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  • Ben Clemons, Nashua alderman-at-large 2011

  • James Donchess, Nashua alderman-at-large candidate 2011
  • Brian McCarthy, Nashua alderman 2011
  • Daniel Richardson, Nashua Alderman-at-Large candidate 2011
  • Lori Wilshire Nashua Alderman-at-Large candidate 2011

  • Fred S. Teeboom
Sunday, October 23, 2011

Officials, candidates say nonpartisan is way to go in Nashua

NASHUA – Alderman-at-Large candidate Lori Wilshire describes herself as a “proud Democrat.”

She has served in the Statehouse representing her party and is a member of the Nashua Democratic City Committee.

But when voters go into the booths to cast their ballots in next month’s city election, they won’t see a “D” next to Wilshire’s name, or any letters denoting party affiliation next to any of the candidates’ names.

That’s the way it should be, Wilshire said.

“There’s a time and place for partisan politics, but it’s not in Nashua,” she said. “There’s already enough divisiveness on the board. We’re there to do the people’s business. It doesn’t matter the party.”

Although all identify themselves as either Republican or Democrat, none of the six candidates running to fill three of the city’s alderman-at-large seats believe the city should switch to a partisan election.

As with most municipalities, Nashua holds a nonpartisan city election. That means candidates running for local office don’t declare a party affiliation, nor do any affiliations show up on the ballot.

This differs from state and national elections, in which candidates will typically have an “R” or a “D” next to their names, or an “I” representing independent.

Locally, the question is whether there can truly be a nonpartisan election when many of the candidates are not only registered with a particular party, but are actively involved with city politics.

Although Alderman-at-Large candidate Dan Richardson is a registered Republican and is the treasurer for the Nashua Republican City Committee, he also feels the city should keep its nonpartisan election.

“I don’t see any benefit to making it a partisan race,” Richardson said. “We all try to do what’s best for the city. Just because you wear a political label, it really doesn’t mean something. What means something is what you do, not what your label is.”

Richardson said having political affiliations as part of the city election could be misleading. However, at the state and national levels, Richardson said there are benefits to having a partisan race.

“It makes it easier to get a handle on philosophies,” Richardson said. “It gives people a feeling for the general set of principals that person would represent.”

At the local level, voters can interact with candidates firsthand to get to know their positions on issues without having to resort to partisanship, he said.

When asked whether his Republican principles would shape the way he votes on city spending, Richardson said it’s possible, “but not to the exclusion of anything else.”

When asked about the issue during his interview with The Telegraph’s editorial board, incumbent Ben Clemons said he has seen board members of different political persuasions come together to solve the city’s issues.

“We all work together very well,” Clemons said. “I don’t think partisan politics have a place in the city.”

Partisan organizations have helped to fund Clemons’ campaigns, however. In 2007, Clemons accepted a $200 donation from the Nashua Democratic City Committee. In his run for re-election, Clemons accepted $250 from the New Hampshire Young Democrats, according to campaign finance reports that were filed with the city clerk’s office last week.

The organization is affiliated with the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

According to the reports filed last week, Clemons is the only candidate to accept money from a partisan organization.

Christopher Galdieri, assistant professor of politics at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, said nonpartisan elections came out of the progressive era when it was thought the major parties had too much power.

“The thinking was that if you took partisan labels off the ballot, it would weaken the parties and make it easier for reform-minded candidates to get elected,” Galdieri said.

However, there hasn’t been any clear evidence to show that has been the case, Galdieri said.

In some ways, nonpartisan elections give an advantage to the incumbents, Galdieri said. Because most voters aren’t well-versed on where candidates stand and with no party affiliation to rely on, they will often depend on name recognition, he said.

“For most voters who don’t follow politics on a day-to-day level, the party label is a really powerful cue for them,” Galdieri said. “At least it tells you something about them.”

It’s the norm for cities and towns in New Hampshire to hold nonpartisan local elections. Portsmouth and Keene both hold nonpartisan elections. So does Manchester, although it wasn’t always that way in the Queen City, said City Clerk Matt Normand.

In 1961, the city began holding partisan local elections, Normand said. It stayed that way for 36 years, when the city switched back to a nonpartisan election, he said.

“The hope was to depoliticize the process,” he said.

Nashua City Clerk Paul Bergeron said the city charter mandates a nonpartisan election. It would require a charter amendment approved by the voters to change it, he said.

Bergeron believe a nonpartisan election is best for the city, in part because it opens the election up to anyone who wants to run. That’s because the roughly 40 percent of voters registered as undeclared wouldn’t be eligible unless they chose a party affiliation, he said.

Bergeron said the philosophies of the parties on a national level evolve over time and include social issues, whereas at the local level, aldermen set spending and address issues in the city as they come up.

Partisan politics would only muddy the waters, he said.

“Your priorities are shaped by the constituents you serve,” he said.

Although registered as a Republican, Fred Teeboom described himself as “fiscally conservative, but socially very moderate.” Injecting partisanship at the local level could lead to the type of gridlock seen in Congress, he said.

Incumbent Brian McCarthy agreed, as did former Mayor Jim Donchess. McCarthy, a Republican, and Donchess, a Democract, both felt the city should keep elections the way they are.

Donchess said adding that letter next to the names on the ballot could create false assumptions among voters about what people stand for.

“Without that, people have to actually look at what people stand for,” Donchess said.

McCarthy said being a Republican doesn’t factor into how he makes his decisions on the board.

“I tend to want to just look at the issues and how they affect my constituents,” McCarthy said. “I would prefer the people I elect make their decisions the same way.”

Campaign finance reports filed last week gave insight into the people and organizations funding local races. Wilshire, Clemons and McCarthy each received $1,000 contributions from the Nashua Firefighters Political Action Committee. Donchess loaned himself $2,700 to help fund his campaign.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or Also, follow Brindley on Twitter (@Telegraph_MikeB).