Down to 2 candidates, Nashua mayoral race is a tale of two visions of the city’s future

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Nashua City Hall. Photo/Wikimedia Commons

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NASHUA, NH – Voters in the state’s second-largest city will head to the polls on Nov. 7 for the first contested mayoral election since 2015, when attorney Jim Donchess, a Democrat, soundly defeated Republican Chris Williams, who at the time had served eight years as president of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce.

Donchess, who had served two terms as Nashua’s 51st mayor from 1984 to 1992, was sworn in as the city’s 56th mayor in January 2016 and ran unopposed in 2019 for another four-year term.

Jim Donchess, Nashua’s mayor since 2016, is seeking his third consecutive term in the Nov. 7 election He previously served as mayor from 1984 to 1992. (Courtesy photo)

As that term expires, Donchess finds himself facing a formidable challenge from a GOP opponent with an impressive resume of government service. Republican Hillsborough County Commissioner Mike Soucy earned his spot on the ballot after placing second in a three-way primary on Sept. 12. Electrical contractor and Trump supporter Mark Gallant placed a distant third.

While Donchess was the top vote-getter, with 3,542 votes to Soucy’s 2,950, both candidates emerged from the primary with a shot at victory in November. Soucy is likely to pick up most of Gallant’s votes, which totaled 178.

A ward-by-ward breakdown of primary results shows Donchess with a slight edge, as he won five of nine wards decisively, while Soucy won three. One ward (5) was as close as it gets, at 463-461. Total turnout was 6,670 voters in a city of nearly 90,000.

Each candidate has a very different vision, with Donchess focused on a revitalized and walkable downtown with rail as a key to Nashua’s future, while Soucy argues that the Democrat is trying to force a European-style model on a middle-class American city.

Before being elected to the three-person Hillsborough County Commission in 2022, Soucy served as a Nashua police officer, firefighter and alderman. When he wasn’t serving as mayor, Donchess was a practicing attorney in the city, primarily representing plaintiffs in lawsuits involving claims of sexual harassment and employment discrimination.

Technically nonpartisan

Although the Nashua mayoral race is technically nonpartisan, neither Soucy nor Donchess makes any bones about their affiliation, although both fall to the moderate end of the spectrum in their respective parties. 

“I’m a Republican, but a lot of my Republican friends call me a RINO (Republican in Name Only),” says Soucy, who sees modern U.S. politics as a football field in which most voters are gathered on either side of the 50-yard line, while politicians have moved toward opposite goalposts.

“I have some on the far left over here, and friends on the right over there, who want nothing to do with the common good. Americans live between the 40s a little left of center or a little right of center. If you are pragmatic and willing to enter into conversations with honorable intentions, we can work something out,” he said in an interview.

Mike Soucy
‘I’m a Republican, but a lot of my Republican friends call me a RINO (Republican in Name Only),” says Hillsborough County Commissioner Mike Soucy, a retired Nashua police officer, firefighter and former alderman who’s running in the upcoming Nashua mayoral primary. (Courtesy photo)

But while Donchess and Soucy both see themselves as playing the middle of the field, they have decidedly different visions of what Nashua should look like in the years ahead, particularly as regards Main Street.

Donchess supports expanded sidewalk dining, slower-moving traffic and an emphasis on pedestrian access. Soucy wants to see an end to sidewalk dining that constricts Main Street traffic and is afraid the city will make the constriction permanent.

While Donchess has promoted the Nashua Center for the Performing Arts from its inception, Soucy believes the project was ill-conceived and sold to voters by sleight-of-hand. (See related story).

Donchess, who backed the bonding for construction of the arts center in the heart of the city’s downtown, also supported bonding a new junior high to replace the aging Elm Street Junior High School. Soucy believes a steady decline in the city’s school-age population made such new construction unnecessary. He cites studies that suggest the Elm Street Junior High could have been kept in operation a few years longer while the city closed as many as three elementary schools and remodeled one to create a new junior high.

Controlling taxes

As the value of commercial real estate in Nashua and elsewhere has fallen precipitously amid high vacancy rates, the value of single-family homes has skyrocketed amid some of the lowest vacancy rates on record. The result is that single-family homeowners (and by extension renters) are bearing a greater portion of the tax burden as properties are revalued.

Add to that the bond payments for the arts center and new junior high, along with general inflation, and you have sticker shock when tax bills land in the mailbox.

Soucy says Donchess has grown government with unnecessary projects like the arts center and new junior high school. 

Donchess defends his fiscal record by pointing out the city has had year-ending budget surpluses over the past three fiscal years of $8 million, $9 million and this year $11 million, which Soucy sees as a sign of over-taxation, calling the surpluses “Donchess’s slush fund.”

