LACONIA — Kailief Mitchell and Ed Engler, the two candidates vying to succeed Mike Seymour as mayor, squared off before the television cameras on Sunday morning in the first of a series of mayoral debates scheduled on "Close-Up," the weekly political program aired by WMUR-TV (Channel 9).
In responding to a series of questions posed by Josh McElveen and James Pindell, the candidates offered different perspectives and priorities without entering into sharp disagreements.
Mitchell, a native of Laconia, U.S. Navy Reservist and assistant teacher at Spaulding Youth Center, described his candidacy as "a natural progression" from his commitment to the community. By contrast, Engler, co-founder, president and editor of The Laconia Daily Sun, confessed he had not dreamt of running for mayor, but once asked to enter the race quickly decided "I'm all in" and pledged to "work tirelessly."
Apart from serving as the presiding officer, Engler spoke of the mayor as "the facilitator, the conversation starter and keeper," who should provide "focus" to municipal government. He said that his experience in both business and government, along with a record of civic engagement, equipped him for the job. Mitchell, the younger candidate, said he looked to be "the eyes and ears of the people," serving as a "liaison" between the residents and their government while "networking" throughout the community. He stressed his leadership experience gained in his career in the Navy and as president of state Board of Opticians.
Several questions bore on the aging demographic and slack economy of the city. Noting that tourism represents a significant sector of the local economy, Mitchell emphasized the importance of becoming a year-round destination less dependent on the vagaries of the weather, which he suggested could be furthered by attracting big-box retailers and a resort casino. Both, he said, would provide employment opportunities that reverse the shrinking of the population by keeping more young people from leaving the city as well as drawing new residents in.
Engler said that population growth was essential for a dynamic economy. He said that manufacturing firms in the area like New Hampshire Ball Bearing, Eptam Plastics and Titeflex Aerospace, had well-paid jobs available, but struggled to find applicants with the required aptitudes and skills. He supported efforts at the Huot Technical Center and Lakes Region Community College to develop a skilled workforce while also stressing the need to generate more professional and white-collar employment. "We must broaden general prosperity," he said.
Both candidates expressed strong support for the city's property tax cap. Mitchell recalled that he not only signed the original petition but also encouraged others to do so.
"It's been great," said Engler, explaining that it has forced the City Council to set its priorities and manage its resources. When Pindell wondered if the tax cap stifled investment, Engler pointed to the expansion of the Huot Technical Center and improvements to the Laconia schools undertaken without skimping on annual roadwork and other projects.
For Engler, the incidence of drug abuse and trafficking was primarily a socio-economic problem and until that is overcome "we must rely on law enforcement". Mitchell said that a solution would depend on "what the rest of the community can do," adding that he thought that the citizens' police academy, now in its third year, was a step in the right direction.
The general election will be held on Tuesday, November 5.