MANCHESTER, NH – Part of the intrigue of the upcoming Sept. 19 primary is that there are several first-time candidates vying for office.
We recently sat down with three of those candidates who are all running for a seat at the Aldermanic table – Chris Stewart, running in Ward 1, Will Stewart (no relation) running in Ward 2, and Tim Baines, running in Ward 3.
Although they say they have their political differences, they agree on the need for meaningful change at City Hall, which prompted them to step up.
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Chris Stewart is a former Ward 3 board of school committee member who served almost two full terms. He explains that he was elected in 2011 and reelected in 2013, but resigned his seat in June of 2015 after the birth of their twins. He and his wife, Sarah, who were already raising a toddler, moved from their downtown residence at 1200 Elm St., and bought a home in Ward 1 to raise their three children. “We needed green space,” says Stewart. He is co-founder of b-fresh consulting, a city-based project management firm. Campaign website.
Top issues for Ward 1 voters
Public safety and aggressive panhandling downtown are certainly two big issues. There are a lot of people in Ward 1 who work and dine in the city, and so they’re dealing with that. Schools are also a huge issue. One point that seems to get lost is that there are a lot of students in our city getting an absolutely unbelievable education, and going on to top Ivy League schools and becoming successful members of the community. But it is also true that districtwide, our students are not learning as well as they should be. Over the last 15-16 years we’ve doubled our per pupil spend, and as we’ve done that, our drop-out rates continue to go up while our test scores go down. If we want to be a community that attracts young families to move here, we need to correct that. One of first Google searches a potential family would look at in considering moving here is how are the schools. And if that Google search comes back as a litany of bad test scores and bad headlines, that’s bad for growing this community in the 21st century
On improving schools from the Aldermanic side
Obviously, it’s a very complicated issue. The Aldermanic board is the preeminent board in Manchester, it has taxation authority and sets the rules. The school board and board of aldermen, I would argue, have a dysfunctional relationship. And the problem is, not only do the two boards do a poor job of talking about what each board is thinking, but the school board has absolutely no control over the amount of money the district receives, and the mayor and board of aldermen have no control over how it’s spent. There’s no one who’s ultimately responsible, so it’s a dysfunctional relationship.
I‘ve thought a lot about this issue, and I think one of two things has to happen, and it needs to be a ballot question for the voters of the city of Manchester: You either need to give the school board taxation authority, to raise and set their own budgets the way the city of Concord does, or you need to make the school district a department, and have the board of mayor and aldermen in total control, and that is the question that should be put on the ballot.
That big of a question should be a ballot question. The voters should be able to decide. And people are going to come out and say you can’t do that, but the follow-up to that statement is that the status quo is not working now. You need to change that. Then, the question becomes how do you change it.
Someone brought up the question of civility, which is another point. When I was on the school board we got a lot of good stuff passed, and I was proud to be a part of a group of people who worked hard to bring consensus to that board. We were a group of people across different political stripes, but we had the conversations to find a way forward, and I was proud to be a part of that. If you take a hard and honest look at the Board of Mayor and Aldermen today, you see a board that’s dysfunctional. There are all sorts of rival factions sniping at one another or arguing with one another for purely political reasons that have nothing to do with what will move the city forward. If I get elected I want to go work with people like Tim or Will or other people the voters will send to the board. We’re not going to agree on everything. The three people sitting around this table are probably going to have a difference of opinion on most things that come before us, but at the end of day, the question is can we all sit down and figure out a common way forward in the year 2017?
Will Stewart is running in the most contested Ward Aldermanic race – incumbent Ron Ludwig announced he was not seeking reelection after eight years, which prompted five residents – with an age difference spanning 40 years – to throw their hats into the ring. “Some call it the ‘Trump phenomenon;’ call it what you will, but a lot of people are getting interested in public service, which is a good thing.” Stewart is active with Bike Manchester, and formerly worked at both the Greater Manchester and Greater Derry Chambers of Commerce. He recently accepted a position as Executive Director of StayWorkPlay. Campaign website.
