Debate signals partisan tone to what all agree is a largely non-partisan position

MEREDITH — Some 120 voters filled the Community Center to overflowing Tuesday night to take stock of the two candidates vying for the Executive Council seat in District 1 — Republican Joe Kenney of Wakefield and Democrat Michael Cryans of Hanover. A special election will be held March 11 and differences emerged clearly as the men fielded questions from about 120 voters.

The forum, sponsored by the Belknap County Republican Committee and Lakes Region and Belknap County Democratic Committees, and moderated by Liz Tentarelli of the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire drew people from around the Lakes Region, the Upper Valley and Mount Washington Valley.

Both candidates repeatedly invoked the legacy of the late Ray Burton, who held the seat for 34 years, by vowing to make constituent service their top priority. Cryans, who said "I learned what Ray was all about" serving with him on the Grafton County Commission for 16 years, found seeking to succeed him as an executive councilor " a humbling experience." Kenney, who courted the more conservative wing of the GOP to best Christopher Boothby of Meredith in the Republican primary, acknowledged that while he and Burton "did not always agree on the issues, we agreed you always put the people first."

Kenney, repeatedly touted his 14 years in the Legislature — eight in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate — experience, he claimed, would enable him "to hit the ground running" and help "people navigate state government."

In response, Cryans noted that three sitting executive councilors — Republican Chris Sununu and Democrats Colin Van Ostern and Chris Pappas — were elected without prior experience of state government. He said that he would apply "his common sense, intelligence, resources and relationships" on behalf of his constituents. A former teacher and banker who has served as executive director of a substance abuse treatment facility for the past 10 years, he said "I'll go with the skill set I have and match my experience up with Joe any day."

The two candidates agreed that there is little place for ideology or partisanship in the work of an executive councilor. "It would be a disservice Ray Burton's memory," said Kenney. ""I'm not going to ask are you a Republican or Democrat. "I'm going to ask 'how can I help you.'" Likewise, Cryans said flatly that "being a Republican or a Democrats doesn't matter."

Nevertheless, their responses to most, if not all, questions reflected their political differences.

Both candidates decried the deterioration of roads and bridges, especially in the northern reaches of the state, but neither expressed support for raising the gas tax to help pay for repairs. Kenney, who chaired the Senate Transportation Committee, said that he opposed increasing the tax as along money was being "siphoned" from the Highway Trust Fund for other purposes and that he would convene a statewide conference on the transportation infrastructure. Cryans said that District 1, which sprawls over the northern three-quarters of the state was not receiving its appropriate share of highway funds.

Cryans considered the advent of wind farms a local issue, declaring that "when a town says no, that should be it. It's a local decision." But, Kenney, noting that local decisions have been overridden, insisted it was also "a state policy issue." He said that while Republicans voted for a moratorium on wind farms and other energy facilities, the Democrats opposed it, asking "who can you trust" and vowing "I will fight against big wind."

Reminded that in 2011 the Executive Council voted not to renew the contract to provide health care to women with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, the candidates were asked how they would vote if the contract returned to the table. Kenney, who as a senator voted to defund the contract but as a candidate has finessed the issue, said he would vote against contracting with Planned Parenthood. He explained that the organization is federally funded by the Affordable Care Act and that to seek state funding would be "double dipping."

Replying that he favored the contracting with Planned Parenthood, Cryans noted that two of the five Republican executive councilors — Burton and Chris Sununu — voted to renew the contract, which enjoyed bipartisan support.

Although Cryans and Kenney agreed that by excluding 10 hospitals, the network of Anthem, the sole provider on the state health insurance exchange, was inadequate, Kenney placed the blame on the Affordable Care Act while Cryans insisted "it was Anthem's decision." Kenney replied "let's not just pick on Anthem, noting that the governor and Insurance commissioner approved the plan. Likewise, they deplored the lack of competition in the health insurance marketplace, with Kenney taking the opportunity to claim that reforms introduced by then state senator now United States Senator Shaheen prompted many insurance carriers to leave the state.

Kenney also expressed opposition to expanding Medicaid. He claimed that the state provides $103 million annually to hospitals in reimbursement for uncompensated care and suggested the funds should be assigned to the uninsured.

While Cryans considered Common Core, the controversial education reform sponsored by the National Governors Association, "essential to moving forward and preparing the workforce," Kenney branded it "a federal takeover of our schools," calling for a return to local and parental control.

Kenney opposed any increase in the minimum wage, which he described as suited to unskilled workers, warning that the additional cost of labor would fall on consumers in the form of higher prices. Favoring an increase, Cryans said that "we should phase in a livable minimum wage, adding that too many people were working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

When the two were asked how they would approach the nominations of judges, Kenney stressed he would not endorse "judicial activism," explaining that he expected judicial nominees to cleave to "the letter of the Constitution and the law" and refrain from "legislative decisions." Cryans said he was not familiar with the term "judicial activism," but would weight the qualifications and temperament of nominees, together with the evidence provided in support of their nomination.

District 1 reaches into seven of the 10 counties — Coos, Carroll, Grafton, Belknap, Strafford, Sullivan and Merrimack — and includes four of its 13 cites, 109 of its 221 towns and 19 of its 25 unincorporated places. The general election will be held on Tuesday, March 11, town meeting day.