Residents in Portsmouth will choose a new mayor and nine city councilors on Tuesday. Voters will likely notice some new names on their ballots. What they might not know – is who has been guiding those candidates, behind the scenes.
Steve Marchand doesn’t want to be on city council – he did that already. But he does have some pretty strong ideas about who should be.
"I spoke with literally dozens of people asking if they’d ever consider running for city council."
Three days before the filing deadline in September, Marchand sent an email to what he calls a “small group of friends,” asking them as “a personal favor,” to consider a run for city council.
"What I’ve seen over the last several election cycles, from the local level all the way up to the national level, it’s become less attractive for good people, who are not on the extremes, who are not fundamentally angry about something. Constructive, optimistic, problem solver oriented people – getting people like that involved in public life, is getting more and more difficult in every aspect of politics."
Issues that have been particularly contentious in Portsmouth of late include approvals for new buildings; where to put a parking garage; and whether to allow things like Uber and AirBnB.
Possibly even more contentious is the fact that the group elected this time around will be voting on the new twenty year master plan for the city.
For a 41 year old, Marchand wields a lot of political clout in this small city. He served on the council at age 29, was mayor at 31, had a brief run for U.S. Senate, and has managed Democratic campaigns in the state. Now, Marchand owns a consulting firm and is the state director for No Labels, a nonprofit that tries to forge bipartisanship.
At a recent “meet the candidates” event in Portsmouth, 33 year old Rebecca Perkins says Marchand suggested she run initially, and has gone door to door on her behalf.
"Steve is excited about my candidacy; he said to me several times 'this is the kind of person you'd hope would run for a local office."
In fact, Marchand has gone door to door for many candidates. He even had business cards printed he recommends people bring with them to the polls
"It’s a simple website on one side it has the website one Portsmouth.com, and on the back it s really simple it says vote November 3, and the eight names of the candidates that I am excited about and am promoting for the city," Marchand says.
On the website, Marchand has written bios of each of his eight endorsees. That’s out of a total of sixteen running. His choices aren’t based on specific issues, and nobody has to take a pledge. So what connects them? They are all proponents of what he calls “smart growth.”
"How do we take the best of the past, modernize that, embrace it, but also embrace the change that comes with a lot of people wanting to be in this community."
Marchand has been encouraging friends to run for office for a decade. But this is the first year he’s published a list of candidates, or had a branded organization – like One Portsmouth.
He says he wants civility on city council, but he also wants councilors with an appetite for change. And that’s not easy in a city with deep history, big tourism dollars, and a lot of growth.
One candidate who was not one of Marchand’s picks – says for all Marchand’s talk of civility One Portsmouth is making things worse.
This is Josh Denton’s second bid for City Council – two years ago the race didn’t go his way. Denton used to work for former Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, and he says lists of endorsees from One Portsmouth, and other issue-based organizations in town.
"It seems like it’s devolved into factions where there’s one list running up against another list. Whoever gets elected from these lists are going to be more partisan, and there’s going to be less collaboration."
It would be hard to measure the impact of groups and endorsement lists on civility in local politics. But there’s one thing we will learn on Wednesday. In a city of just 20,000 -- how much influence can a guy have – shaking hands behind the scenes.