What was your call to action?
Based on conversations I’ve been part of lately, basically I’m tired of hearing people say in my circle, ‘well we’re having kids now, it’s time to move to Bedford.’ That just frustrates and disappoints me. I get it – my wife and I had that conversation ourselves when our son was getting ready to start school. We had to ask ourselves is this the place we want to raise our family? Do we want to double-down and send our kids to public schools here? Ultimately, the answer to that question was yes. I understand the concerns people have, but ultimately I want Manchester to be a place they move to and not from. I like to think that a lot of the things I’ve done heretofore, during my dozen-plus years in the city, have all been encouraging that.
We have a lot going for us – we have our challenges as well, and they need to be addressed – opioids, crime, public safety. But we have two schools of thought – perception and reality. As a city there’s much going for us, we really haven’t capitalized on the assets we do have. And as a result, it seems for at least the last decade-plus we’ve been plodding along, year after year, as if good things happen almost by accident and serendipity. It makes me think what if there were an actual vision for our city, and people in place actually willing to carry out that vision? That’s why I’m running.
How will you be a change agent?
A lot of it depends on who I serve with, and that depends on who the voters of the other wards elect.. But as far as to the degree any one person can promote change, it rests with how many people of like mind or similar vision you’re able to get together. It’s things both big and small that lend to the perception of Manchester’s quality of life – it’s big things, like public safety – but it’s the little things, too – better sidewalks, or a bike share program. Portsmouth is a good example of a place where they were able to put in a bike share program for which they used parking revenues to fund it. In fairness, Bike Manchester didn’t ask for money from the city to support our bike share program. Long story short, we were able to go around the city and fundraise $150,000-plus, and that’s a great thing. But I always imagine what if we had resources in city, what could we accomplish? With regard to soliciting input of residents, I think that’s a necessity, and should be so much easier with technology, to get more regular feedback.
A lot of things I hear when I’m out door-knocking, that there are things that don’t seem to filter up, the things people are talking about, like we need better parks, or they’re complaining about Livingston Pool, that it’s closed for the season even though we have a few weeks to go before Labor Day, little things like that get lost. No matter what the concerns, big and small, we need to do a better job of doing those and incorporating everyone. There are a lot of people with vision in this city. I canvassed a family five or six weeks ago now, they said they’re waiting for the results of the November election before they decide whether to stay or leave Manchester, so at least for that family, their fate hangs in the balance of the election. The question for voters is will it be more years of the same status quo, or more proactive vision?
Tim Baines is owner of Mint Bistro, and if the name – and face – seem familiar, he is also son of former Manchester Mayor Bob Baines. He says he’s proud of his dad’s contributions to the city, but he’s no carbon copy of his dad. He also says he greatly respects incumbent Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long, but as a downtown business owner, Baines wants a shot at putting his unique perspective as a business owner and lifelong resident to work on how to improve the downtown. Campaign Facebook page.
“One of the biggest reasons I’m running is that I’ve been hearing feedback from people coming into the restaurant about aggressive panhandling and the drug epidemic, which goes hand in hand. There have always been parking concerns, but when you have people who don’t feel comfortable going downtown, and who don’t have a voice at City Hall talking about these issues, this is a troubling time for the city. We have people making unbelievable investments in the downtown, new restaurants, and certainly some development including a new hotel, and with what Dean Kamen’s has going on, and as city leaders, we need to build an environment where young professionals feel comfortable moving into town.
On change for Ward 3
I know (incumbent alderman) Pat Long very well. But sometimes I think people who’ve been in office, whether as mayor or alderman, and they’re there for so many years, they start to think they know what the ward wants, rather than being out there talking to people to find out their actual concerns. I believe that’s the case in Ward 3, and it’s one of the reasons I’m running. Pat’s been a great public servant, and he’s a great guy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not time for change in some of these ward races.
