LACONIA — The sanctuary city issue triggered the biggest dust-up of the evening between mayoral candidates Andrew Hosmer and Peter Spanos in what may be their final meeting before the Nov. 5 election.
An audience member asked the candidates at a forum Thursday evening whether the issue “has become a dog whistle to a certain group of voters.”
New Hampshire has no sanctuary cities, which are typically defined as places where local government largely doesn’t help enforce federal immigration law. There are three such cities in Vermont, and many elsewhere — both large and small — but city officials say there has never been an organized attempt to confer this status on Laconia.
Two years ago, there were preliminary discussions in Portsmouth and Durham about pursuing a sanctuary city designation, but the matter did not go forward.
Spanos has made opposition to sanctuary cities part of his campaign, including in his literature and in his statements.
“As some of you may know, I’ve taken a no-sanctuary-city pledge,” Spanos said at the public library forum sponsored by the Long Bay and South Down homeowners associations.
“I know that Portsmouth and Nashua have had referendums and discussions about becoming a sanctuary city, whereby criminals are not prosecuted, federal immigration laws aren’t enforced and law enforcement’s hands are hamstrung and they’re not allowed to do their jobs.
“I’ve done some research on the subject. One of the causal factors is a surplus of low-income housing."
He said his own grandparents were legal Greek immigrants.
“I firmly believe diversity, the melting pot, is what makes this country great, it’s what makes our community great, it’s probably our greatest strength.
“I believe in the American race. We’re all water from different rivers. We all came from somewhere.”
Hosmer said he also doesn’t support sanctuary cities, but feels this issue has been a campaign distraction from more important local matters such as the future of Laconia and its residents as well as issues affecting young people, senior citizens, fire and police services.
“That’s the stuff we should be talking about, not getting involved in this who’s really an American and who’s not,” Hosmer said. “Anybody here full Abenaki Indian? Raise your head. I’m not either.
“We’re all immigrants and the idea that we want to point fingers at people who have a different color skin or different socioeconomic background, smacks of racism.”
Spanos stood up and said he wanted to respond.
“I believe I’ve been insulted by my opponent, I’ve been misquoted. I believe I’ve been called a racist. I don’t appreciate it. I don’t think there is any room in this campaign for that. I think I was very specific to this crowd and at other debates. I believe very strongly in diversity. I believe in the melting pot. My wife is Irish. I am Greek,” Spanos said.
“Like I said, out of many waters, we’re all Americans, the ones who are here legally.
“I want to be very clear I do not appreciate that. That is a slur, sir. I do not appreciate that.”
Hosmer said Spanos has brought up the sanctuary city issue repeatedly.
“It’s non-stop,” Hosmer said. “I’m not making it up, but at some point, what does it allude to? Whatever it is. Maybe it is not racism. Maybe it’s just misguidance. It kills me.”
The candidates took several questions about a proposal to extend the WOW Trail from Lakeport to The Weirs. The extension would be in a railroad corridor that skirts Paugus Bay on one side and the gated communities of Long Bay and South Down on the other.
Some residents have said it could pose safety concerns when they move their boats down to the water. Some fear privacy invasion and crime.
Hosmer said he supports extending the trail if a compromise could be found that would deal with the concerns of all involved.
“The last place anybody wants to end up is in court,” he said. “I would seek, if I were the mayor, to play an active role as facilitator because mediation is less expensive than litigation.”
Spanos also said he would make it a priority to bring the homeowners and trail proponents together.
“I think the WOW Trail is a great idea, and I’d certainly like to see it extended to The Weirs,” he said. “It makes sense for the tourism industry up here, but not over any neighbor’s objections.”
Each candidate listed his priorities.
Spanos said he wants to see a moratorium on low-income housing, a spending cap on the Colonial Theatre, an effort to repair the city parking garage, retention of the tax cap and better enforcement of drug laws.
He elaborated later on the theater, which is to be refurbished starting next month in a major project intended to foster downtown revitalization.
“You hear the old expression, ‘If you break it, you buy it,’” Spanos said. “It’s broken now. We bought it. We own it. We have to try to bring it in under budget.”
Hosmer said his priorities are economic development, ensuring an exemplary school system, working to remedy what he characterized as understaffing at the fire department, continued budgeting that complies with the city tax cap, and securing state money.
He said there is already a spending cap when it comes to the Colonial Theatre – in the form of contracts for the work.
“So the idea that it is going to be uncontrolled spending, isn’t supported by the facts,” he said.
Spanos said that during the campaign, he has heard repeatedly about prevalent drug dealing.
“In going door-to-door and talking to constituents and getting phone calls, I hear over and over again, ‘People are dealing drugs right under our noses.’
One possibility would be more active neighborhood watch programs to work with police on the issue, he said.
“The drug problem we see on the streets, the homelessness, it brings the area down and shouldn’t be acceptable to any of us here.”
Hosmer, a former assistant district attorney in Springfield, Massachusetts, said he has prosecuted people for drug crimes.
“I sent hundreds and hundreds of people to jail over five years for drug offenses,” he said. “We built new jails and filled every one of them. We built more new jails and filled those too.
“I go back to that city now, the drugs are just as bad. There are more jails. They can’t fill them up fast enough.”
He said programs that aid in drug recovery, such as Navigating Recovery, which he helped found, can be more helpful in dealing with the problem than just incarceration.
Hosmer said if there is a need for more police to work in the community, the city, working with the state, should find a way to do that.
“Let’s not deputize citizens to put their own lives at risk and play sheriff,” he said.