The incumbent points to the surpluses as a sign of good management, contributing to the city’s triple A bond rating and its position as third best-run city out of 188 in’s 2023 rankings.

The last city budget was passed unanimously by a Board of Aldermen representing a wide range of ideologies. Donchess is recommending that $8 million of the surplus from the year ending on June 30 go toward the tax rate, “which means in the fall of 2023 we will see an increase of 2 percent, less than half the rate of inflation,” said the mayor.

Donchess also says he is cutting costs for residents through the city’s initiative to advance collective power purchasing with the advent of Nashua Community Power in May. He claims Nashua residents enrolled in the program are saving an average of $25 a month per resident on electric bills.

But Soucy says the city is already spending enough. “I’m going to try for a level-funded budget in my first year, and if we can reduce even better,” he said.

Sidewalk dining vs. downtown traffic

If one issue more than any other illustrates the different visions for Nashua, it is perhaps the question of what Main Street should look like. Should it remain a wide thoroughfare with four lanes of traffic or become a more pedestrian-friendly destination with wider sidewalks and “traffic-calming” infrastructure?

COVID-19 brought the issue to the forefront with the advent of concrete barriers to enable sidewalk dining. While Soucy said he supported the COVID initiative as a way to save the restaurants, he now sees the idea getting out of hand.

He points to the city’s master plan, supported by Donchess, which calls for the possible extension of sidewalks into existing parking or traffic lanes, with two lanes of traffic, one going each way, on Main Street. 

Soucy claims he “knocked on every door” in the downtown area and asked every property owner who is not a restaurant owner what they thought of the current barriers, let alone the master plan.

“Eighteen businesses told me it was killing them; three or four said they could end up closing; three said they liked them; and one couldn’t care either way. Yet Mayor Donchess and his Imagine Nashua plan says they are getting good reviews from shop owners and citizens with reference to downtown barriers. He can’t see, hear, or feel what his constituents want. It’s 85 percent or higher of people who do not want them.”

Donchess says the master plan is “guided by the citizens of Nashua,” and not by the mayor.

“It remains to be seen what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that the master plan “recommended that some changes be made in that direction but before taking a step like that we would have to take a lot more public input and decide what the community feels is best.”

According to Donchess, “There’s no question that outdoor dining has boosted the downtown economy. Post-COVID and even before, we don’t have the daytime office workers that we used to; no downtown does, so in order to maintain and build a stronger downtown economy you are really relying on restaurants.”

He points to surveys that suggest 80 percent of the visitors to downtown Nashua came downtown for the restaurants or bars, “and those surveys were before the arts center opened.”

“Now that the (arts center) is there, if you combine that with restaurants, it’s way more than 90 percent of people who come downtown are doing restaurants, bars and the theater. If you want a downtown that’s alive; if you want to have young people live in your community, you’ve got to have an alive downtown.”

Affordable housing

After taxes, the lack of affordable housing ranks high on the list of local concerns. 

Soucy would like to see the city add at least 2,000 new apartment units in the years ahead. “We have to build,” he said, “and given the lack of land, we have to build these three- or four-story complexes all over the place. This is the new Nashua. We are gong to build apartments up, because when you have a limited amount of land, where else do you go?”

Toward that end, Donchess points to the “inclusionary” zoning ordinance Nashua passed, which requires affordable units and encourages multifamily housing that other communities discourage through “exclusionary” zoning.

The result, he said, is a building boom in the city with more than 1,000 units of new housing permitted in the past two years. About a quarter of those units are designated as affordable (with rent equaling 30 percent of the median income in Nashua), although the waiting lists are long.

Commuter rail

Donchess is a big supporter of extending commuter rail connections from Nashua to Lowell, Mass., and a hookup to the MBTA transportation system. The project has been a political football for 20 years, with no significant advance except that a feasibility study was almost complete, until the Executive Council recently shut off funding.

To Soucy, the project would be another government boondoggle, with high costs and low ridership, subsidized by taxpayers.

“We are not urban enough to do that,” says Soucy, citing low ridership studies and costs for constructing railway stations and upgrading hundreds of miles of track.

Donchess says he will continue to advocate for the project, which he sees as “a huge opportunity for the city.”

“It would add jobs, strengthen the economy; develop a lot of the tax base,” he said. “It would be a huge boost for Nashua. Right now, there is an unprecedented amount of money available for these rail projects, and without completion of the planning stage we are not eligible to get all that federal money. The Executive Council just turned their backs on a major opportunity for federal money that could greatly benefit the state and the city.”

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Dave Solomon

Dave Solomon is a freelance reporter.