By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The lone Democratic primary election in Belknap County features five candidates vying for the four seats in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from the city of Laconia.
Two of the five, David Huot and Liz Merry, each served one term in the House, Huot representing Laconia in 2012-2014 and Merry representing Sanbornton in 2008-2010. Among the other three Tom Dawson is making his second bid for a House seat while Tony Felch and Charlie St. Clair are running for the first time.
Born and raised in Laconia, Huot graduated from Saint Anselm College, earned his law degree at Georgetown University Law Center and after practicing law was appointed to bench, where he served as district court judge for 33 years. In the House, Huot served on the House Finance Committee, where he said his job was "to make sure the money doesn't go out the back door in a black Cadillac."
"One of the things that concerns me," Huot said, "is that no attention is paid to the bottom of the ticket, but the issues we deal with in the Legislature are more important." In particular, he referred to the state aid withheld from towns and state responsibilities transferred to cities and towns to balance the state budget, which increases property taxes. "Taxes are an issue," he said, "and there are going to have to be some discussions."
With the state's rapidly aging population, Huot said that demand for services will increase while less revenue will be available. He said maintaining the expanded eligibility for Medicaid, which has provided health insurance for about 50,000 uninsured people, should be a high priority for the Legislature.
Originally a Canadian with a degree from McGill University in Montreal, Merry was an executive with Nortel Networks, a global telecommunications firm. She became a United States citizen on July 4, 2007, and a year later was elected to the House. A consultant to the telecommunications industry, she serves as a trustee of LRGHealthcare and a director of Genesis Behavioral Health.
Merry said "The state is shirking its responsibilities to cities and towns." She pointed to a report by the New Hampshire Municipal Association that by withholding municipal revenue sharing and proceeds from the rooms and meal tax while no longer contributing toward the pensions of municipal employees, the state has added to the burden of property taxpayers. She said that the downshifting weighs especially heavily on cities like Laconia, where budgets are subject to tax caps.
Like Huot, Merry said there is growing demand for social services. "I've been knocking on doors for the past month," she said, and there is real financial hardship in the city and a significant need for support services." She said that only four cities had more residents enroll in the expanded Medicaid program than Laconia and insisted that maintaining it must be an overriding priority for the next legislature. Ensuring funding for elementary and secondary education, Merry said, is essential for strengthening the economy. Noting that a reduction in state aid prompted deep cuts to the school budget in Laconia this year, she said that resources should be allocated to restore the teaching position that were eliminated and provide competitive salaries for teachers to stem turnover.
Born and raised in the city, Felch is well known as a volunteer for numerous civic initiatives, particularly the Children's Auction of the Lakes Region and including Got Lunch, Stand-Up Laconia and events like the Coffee Festival and Pumpkin Festival. He serves as president of the Leavitt Park Community Club and persistently advocated for the restoration of the tennis courts. After working in retail, he has spent the past 25 years in property management.
"It's something I believe I can do," Felch said of his bid for a House seat. A longtime registered independent who leaned Democratic, he changed his registration to seek a place on the Democratic ticket. By withholding funds earmarked for municipalities, he said the state "is putting a hurt on our budget, especially school spending." He said that the various forms of state aid that have been suspended or reduced should be restored.
Felch said he expected the Legislature to do more to address the epidemic of substance abuse while maintaining the expanded Medicaid program, which includes benefits for both substance abuse and mental health. He said that he is open to decriminalizing, even legalizing, the possession and use of marijuana and instead devoting more law enforcement resources to the trafficking in hard drugs like heroin.
Felch said he is opposed to the Northern Pass project, even if the entire length of the transmission line is buried, because New Hampshire would receive less than 20 percent of the power and most of the jobs would be temporary. Likewise, he said that passenger rail service would likely lead more residents to seek higher paying jobs in Massachusetts. Instead, Felch said that the minimum wage should be ratcheted up to a level competitive with that in neighboring states to make New Hampshire more attractive as a place to live and work. Above all, Felch said he want to be "a strong voice for Laconia."
Charlie St. Clair
St. Clair, best known as the executive director of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association and owner of the Laconia Antique Center, said he decided to run for the House out of "frustration at not having candidates who pay attention to their constituents." A graduate of Laconia High School and the University of Colorado, he left the Massachusetts School of Law midway through his studies to devote himself to Motorcycle Week. He noted that while he travels extensively promoting the rally, he has calculated that he would only be unable to attend four or five sessions of the House if elected.
Although St. Clair has supported and opposed legislation bearing on the interests of motorcyclists in the past, he said neither motorcycling nor the rally were among his priorities. These include highway safety, which he believes would be significantly enhanced by adding rumble strips to the verge of all two-lane highways. He said that while rumble strips are common in many states, New Hampshire has been slow to install them, even on roads like NH Route 9 to Keene that have high rates of severe accidents.
St. Clair favors raising the minimum wage, but like other business owners is troubled by the high cost of worker's compensation, which would rise even higher with an increase in the minimum wage. He also suggested that if the state withholds aid to cities and towns, the Legislature should grant municipalities the authority to levy a local sales tax. "We don't need less government." St. Clair remarked. "We need smart government."
Dawson is running for the second time. A graduate of Oklahoma State University, he worked in the fire service in Houston, Texas and Wilmington, Delaware, before becoming at the State Fire Marshall in New Hampshire. When his tenure ended after two years, he turned to consulting, then, in 1972, developed the fire science program at Lakes Region Community.
Calling himself "a progressive Democrat," Dawson said that despite recently undergoing back surgery he decided to run again because "I'm not dead yet and still have some energy left." For Dawson the disparity of income and wealth is the overriding challenge facing the country and the state. "We've lost our middle class," he said. "Putting more money into the hands of the 99 percent would be a starting point," he said. "We can't continue to shift money and power to the rich. We are losing control of our democracy."
Dawson said that he wants to "contribute to the wellbeing of Laconia," but conceded that as he recovers from surgery he will not be traipsing door to door. "But," he said, "I have a 1916 Cadillac, 100 years old, and that's my draw. I'm going to drive it downtown, park on it on the street and stand next to it."