In 1st CD Race, Independent O'Connor Hopes to Offer Voters Fresh Alternative

Oct 26, 2016

Shawn O'Connor
Credit Peter Biello

In addition to two familiar foes on the ballot in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District, there’s a new choice for voters this year.

Shawn O’Connor is a former Democrat who is now running as an independent.

He’s up against incumbent Republican Frank Guinta and Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, who are running against each other for the fourth consecutive time.

O’Connor joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to talk about some of the issues in the race.

  You were a Democrat before you filed as an independent in June, and that came after a rather nasty and public fight between you and the state Democratic Party earlier this year. You accused the party of keeping you out of the primary process, a claim the party disputes.

Would you be running in this race if you felt you’d been given a fair shake in the primary?

I’m running in this race not because of what happened in the Democratic Party. They litigated against me, they tried to keep me off the ballot twice. I won 4-1 with two Democrats voting in my favor both times. I’m running to offer an independent option to New Hampshire voters who have only had these two same two options for a decade. We fire each of them every two years, they’re hyper partisan, and they don’t represent what the district stands for.

Many of your positions are based in Democratic principles:  you support a 15 dollar an hour federal minimum wage and a woman’s right to choose. You back Wall Street regulation and breaking up the big banks, and you endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary.

To win as an independent, you’ll need GOP support as well, so what are some issues where you align more with Republican principles?

I am for cutting taxes for all Granite Staters who make $75,000 or less. In fact, for those who make $37,450 or less – the lowest two tax brackets – I think they should pay zero in federal income taxes. By returning money to taxpayers at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you actually drive a huge amount of consumer demand, which is going to result in growth. You know, growth has been anemic at 1 percent in the country. I have a business background. I’m the only candidate in this race who’s signed the front and back of checks and balanced budgets for a multimillion dollar company for ten years. When it comes to taxes, when it comes to reducing the national debt and the national deficit, national security, those are areas where I have strong Republican bona fides. I did work for a Republican member of Congress for four years, so I’ve worked on both sides of the aisle. When it comes to Bernie Sanders, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bernie Sanders, but I endorsed him because I believe that he is honest and I believe that he shared my belief that we need to get money out of politics. That’s what motivated me to support him. It wasn’t about partisanship.

Who are you supporting in the presidential election?

I’m not making any endorsements. I’ll make my own choice in the ballot box, as we all do, but I think to maintain my independence, it’s important not to align myself or put myself into a box with any of the candidates. I’m going to work with whoever the American people choose to advance the interests of New Hampshire.

Let’s talk about health care. We learned this week that premiums for plans on the Affordable Care Act are set to increase by about 25 percent this year. You’ve said you buy your insurance on the exchange, so you have some personal stake in this.

What needs to happen to fix this law?

My two opponents, one of them Carol Shea-Porter will just say how proud she was to have voted for the ACA, and Frank Guinta will repeal it but doesn’t have a plan to replace it. I have two specific plans. The program is broken, but it’s not going to get repealed. They’ve tried to repeal it tens of tens of times, the Supreme Court has upheld it, so we need to work with it to make it better. And what I’m going to do first is offer regional exchanges. So I want to create a New England exchange with the six New England states. That’s going to increase the number of participants in the marketplace. When you increase the number of participants in the marketplace, you get more insurers playing. That lowers cost and raises quality. It also means I lost my doctor just over the border in Massachusetts who I’ve had for 15 years because when the exchange opened up, they said it’s a New Hampshire plan and you have to be with a doctor who’s on the other side of the border. That’s insane. People with cancer want to be able to go to Dana Farber, and that’s the way that it should be.

Second is, particularly for younger people who want a plan that’s completely portable throughout the country, I would allow them to buy into Medicare, if they choose. The regional exchanges is a Republican idea, letting people buy into Medicare is more of a Democratic idea. By letting young people buy into Medicare, they have a plan with a relatively high co-pay, but they have a plan they can use anywhere in the country, and this also helps to restore solvency to Medicare without raising taxes. My minimum wage plan is not going to punish any New Hampshire small business. In fact, it protects 96 percent of all the businesses in the state because each year that we do the increase, starting in 2018 to 2022, there’s a 50 percent tax credit, not a deduction, but a tax credit for small businesses for the annual increase in the minimum wage.

