GOFFSTOWN, N.H. – Two contrasting visions of Manchester took the stage at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College on Wednesday afternoon as mayoral candidates Joyce Craig and Victoria Sullivan squared off in a debate hosted by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
The event began with a visual reminder of the contrast of the two candidates, as Sullivan was required to wear a mask on the podium while Craig was not forced to wear a mask. That requirement came as part of Saint Anselm requirements that needed everyone in attendance at the debate to wear a mask as well as those on stage unless they could provide proof of vaccination.
Sullivan stated she contracted COVID-19 in August and immediately isolated, and requested her husband take their children on vacation. However, she kept the matter private to avoid creating concern among her family members. Sullivan added that she is not opposed to vaccinations, but stated she has antibodies that now protect her from the virus and asked Craig to wear a mask, with moderator Scott Spradling noting the debate rules in response.
The COVID-19 pandemic was also a key point throughout the debate, with Craig praising city officials for their efforts to keep Manchester running as the world moved into quarantine. Sullivan said that praise instead belonged with members of the community who picked up slack as the city hall and the city’s public schools moved to online-only services.
In regard to the pandemic, Craig noted the new BAE Systems campus as well as several grants obtained by the city ranging from BUILD grants for parts of the city such as the South Elm corridor and an upcoming $100 million Build Back Better grant for the Millyard as well as public outreach efforts to determine usages for the American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA.
Craig also noted other achievements in the city such as the first new comprehensive reading curriculum in Manchester schools in 15 years and the addition of Spirit Airlines at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport among other items.
Sullivan attacked Craig on the methodology of the ARPA Survey and repeated discussion of grants, stating that federal and state grant funding came from taxpayers. Craig later replied if the city did not apply for the grants that other cities would.
The topic of competition also was a point Craig made in regard to the proposed commuter rail station that would be situated behind the Elm Street Market Basket, stating that local businesses are seeking to assist local, state and federal government funding for the passenger rail expansion into the Queen City and that it would be devastating for local business if the plans for commuter rail stations in Nashua progressed and Manchester’s expected station fell through.
Sullivan felt that increased funding into bus routes was more significant, stating concerns she has heard from constituents regarding service during the pandemic, with Craig replying that additional buses have been added heading into the Mall of New Hampshire.
Throughout the debate, Sullivan also criticized Craig on crime in the city, stating that the violent crime that was once only expected in certain areas can now be found even near her home on the south side and that people from outside of Manchester are afraid to head downtown given fear of crime and harassment from panhandlers.
In regard to crime, Craig noted statistics from the Manchester Police Department that has been verified by the state and FBI that has seen crime drop overall over the past five years, also noting the addition of 30 officers to the Manchester Police Department roster as well as additional training programs offered to officers.
Sullivan also repeated her pledge not to support overrides of the city’s tax cap, stating that doing so would dissuade potential future residents to moving to the city. Sullivan later clarified her attack on Craig regarding the tax cap came from Craig’s support of overrides at instances when Craig was an Alderman and other statements, given that under the city charter the mayor is required to present a budget within the tax cap to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
That was not the only point where Craig chastised Sullivan on what she saw as reducing serious topics to political talking points. Craig challenged Sullivan’s comments regarding a lack of parental outreach at Beech Street Elementary School by asking if she had ever been inside of the school, stating that the parents she has talked to there were deeply involved in the school. Craig also fought back at Sullivan’s assertions regarding the city’s recent revaluation, stating that Sullivan’s idea to ask the state to delay the constitutionally-required five-year revaluation of city property values was moot given that the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration would not allow a delay on revaluations given the recent state of emergency due to COVID-19.
On the revaluations, Sullivan replied that the city should hold revaluations more frequently than every five years, although Craig noted that City Assessor Bob Gagne has stated home sale prices continue to increase in the city’s housing market and any delays would have only increased property values.
While Craig challenged Sullivan, Sullivan also fought back on the issue of schools and a veiled comment regarding her children. Craig said she supports the ability for parents to choose their child’s school, but not when taxpayer dollars would be transferred from public schools to private schools or home school situations.
Sullivan, whose two children attend a Catholic school, took umbrage with this comment, stating that she was not listened to when Parent-Teacher Association president and that many other parents are ignored by the city’s public schools. She added that parents should have the right to use their tax dollars as they see fight and criticized the mayor on decreasing enrollment in the city’s public schools that has decreased available state aid.
The two candidates also clashed on the topic of homelessness, with Craig praising efforts by Director of Homeless Initiatives Schonna Green to work with regional agencies such as Gatehouse in Nashua to help homeless individuals facing substance abuse issues. Sullivan referenced a statement made at the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s public comment session on Tuesday night that Families in Transition/New Horizons’ homeless shelter is facing significant issues from residents such as a bedbug infestation and a lack of blankets that are not being addressed.
Following the event, Sullivan referred to Craig as “passive” toward the city’s problems.
“I think we are seeing a lot of what we saw two years ago with the mayor saying everything is sunshine and roses and nothing’s wrong with the city and she’s not offering anything new. A lot of the things she discussed she talked about two years ago and have not come to fruition,” said Sullivan. “I know when I am out there talking to people, they are ready for some significant change and they are ready for that on November 2nd.”
Sullivan closed the debate by stating her desire to work in a bipartisan manner, although Craig believed that Sullivan’s performance belied a cynical view of the Queen City in contrast to the efforts Craig has touted during her tenure.
“I thought it was very clear. I have a record to run on in the City of Manchester and a plan to move forward and my opponent seemed to be complaining constantly. We need a Mayor of Manchester that is positive and can bring people together to address those challenges, which is what I’ve been doing,” said Craig.
Following the debate, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, one of several local and state elected and political officials in attendance, believed that Craig won the debate “by a landslide.”
“Victoria Sullivan was so mixed up, she ended up debating herself and she still lost. The Queen City overwhelmingly rejected Sullivan and her dangerous ideologies two years ago — we’re on track to do it again.”
The New Hampshire Republican Party stated that Sullivan would ensure Manchester is a safe place for its families, taxpayers and small businesses to grow and prosper.
Video of the debate was livestreamed via Manchester Ink Link Facebook page. You can also watch the debate below.
UPDATE 10/21/21: Victoria Sullivan has released a statement on the debate’s rules regarding COVID-19 safety protocols.