On the Political Front: A Strange, Nasty Fight in N.H.'s 1st CD Democratic Primary

Apr 11, 2016

Shawn O'Connor
Credit Twitter/Rockingham County Democrats

"On the Political Front" is our weekly check-in with NHPR's Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers.

Let’s start in the 1st Congressional District, where’s there’s a nasty fight in the Democratic primary. Shawn O’Connor is leveling some serious accusations against former Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter. Things seem to be pretty ugly.

Ugly and weird, frankly. O’Connor, who is relatively new to New Hampshire politics, is accusing Shea-Porter’s campaign and or her political allies of mounting a whisper campaign against him, claiming he’s been a perpetrator of domestic abuse. O’Connor says the reverse is true, he was a victim of abuse. O’Connor has an affidavit from a former live-in companion that apparently bears this out and a petition on his Facebook page that asks supporters to condemn Shea-Porter’s campaign. He’s talking about suing Shea-Porter’s campaign for defamation.

Now, Shea-Porter’s campaign denies any of this is going on.

Yes, strenuously. And a defamation suit does seem an odd way for O’Connor, who’s been pushing this for close to a week on social media, to get political traction in a race that hasn’t really gotten going. But he does have a potential witness, State Sen. David Pierce, who represents the Upper Valley, which isn’t in the 1st CD, by the way, who says he was approached by a political ally of Shea-Porter’s at the Statehouse and told that O’Connor was a perpetrator of domestic violence. Pierce stops short of accusing him, Shea-Porter, or her campaign of being directly behind any rumor spreading, but O’Connor doesn’t.  Take a look at his press statements and twitter feed. It’s all pretty vehement.

Now, it’s fair to say few in New Hampshire politics, let alone the general public has much on an idea who Shawn O’Connor is, right?

I think that’s fair. O’Connor he lives in Bedford. He moved here five years ago, so he’s relatively new to New Hampshire’s political scene. He’s plowed a bunch of his own money into his campaign. He was the first Democrat to announce, but hasn’t so far drawn much attention. O’Connor backed Bernie Sander in the presidential primary, which figures in this fight. O’Connor says one reason this domestic violence incident was brought up was to scuttle an opportunity O’Connor allegedly had to intro Sanders at a campaign rally shortly before the primary. Whatever one makes of the merit or tone of the allegations, they have gotten O’Connor way more attention than anything else he’s done as a candidate. I’ve talked to no one who expects this to end well for him, but we’ll see. The primary is still months to go.

Another thing that also involves social media and tough politicking was the "fire Tom Hassan" tweeter feed. Its creator was revealed over the weekend.

Yes. The feed, which targets former Philips Exeter academy principal Tom Hassan, the governor’s husband, over the sex abuse scandal there, was shown to be the creation of Republican operative Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney and Governor Sununu, who has also worked as a consultant to the New Hampshire GOP.

Tom Hassan
Credit www.exeter.edu

Now Williams says this Twitter feed, which had next to no followers at the time it was unmasked by the Union Leader, was his doing alone.

He does, and you are right. @Firetomhassan, which urged people to call School Year Abroad, where Tom Hassan was slated to become president and call for his forthcoming job to be rescinded, had three followers when Williams’ role was revealed. But I think the feed’s existence and revelation do reveal something about how what happened and is happening at Exeter – an abuse scandal of indeterminate outcome – is complicated. Some Republicans really see this as something that could hurt Maggie Hassan politically, but going after it is tricky.

Well, no one knows what’s there, right? We know one former teacher, Rich Schubart, has apparently admitted improper conduct, and that Exeter, on Tom Hassan’s watch, did inform police but didn’t inform students, parents, alumni, or the public about Schubart.

And also that Tom Hassan also failed to tell a boarding school association of which he was a board member what he knew about Schubart before they gave Schubart an award. Tom Hassan was censured for that. But this issue, which doesn’t have much to do with Gov. Maggie Hassan directly, is tricky politically. I mean look at how Kelly Ayotte herself has handled it thus far. When the story was getting lots of attention and Hassan was trying to explain how she’d listed Rick Schubart as a steering committee member, after Exeter had forced him to resign, Ayotte issued a statement on U.S. Senate letterhead saying, “Important questions have been raised about whether these accusations were handled properly that must be fully addressed.” A few days later, she was quoted in Politico, saying there were questions Hassan “needed to answer.” Ayotte spoke with NHPR last Friday, and when she was asked what specific questions she expected Hassan to answer she would not or could not answer directly. Which isn’t to say this issue might not end up dogging Hassan as this race continues – and expect Republicans to try to make sure it does—only that it might be easier said than done.