A report last week found New Hampshire college graduates have the highest average student debt in the nation. The average here is about $36,000 per student. What’s your plan to address this?

I’ve helped thousands of students get into college and afford college. That was the business that I founded and built for 10 years. What I think we need to do first of all is lower the interest rate on existing and new student loans. It’s insane that you can borrow a mortgage at 3 or 3.5 percent, but our students are being required to pay 6, 7 or 8 percent. This is really a problem that the government created when they took over the student loan program and took it out of private sector competition.

Is that a hard sell?

I don’t think that’s a hard sell at all. The fact of the matter is if you just returned it and opened it up to the marketplace…if you buy a house that you can’t afford, you can go bankrupt and get rid of that mortgage. But if you’re a student and you have a student loan, you can never get rid of that in bankruptcy. The interest rate should match the risk. Banks want to loan to student loans because they know there’s no risk of default because there’s an implicit guarantee by the government, but also you can never get rid of that debt until you die. There’s no way we should be charging people 6, 7 or 8 percent. The government should not be making money off the backs of students because that creates a disincentive for people to get an education.

What about the cost of the tuition to begin with?

What I’d like to do is increase Pell Grants. I don’t believe in free college for everyone. I lived in Argentina where they have free college for everyone and the problem there is it can create some disincentives. People may start one major, go for a couple of years, stop, do something else. What I want to do is increase Pell Grants so middle class and working class Granite State families pay less for college tuition through Pell Grants that are based on the need of the student and the student’s family.

One of the bills you’ve pledged to file would require every school district to offer full-day kindergarten by 2018, and full-day pre-kindergarten by 2020.

Republicans would argue that’s a decision states should make, not to mention the cost of such a mandate. How do you make this work?

We only get 72 cents back for every dollar that we send to Washington. Other states like California, Florida, they get well over a dollar back for each dollar they send to Washington. So we need to get some of that money back, and I think it’s to lower college costs, it’s to offer proper early childhood education. It’s also to fight the opioid crisis. It’s been clearly demonstrated that early childhood education is fundamental to long-term educational success. We’re going to need to have a very skilled workforce in the 21st century, and that starts with full-day kindergarten and full-day pre-K. We need to fight, and that’s why I want to go to Washington, we need to fight because of the failure of my opponents to get the dollars we deserve here in New Hampshire.

Nut and bolts, though, how do you make it happen?

Everybody in Congress thinks they’re going to be president. Everybody knows that the path to the presidency goes through New Hampshire, so I’m going to be able to truly work, since I have worked for a Republican congressman, I’ve worked for a Democratic lieutenant governor, I know how to get things done on both sides of the aisle. We need to bring people together and say we’re a small state, we’re great for pilot programs, and people are going to want to support things in New Hampshire, they’re going to want to come to New Hampshire, they’re going to want to associate with a bill. My way to address the opioid epidemic is to make New Hampshire, the entire state since we were the epicenter, make us the pilot program for 90 days of inpatient care and 6-12 months of outpatient follow up. That’s what all of the experts tell us is really needed to fight this epidemic. We should be leveraging our strategic position in the political landscape in a way that my opponents haven’t because they vote with their parties 95 percent of the time.

There’s been a lot of debate about Syrian refugees. Do you support Hillary Clinton’s plan to allow 65,000 Syrian refugees into the country, a significant increase from the 10,000 allowed under President Obama in the last year?

I don’t have a position as to exactly what the number should be. This is a very quickly evolving situation. I think we need to see what happens in Aleppo with that humanitarian crisis. But my primary responsibility as the congressman from this district will be to put American safety first. I don’t want any immigrant to come into this country who doesn’t have proper screening, and that involves in-person interviews, reviewing who their contacts have been, reviewing electronic and telephone communications to make sure that we’re not putting the American people at risk by allowing in domestic terrorists.

Are we not doing that now?

We are doing that, but I want to make sure that we continue to do that and that there’s proper congressional oversight of that program. I don’t think you can discriminate people based on the country that they’re coming from. I think that’s un-American. But we do need to recognize that we’re in a new and challenging world and protect American interests and protect American lives given the incidents of domestic terrorism that we’ve seen.