City elections in Manchester sent mixed messages in 2009.
Ted Gatsas, a Republican, was elected mayor and a measure to institute a tax cap passed easily, but the board of alderman was filled with Democrats, 13 to 1. It will probably be difficult for Democrats to hold onto that big majority. City elections are officially nonpartisan.
Richard Girard, former Manchester politician and currently the host of “Girard at Large” on WGAM AM 1250, said he thought Gatsas could have more coattails this time around. The mayor appears to be in solid position for reelection. Longtime school board member Chris Herbert is challenging him.
“It’s highly unusual for a mayor to serve one term and be voted out,” said former Manchester mayor Bob Baines. “I think there’s a general satisfaction with the job he’s done.”
That doesn’t detract from Herbert, whom Baines called a very good candidate with a precise message on education. But to take down an incumbent mayor, candidates need to get going extremely early, work extremely hard and knock on thousands of doors. Baines said he just didn’t see enough activity to knock off Gatsas.
Democrats seem to be making the case that Gatsas might be planning a run for governor in 2012, even though he previously said he would serve the entire two-year term if reelected this November. Girard pointed out that Gatsas did say that but it was before Gov. John Lynch, who would have been difficult to beat, decided not to run for a fifth term. Gatsas has backed off some on his prior statements that he would finish the term and not run for governor in 2012.
Baines said he didn’t think whether Gatsas intends to run for governor or not was an issue. He said it is not uncommon that a mayor would seek another office in the middle of a term. Still, it’s a difficult thing to do, to get away from the day-to-day management of the city.
“[Democrats] are looking for anything to give people a reason not to vote for Ted Gatsas,” Girard said. “At this point, I don’t see a scenario where Chris Herbert can win.”
Girard could be right — the mayor looks strong right now — but Democrats could create some unrest, at least, if Gatsas continues to back off the claim that he’ll serve the full two years. It’s clear city Democrats are taking city races seriously, having recently hired a field director, Megan Arsenault, to help manage campaign efforts this fall.
“There is not tremendous excitement in the race for mayor, for whatever reason,” said Jerome Duval, a former alderman and school board member. “I think there’s a sense that Mayor Gatsas will probably run very strong.”
With that in mind, it’s the races at the bottom of the ticket that might bring voters out, both ward races for school board and alderman as well as the race for welfare commissioner, Duval said.
While Democrats hold big advantages on the board, the races were tight two years ago, meaning few aldermen are all that secure.
“There could be a sea change on the board,” Girard said, though he added that in a nonpartisan election incumbents tend to have an advantage.
Democrats are probably worried about the at-large aldermen race, given that Joe Kelly Levasseur and Will Infantine competed well in the primary against incumbents Mike Lopez and Alderman Dan O’Neil.
“I expect a very close race...,” Baines said. “That’s going to be the one to watch, I think.”
Duval expects a competitive alderman at-large race for the first time in several years, maybe more competitive than people think.
Girard pointed out that the Union Leader has weighed in on several races for aldermen early in the process; that could be a signal the paper will be active, “and if they decide to beat the war drum, they are certainly influential,” Girard said. The Union Leader recently threw its support behind Levasseur and Infantine in the at-large race.
Girard figures unions weren’t particularly happy with Lopez, since he’s been willing to play ball with Gatsas on the city budget. He thinks unions could have been trying to send Lopez a message in the primary to get in line.
Girard thinks unions have soured themselves in the eyes of voters with their unwillingness to offer concessions to help the city budget. With that in mind, it would be interesting to see how union support helps or hurts candidates. If he were running, Girard said, he’d be running ads telling voters who got union endorsements. Still, unions can play a big role in getting out the vote. If that anti-union sentiment is true, then it falls on candidates to tie their opponents to unions.
While some may harbor discontent with city unions, Baines said he didn’t think unions would have any negative effects on candidates in this race. The firefighters union can get particularly involved, but that typically helps candidates. Baines said there’s a great deal of natural respect for that union in particular. Firefighters are particularly involved with Ward 4 race between incumbent Jim Roy (a retired Manchester fire fighter) and Nickolas Levasseur. Girard figured Roy would be difficult to beat.
With the firefighters union active in Ward 4, Baines said that’s probably the ward race to watch.