On Being a Mayor’s son
I do get the question as I go door-to-door, as to whether being Bob Baines’ son will have any bearing on who I will be as an alderman. I’d say different times, different issues – we’re talking 1999 versus 2017. I’m certainly proud of what my father did as mayor, and no one’s going to get me to say anything other than that. I’m proud of the name and proud of his record. He wakes up every day and wants to make Manchester a better place, even to this day. He loves the city, and I’ve learned a lot having a front row seat during his three terms as mayor, as to the issues and the process. We don’t align on every issue, although we certainly do on some, but it is a different time. I’m looking at following in his footsteps and giving back to the community.
On Ward 3 constituent concerns
I’m hearing public safety first and foremost; people don’t feel safe. One thing I want to do is bring people together, have community summits once or twice a year to bring together the police chief and other department heads with members of the ward so that they can have that dialogue. Also, we have to find new ideas in tackling the drug epidemic. I feel there are a lot of aldermen that talk about the fact that we have safe stations, and that’s that – like we’ve done the job. That’s where we’re at, and so we’ve kind of stopped talking about new ideas. It will take bringing a lot of people together, it’s going to be city leaders, police and the mayor and aldermen, and we have to have the hard conversations about what more we can be doing to rehabilitate these people.
Also, we have to recognize that police have a struggle as well with what they’re able to do. We’re reviving people from drug overdoses and there are no ramifications beyond that. In talking to a few police officers, I’ve heard there are actually people calling before they overdose so that help is on the way, and first responders are going back the next day to these same households repeatedly. It’s not working. And as for panhandlers, I applaud the efforts by police for the sandwich boards, but police are handcuffed as to what they’re able to do. It’s time to bring city leaders from every side together and get moving on some new ideas.
Around the table discussion
How can the city do better in connecting with residents?
Will Stewart: Once every 10 years we’re supposed to update the city’s master plan – does anyone know what’s in it? Part of the challenge is that people know they occasionally have the opportunity to give some input, but that nothing ever comes of it. It’s one of those things where, and rail is a good example, 75 percent of residents support rail, and yet we still don’t have any meaningful progress toward rail; there’s a disconnect between what people want and what they hunger for, and what actually gets delivered. And there are real reasons why that happens, but I do think we need to figure out a way. it wouldn’t be that difficult to do, to both solicit the input, to gather it, but more importantly, to act upon it so people don’t lose confidence and feel that the city is just giving lip service.
Tim Baines: Efforts like Manchester Connects are great efforts, but without city leaders or members of the aldermanic board talking about vision and talking about economic development, having these conversations, nothing changes. It’s great to have groups like Manchester Connects talking about vision, it would just be nice to have some of that conversation going on with the board, as well.
Will Stewart: It needs to be a shared vision. Right now Manchester Connects has a lot of well-meaning people coming up with some great ideas, and they have some good grant funding to come up with these neat plans and ideas, but again, neat plans and ideas – I have lots of great ideas, but I don’t have the resources to implement all my great ideas. Until we can agree upon a vision and implement it, it’s just that, a good vision, and not a reality.
The vision is there, it just needs to be a coordinated and collated for lack of a better term, and that’s the job of the mayor and the aldermen. The ideas are there, and the vision is bubbling up, but the political will needs to be there to grab a hold of it. There’s only one group in town that can strike the streets, you want bike lanes, public works needs to do that, just for one example. Or we want to build a riverfront, but unless anyone someone has bonding authority, the private sector can only do so much. I heard it while I was at the Chamber, the mayor likes to go to get money for the STEAM programs and other things like that, but businesses are tired of the city constantly coming to them with their hand out – they feel like this is what we pay taxes for, why aren’t you doing your job? There are certainly roles for that, but you can’t go to the private sector for everything. They’re going to get tapped out.
So then what happens is businesses will say I’ll go to Portsmouth or Boston, where they have the vision. I think the private sector is happy to throw in. Tim’s livelihood – his fortune – is tied up in downtown Manchester, but the private sector needs the public sector to do its part.
