; it also crafts a 10-year highway plan.
Some candidates have never held elected office and many are running to correct what they see as a political imbalance in the council, after a number of controversial and politically motivated votes. But whether it will return to its less partisan, quieter pitch or the ideological volume will continue to increase is unclear.
Democrats in particular have been mobilized to run after Republicans voted against spending on a Planned Parenthood contract last year amid national calls for defunding the organization. And an unusual vote to deny the appointment of Manchester public defender Dorothy Graham to be judge, based on her role in defense, also seemed motivated by partisan politics. The Republican majority, which consists of Chris Sununu, Joe Kenney and David Wheeler, each voted against the appointment after a right-wing Washington newspaper ginned up opposition by claiming the nominee got sex offenders off on technicalities.
“In part those things have made it more apparent to me just how influential the Executive Council has become,” said District 2 candidate Andru Volinsky, a Democrat. “There was a time when it was a rubber stamp for the governor and the councilors were quietly retiring as they worked in their office. I don’t think that’s the model at all anymore.”
But Volinsky, a well-known Concord lawyer, thinks it’s a good thing the council is making the news more, even when he doesn’t agree with the outcome.
“I do think it’s a real change … to have the Executive Council come out of the shadows and be more forceful in exercising their prerogative,” Volinsky said.
But not everyone is so quick to cheer on such a change.
Chris Pappas likes to echo a late councilor when he tells people the Executive Council is kind of like a board of directors for the governor. Pappas is the incumbent Democrat for District 4, which includes Manchester and surrounding communities and goes as far north as Loudon. His analogy was often used by Ray Burton, a moderate Republican from the North Country who, after becoming the longest-serving Executive Councilor in state history, died of kidney cancer in late 2013.
“When I joined the council, I had the honor of serving with Ray Burton, who served over three decades as an Executive Councilor and nobody did it better than Ray. He didn’t have a political bone in his body. It was all about helping the constituents,” Pappas said.
Everyone seems to agree that Burton was a paragon of public service, and his apolitical nature is something to be viewed as a model for others in this government body.
Even today, as the Executive Council seems to be growing ever more weighted by the political agendas and the ideologies of its current and would-be members, Burton’s legacy looms large.
For most of the candidates, it seems good politics to claim they’re more like Burton than their opponent is.
Pappas, for his part, said he has found a good balance between helping to run his family’s restaurant, the Puritan Backroom in Manchester, and serving the public as Executive Councilor. And he claims he has no aspiration for any higher office any time soon, despite the rumors to the contrary.
His opponent, Republican Manchester alderman at large Joe Kelly Levasseur, said he expects there will be more “political gamesmanship” if Pappas keeps his seat and the Democrats remain in the minority, especially if a Republican governor is elected.
But how apolitical Levasseur aims to be if elected is mixed. The lawyer and small business owner said he disagreed with the vote against appointing Graham as judge. Levasseur believes there should be more diversity in the courts, with judges of all backgrounds.
But the issue of Planned Parenthood funding is a different story.
“I would not support Planned Parenthood the way they are now. I would not support the spending for Planned Parenthood,” Levasseur said.
For Democratic candidates, that would be an example of injecting politics and policy-making where it doesn’t belong — that it’s blocking the implementation of something already approved by the legislative process.
“I think the council’s job is not to make policy, it’s to responsibly implement the will of the legislature and to be an advocate on behalf of the district,” said Daniel Weeks, Democratic candidate for District 5.
But for Levasseur, it’s actually an attempt to strike more political balance. As he sees it, Planned Parenthood is “an extreme arm of the Democratic party” that uses its resources to back Democrats and therefore shouldn’t be afforded taxpayers’ dollars.
Some have wondered if the council is becoming more political because it’s viewed increasingly as a way to launch one’s own political career. One need only look as far as the current gubernatorial race to see two sitting Executive Councilors running for the corner office. Arguably, it was Sununu’s swing vote against Planned Parenthood last year that first granted him a soapbox in the months before he announced his bid for governor.
While Levasseur said he doesn’t want to run for any higher office, he does think Executive Council experience will be a key resume booster in a future possible run for Manchester mayor in maybe six to 10 years.
Weeks, a 33-year-old academic and a longtime activist for Democratic reform, has never run for public office before. But he said he’s open to running for other elected offices in the future if asked to. Right now, though, Weeks is focused on running for Executive Council in a tight race against incumbent David Wheeler.
But it’s too soon to say if the Executive Council is much of a political launching pad. Volinsky thinks it’s just a coincidence that our next governor will be an Executive Councilor. It just as easily could have been a race between a mayor and a former mayor, he said.