Nashua's Mayor Is No Stranger At New Hampshire State House

Mar 14, 2017

Health care reform, public education and infrastructure spending are all hot topics in Congress – and the State House – nowadays. In Nashua, New Hampshire’s second largest city, Mayor Jim Donchess has been pushing his own ideas on these very issues. Sometimes, this puts him at odds with the folks calling the shots in Concord and Washington.

Recently, during a class on city government

, Donchess sounded nostalgic for days when, he said, public spending was expected to grow.

Jim Donchess is just over a year in as Mayor in Nashua- but it’s not his first rodeo. He was also mayor three and a half decades ago.

“The situation we face now, compared to then, is quite different,” he said, “then, money was not that controversial.”

The 1980s, when Donchess was last mayor, were boom times for Nashua. The city’s population grew nearly 20 percent over that decade, and Money Magazine called it the nation’s “best place to live.” These days, population growth is flat.

Donchess, a Democrat, has ideas about how to make people want to live in Nashua. Ideas that were championed by his party in the last election. Now, with Republican control in Concord,  Donchess isn’t backing down.“We’re constantly talking to our delegation and lobbying the legislature to persuade them,” he said.

Mayor Donchess drives to Concord to testify about all kinds of things. He wants to stop lawmakers from downshifting pension costs onto property tax payers. He wants to preserve Medicaid expansion, fund full-day kindergarten, and most of all, extend commuter rail from Nashua to Boston. In January, Donchess testified before the state Senate, arguing “rail service would bring economic growth to Southern NH, and therefore help the entire state.”

Last session, lawmakers left on the table $4 million federal dollars which could have been used to push forward the rail project connecting Nashua to Boston. Supporters like Donchess say that rail line would boost the state’s economy and make it a more attractive place to live. Plus, the funds didn’t require any investment from the state.

“I think that they are cutting off their nose despite their face,” he said, “there is a lot to be gained and to get to the final step without any cost, I mean, why not?”

Donchess is still lobbying for rail. He said he has a meeting planned with Governor Chris Sununu to pitch a less extensive rail project.

Sununu dismissed expanded rail as a “boondoggle” while campaigning last year. Mark Cookson, who has been on Nashua’s board of alderman for more a decade, said Donchess has his work cut out for him.

“My opinion is it’s going to be an uphill battle for him especially with the make-up of the NH state legislature as well as the Governor’s office.”

Cookson doesn’t always agree with Donchess, but he says if the mayor can make a good case, he believes lawmakers in Concord will listen.

Donchess’s motives can be hard to argue with. Asked what motivates him, he said, “we want people to enjoy living here.”

Many people living in Nashua say they do, now more than ever.

Maggie Harper stands next to one of her favorite spots in Nashua: a mural painted on the side of a former movie house.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

Maggie Harper has lived here for more than 30 years. She owns a home in Nashua, and says the city is growing in good ways: more public art, a second farmers market. “Just in the last year since he’s been in office I’ve definitely seen noticeable changes in the city,” she said.

She points out an old Mill building which is being turned into apartments along the river.  We step over some rail-road tracks where freight trains occasionally go through downtown.

“I would think this would be a great avenue to have train service come right downtown Nashua,” she said.

Donchess certainly thinks agrees a train to Boston would be great. The question is: can he convince folks to sign on, outside the city.