Garth Corriveau, who reportedly tinkered with running for mayor this year, faces a tough challenge from Brian Desfosses in Ward 6. Still, the incumbent Corriveau is seen as an up-and-coming politician in the city. In Ward 8 veteran state Rep. Steve Vaillancourt is taking on Thomas Katsiantonis in an open race. Duval said he’d be watching the ward 6 and 12 races for alderman, as well as Ward 8. Duval figured it would be a good race between Valliancourt and Katsiantonis, though he thought Katsiantonis has the greater visibility right now.
Girard figured Barbara Shaw was probably OK in Ward 9 and he thought Phil Greazzo, the lone Republican on the board, was in good position for reelection in Ward 10. But Girard warned that Jane Beaulieu would be a tough opponent for Greazzo. Timothy Sawyer is challenging Shaw.
Russ Ouelette could be in a bit of trouble, not so much because he has done anything to give his ward a reason not to support him, but because his opponent, Emily Sandblade, is working particularly hard to make the race a competitive one, Girard said.
Ward races tend to be centered on ward-specific issues. Ward races are all about constituent services, how well aldermen respond to phone calls and how well they reach out to their wards. Ward 7 Alderman William Shea is particularly good at that and that’s why Baines, who holds Shea in high regard, said he has been so successful.
Craig Haynie and incumbent Ron Ludwig are vying for alderman in Ward 2. Incumbent Ed Osborne and Mike Segal are running for alderman in Ward 5. Pat Arnold is facing a challenge from Mark Nadzan in Ward 12. Lisa Gravel is challenging the incumbent Shea in Ward 7.
Incumbents Joyce Craig and Pat Long are running unopposed in wards 1 and 3 respectively.
School board races
In general, Girard said he thought voters were not particularly pleased with incumbents. That could hurt some of the school board members. The city elected 11 Democrats to the school board last time around.
Duval, on the other hand, didn’t see a lot of change coming on the school board. He didn’t think the races were drawing a lot of interest.
Kathy Staub, longtime educational activist, probably has the leg up in the at-large race, Girard said. She’s got the education establishment behind her, he said. Also running for one of two at-large seats are Joshua Harwood, Ross Terrio and David Wihby.
Baines said Staub has worked tirelessly on behalf of education. He expected Staub and Wihby to be front-runners.
There are signs Debra Gagnon Langton could face a tough challenge from Lucia Carlisle in Ward 2, Girard said.
Incumbent Dave Gelinas is probably safe in Ward 7, where he is taking on Alan Cail, Girard said.
Ward 8 could be the hottest school board race in the city, with Erika Connors and Robert Shiavoni vying for a seat on the board. On paper, both appear well-qualified, Girard said.
“That race is probably the most interesting race in the city,” Girard said.
There is potential for an upset in Ward 11, in which Jason Cooper and incumbent Stephen Dolman are fighting for a seat. Roger Beauchamp is probably OK in Ward 12, though challenger Carlos Gonzalez is a known commodity and could put together a tough fight.
Christopher Stewart is taking on incumbent Michael DeBlasi in Ward 3. Brenda Lett and Roy Shoults are vying for school board in Ward 4, which was Herbert’s seat. Tara Powell and Ted Rokas are vying for school committee in Ward 5.
Sarah Ambrogi, Donna Soucy, Arthur Beaudry and John Avard are running unopposed in their respective school board races in wards 1, 6, 9 and 10.
Diane Guimond has been a bit of a surprise in her challenge to Paul Martineau in the race for welfare commissioner, not typically a race that draws a lot of interest, Duval said.
“I think that promises to be a sleeper and one to watch,” Duval said. “I think it’s going to be quite close and possibly an upset.”
Duval said Guimond’s experience as deputy welfare commissioner and her strong city ties make her a formidable opponent for Martineau.
Turnout or lack thereof
“I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in this election,” Baines said. “I think it’s going to be very low turnout. And when that happens, and I found this out in my last race, anything can happen. I wish there was more political activity going on.”
Duval agreed that, regrettably, that this election would probably have a poor turnout.
“It will probably suffer from apathy in this election,” Duval said. “I think people today are more focused on national issues.”
Baines said the more people turn out to vote, the better he feels about whatever the results are.
Duval, as well, implored voters to hit the polls.
“When it comes to government affecting your personal lives, it’s all about local government,” Duval said.