Nashua's Mayoral Candidates Spar Over Infrastructure, Experience

Oct 29, 2015

On Tuesday, Nashua voters will elect a new mayor.  Current mayor DonnaLee Lozeau is not running for re-election.  But former mayor Jim Donchess is and so is the city’s former chamber of commerce president, Chris Williams. The race has become an expensive battle over experience and economic development plans.

Curtis Sargent catches up with a friend outside the Starbucks in Nashua—but they’re not talking politics.

Sargent is 28 years old, lives in town and works in Peterboro. But he says the city’s mayoral race isn’t on his radar.

"I mean I’ve seen all the flyers on the side of the road and everyone standing outside. I’ve got too much going on in my own life to pay attention to what needs to be done outside of it, I guess."

And that attitude reflects the biggest challenge for mayoral candidates Jim Donchess and Chris Williams.

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been trying to reach people like Sargent.   They’ve each raised more than $125 thousand. That’s a record-breaking war chest. It’s at least three times what incumbent Mayor DonnaLee Lozeau amassed for her campaign eight years ago.

Credit Sheryl Rick-Kern for NHPR

Both candidates want to ramp up voter turnout - which is typically no more than 30 percent.

"The job I have in front of me is going out and pounding the pavement. That requires being out there every day knocking on doors." 

That’s candidate Chris Williams, who ran Nashua’s Chamber of Commerce for nine years.

At a house party On a recent Saturday night, Williams supplies the food as high school seniors stamp and label postcards. Most of these volunteers are too young to vote.

"So they’re turning around and promoting the campaign not only to their parents, but their parents’ friends," he says.

Williams relies on a lot more than personal contact to bolster his image. For example, he raised fourteen thousand dollars  on Facebook in mid-February.

That success drew criticism. His opponent, Alderman-at-Large Jim Donchess, says that Williams launched a money-arms race even before announcing his candidacy.

"His approach to it has changed the nature of Nashua elections and politics," Donchess says.

The tone of the campaigns has turned personal, with the two candidates publicly taking jabs at each other.

For Donchess, it’s the issue of experience. His talking points focus on his years as an alderman, and his role as mayor from the late 80s to 1991.

"People know who I am because I have a record of service and accomplishment in the city. Yeah, a guy who wants to run with absolutely no experience, no knowledge of the city government, would certainly need to raise a lot of money. But that raises the question whether that person is qualified at all."

Donchess was mayor almost 25 years ago, a fact Williams likes to drive home.

"I have spent the last ten years working in today’s economy with today’s technologies, working with today’s industries. Jim spent his time working with the industries and technologies of the 1980s. When you look at which one of us is going to hit the ground running, I’ve been doing that for ten years at the Chamber of Commerce."

But outside of experience, they sound very similar on the issues.

Both want to tackle the city’s drug epidemic with better prevention and community policing. Both say they want to energize Nashua’s downtown with more jobs, housing, and an arts center. And both are committed to bringing commuter rail to New Hampshire.

But just how they plan to attract new employers to the city differs.  Williams is focused on infrastructure.

"The Broad Street Parkway is the single, biggest, short-term economic development opportunity for us. Jim doesn’t see that. I do."

Williams is talking about the $80 million throughway on the horizon that routes cars from the F.E. Everett Turnpike at exit 6 to the western edge of downtown. He says it attracts developers to the Millyard and other stretches of open land.

"I, of course, raised questions about whether the city should have committed so many tens of millions of tax dollars to this project. I think the Millyard has undergone some positive changes without the Broad Street Parkway."

Donchess also says he’d like more residents to know what the economic development department is up to.

"I think they should report to the Board of Alderman and through them, the public, on what’s being worked on, what’s been successful, what hasn’t."

Donchess was the top vote-getter in the primary. The teachers’ and firefighters’ unions endorse him, as does Aldermen President David Deane, who finished third in the primary.

But all bets are off on the outcome of this race. Three former mayors support Willliams, and the Union-Leader endorsed him.

With only a few days to spare, campaign volunteers are leveraging every opportunity to sway undecided voters like Victoria Milette.

"Yes, I do know there’s a mayor’s race. But I’m kind of last minute on voting," she says.

The election is Tuesday, November 3rd.