Voters in Manchester go to the polls Tuesday for a primary election that will narrow down a field of five candidates for mayor that includes, most prominently, the three-term incumbent Ted Gatsas. Contributor and former city politics reporter for the Union Leader Ted Siefer spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.
First of all, the current mayor, Ted Gatsas, is a well-known political figure in the state and won his past three elections by comfortable margins. Is he considered vulnerable this time around?
Looking just as the primary, the short answer is no. But he’s facing strong challengers this year; the two top vote-getters will face each other in November.
Who are Gatsas’ main rivals in the race?
One is Patrick Arnold. He surprised many in 2013, when after serving two terms as a city alderman, he ran against Gatsas, and came within seven points of victory. That was a pretty close call for Gatsas, someone who's used to winning elections in landslides.
The other main challenger is Joyce Craig, a three-term alderman and former school board member. Both Arnold and Craig are Democrats, and you could say Craig has emerged as the favorite of the Democratic establishment in the city. She’s garnered endorsements from some big-name party leaders and unions, including the State Employees' Association. She’d also be the first female mayor of the Queen City, if elected.
What are the main issues are in this election?
There’s the heroin epidemic and crime associated with it. The city has seen an unprecedented surge in overdose deaths this year, and Gatsas has said that combating the drug problem is his top priority.
There’s also the issue of public schools. Manchester schools have long struggled with low test scores, crowded classrooms, and how to cope changing demographics. Hanging over it all has been the fact that teachers have been working without a contract for the past two years. A deal was finally reached last month, but Gatsas went against strong majorities on the school and aldermanic boards to veto it; he argued that the cost of teacher raises would force the city to override the tax cap. The move triggered an outcry from teachers and their supporters, and the aldermen last week voted to override the mayor’s veto of the contract.
Last week saw the first and only scheduled debate among the mayoral candidates, which was sponsored by the teacher’s union and focused on education. Gatsas was conspicuous by his absence. He insists he had a previously scheduled forum to participate in; his opponents, of course, said it was another sign that he undervalues education.
You mentioned the tax cap. Is that expected to be an issue in the campaign?
Yes. The cap has proven popular with voters before and after it went into effect four years ago. Last year, a majority of aldermen for the first time voted to override the cap. Gatsas and his fellow Republicans are making sure to remind voters that Joyce Craig and the Democratic majority on the board voted for the override.
Aren’t city elections supposed to be nonpartisan?
Technically, they are. But in reality the local Republican and Democratic parties are heavily involved in city races. And there’s been an interesting dynamic in the city for the past decade, where voters tend to favor Democrats to serve as ward representatives but support a Republican for the corner office, perhaps as a check on the board. Time will tell if this pattern persists.
So what’s your prediction for Tuesday?
I’ll refrain from picking any winners, but it’s safe to say the results will depend in large part on turnout. Voter participation in city primaries has sunk below 10 percent in recent years, and below 20 percent for general elections. Gatsas has a solid base of support in the city; in order to upset him, his opponents will have to figure out how to get more people to the polls.