Hollis Republican State House candidates debate issues

HOLLIS – Four Republican candidates – two incumbents and two political newcomers – are vying to be the GOP nominees for the two seats in state House District 27 in Hollis.

All four were in the Lawrence Barn community center this week for a debate sponsored by Granite Grok, a conservative website co-founded by Skip Murphy, of Guilford, who moderated the event.

The newcomers, Donna Levasseur and Dr. James Kelly, a Nashua physician, are on the GOP ballot for the Sept. 11 primary, along with incumbents Jim Belanger and Carolyn Gargasz.

Levasseur said she has been endorsed by Hollis Selectmen Mark LeDoux and Frank Cadwell, as well as Cornerstone Action, the legislative arm of a conservative think tank.

Gargasz, a 20-year veteran of the House, said her focus has been on women and families. She hopes to eliminate redundant laws.

One of the first questions from Murphy, who wanted “yes” or “no” answers, concerned unfunded mandates from the state. Levasseur said she would oppose them, while Belanger and Gargasz said the issues are too complicated for a one-word answer. Kelly called unfunded mandates “tyranny.”

Kelly and Levasseur were equally emphatic about their opposition to “red-flag” laws, which may make it easier for police to seize firearms. Gargasz mentioned domestic violence and called it a “huge issue that needs study.” Belanger said he supports the right to bear arms, but not necessarily in every case.

A panel consisting of Hollis Republicans Raul Blanche and Steve Pucci also asked questions, starting with the New Hampshire retirement system and health insurance for public employees.

Belanger, a Navy Vietnam veteran who has served eight years in the House, recited a long list of public service activities in which he has participated, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Scouts, while also serving as a town moderator and on various town boards and committees.

“I believe in term limits and this is probably my last term,” he said. “I’m going to Concord to possibly stop changes that harm us.”

Belanger said the state retirement system is out of control, but as one of 400 state representatives, his pleas for change “fell on deaf ears.”

Kelly said the U.S. Army changed from a pension to a 401(k) system, so“why can’t New Hampshire? It’s not all that difficult.”

Levasseur said the system definitely needs to change. Gargasz said there are changes coming that will affect newer employees, but it is not right to change the plans of people already in the system.

When Pucci asked whether public employees should pay a greater share, Belanger called it a local issue to be dealt with at town meeting.

“So, what have you been doing about it?” he asked Pucci, a Hollis Brookline Cooperative School Board member.

And when Blanche asked about the candidates’ top local concerns, Belanger said Hollis’ property taxes are a concern, but this is not an issue for state representatives.

Facing 800-to-900 bills each year as a member of the House Municipal and County Government Committee, he is “ever vigilant” against those that would increase the burden on taxpayers.

Levasseur said property taxes and the quality of education are her top concerns. She favors school choice and referred to Common Core an unfunded mandate that is not working. Kelly agreed.

Gargasz said opioid abuse prevention and education are her focus, and Kelly said he has “already gathered a brain trust in Hollis” to work on fixing the pension system.

The candidates also answered questions from the audience. On commuter rail, Belanger was the only one who favored it. Both Kelly and Levasseur said New Hampshire officials should make their business climate so good that people don’t need to go to Boston.

Julia LeDoux, who sang the national anthem at the beginning of the event, asked Gargasz about parents’ rights regarding their children’s gender reassignment surgery. The candidate said she has been targeted by Cornerstone Action because of her vote against it.

The two GOP primary winners will face Democrats Tom Harris and Michelle St. John, who are unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Hollis has three state representatives – the two in District 27 and one in District 40, a floterial district which also includes Milford, Mont Vernon and New Boston. In that district, incumbent Republican Rep. Keith Ammon has no primary opponent and will run against Democrat Kat McGee.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.