On getting out the vote
Chris Stewart: What is it the Washington Post says, ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’… It’s clear that the mayoral race is going to have all the attention, but what people should remember is that there are 29 seats that need to be filled every two years in this city. You have the mayor and you have 14 members of the school board and 14 members of the board of aldermen. The mayor, from the charter standpoint does have greater political power than any member of the boards, but tis’ also true that every seat matters. If you can put as many good, forward-thinking people in those seats as you can, it’s good for the city. A lot of these races have operated under the radar. I won my Ward 3 school board seat by about 350 votes.
Tim Baines: Ward 3 always has the lowest voter turnout – it’s very transient, for one thing. It’s a harder ward to get to residents because there aren’t traditional neighborhoods as much as there are apartments, or people living upstairs from businesses. That makes campaigning a little difficult. You need to have meet-and-greets, and of course, having a business downtown, I get to talk to people who come in on a daily basis. I’m hoping to change that, and get more people involved. One of my strategies is to bring 150 new voters out this year.
Are we a city divided by politics?
Tim Baines: Most of the issues our city is facing aren’t Republican or Democrat issues, my opponent who’s been on the board for 10 years was on a local TV show the other night, and they ended by talking about him having a race, and wanting to be clear that Pat Long is the ‘only true democrat’ in the race. But you know what? The issues – everything we’ve talked about here – are not about having a D or R behind your name, but they’re about moving Manchester forward, and how we’re going to do it. It’s very predictable the way people are going to vote on the board, along a certain ideology, and I think the three of us here, on some level, are not fixated on the political party.
Will Stewart: I know these guys have heard me say it previously, but I do like old saying, ‘There’s no Republican way to fill a pothole or Democratic way to pick up trash.’ At the municipal level, I think that’s most relevant.
Chris Stewart: I think this will definitely be a ‘change’ election. I think there is some of the ‘all politics is local’ and tend to your own garden kind of thing. If you run for local elected office you can have a real meaningful role, in not only your live, but in your neighbors’ lives as well, and you can help make the world a better place at the local level. That’s much less true as you go up the ladder to state senate, to U.S. Congress or U.S. Senate. I think all the people who are on the ballot, – I’ve knocked on nearly 1,000 doors in last month or so, and most of the people I’ve talked to say they are tired of the way Manchester has been run for a long time, particularly the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, and they are looking for new voices and fresh ideas to help shake things up. I think it’s a wonderful thing, I think all these candidates running is a wonderful thing – and I’m sure I disagree with a lot of them, and the ideas they have. But having fresh voices on the board will be positive for the city – if those fresh ideas and voices can sit down together and find a common way forward and that’s what I’m committed to doing,
Will Stewart: Well, if nothing else, there are three open seats so there will be at least three faces.
What are the top three issues facing Manchester?
Tim Baines: Drugs are No. 1, that along with public safety, the go hand-in-hand; education is second; and the need for a long-term plan and vision would be third.
Will Stewart: I’d keep those top three, but I’d reverse the order. I think vision is No. 1. The overall issue of opioids and public safety and education concerns are symptoms of a lack of vision. If we had a clearer vision of what we want and how we want to be and what we want to be it would be easier to proactively have a plan to address school and public safety and school issues.. We’re just too reactive, stumbling along year after year, and see what works. I think that lack of vision hampers all of our responses..
Tim Baines: I totally agree, the drug epidemic and certainly it’s going on nationwide, we’re not turning a corner, and until we come together and have hard conversations about how to come together. We have to turn a corner with this drug thing. I’ve had some personal experiences with people I’ve known through the restaurant. It’s brutal. I’ve seen it destroy families. We’re constantly just reacting instead of turning a corner.
Chris Stewart: I agree with these two, the big three are education, public safety, and opioid crisis – and of course, the vision thing. Depending on who you’re talking to, you might swap them around, but these are all things I’m focused like a laser beam on. I’d also add constituent services. People want their alderman to be more open and receptive to their needs, I get a lot of feedback in Ward 1 that the current alderman is not that good at taking care of people’s issues. And also, the nepotism – a couple of weeks back we voted for some union contracts that benefitted family members of two aldermen… I think that’s one example of how the board participates in self-dealing and nepotism that has no place in our city.