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New Hampshire's top five political stories of 2019

Despite being an “off year” in national and state politics — sandwiched between the 2018 midterms and next year’s 2020 general election — several consequential and surprising stories emerged in 2019, from the presidential campaign trail to the Elm City’s local elections.

Here are some of the top stories from this past year in politics.

The state budget and political impasse

After Democrats retook both chambers of the Legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu won reelection in the 2018 midterms, no one expected perfect harmony.

Sununu, 45, made his positions clear in his state of the state address back in February, drawing a line in the sand over any increased taxes. In that same Valentine’s Day speech, Sununu countered the Democrats’ paid family leave plan — which many ran and won on in defeating previously Republican-held seats — with his own version, a joint plan with Vermont that never materialized.

However, neither did the Democrats’ paid leave plan, which Sununu painted as amounting to an income tax. With family leave off the table heading into budget negotiations, an effort at compromise could proceed without the year’s most contentious issue getting in the way.

Nevertheless, a three-month stalemate ensued.

Keene city councilors worried about the downshifting of costs to the local level without state guidance, local educators worried about the future of adequacy aid and potentially drastic budget cuts for regional school districts, and both Republicans and Democrats accused each other of abandoning the spirit of bipartisanship.

Key sticking points ended up centering around education funding and two business tax rates — the business profits tax and business enterprise tax — which were scheduled to go down again in the next fiscal year.

In late September, a compromise was reached, with Sununu agreeing to boost education funding and Democrats agreeing to allow the business taxes to go down if the state secures a certain revenue threshold.

Shortly after the deal was struck, Sununu came on The Sentinel’s politics podcast, Pod Free or Die, to discuss the budget deal.

“We had to give up a little bit on what we wanted, as did they,” Sununu said, adding that health care and education were joint priorities that helped both parties reach a compromise.

Mayor-elect Hansel and a new generation of Elm City leadership

Keene Mayor-elect George Hansel’s win in November over fellow City Councilor Mitch Greenwald made waves beyond Keene, with the at-large city councilor becoming the Elm City’s youngest mayor in decades at the age of 33.

Partisanship in the ostensibly non-partisan municipal elections became a contentious point of debate, yet Hansel, a registered Republican, was able to prevail in a predominately Democratic-leaning city.

Hansel made his pitch to voters as a pragmatist with a fresh point of view as a millennial, homing in on housing and economic development as key campaign issues.

His 2,587 to 2,313 vote victory came after the closest primary election in Keene’s recent history, in which Greenwald squeaked ahead of Hansel by just two votes. That primary also featured the semi-viral candidacy of “Nobody for Mayor,” where a Keene man legally changed his name to Nobody ahead of a run on a libertarian platform.

Along with Hansel’s victory, several new city councilors won seats in a new wave of millennial leadership.

The rise of Pete Buttigieg

A little-known mayor from South Bend, Ind., became the latest presidential hopeful to fulfill part of the promise of the first-in-the-nation primary: No matter what the odds are, the in-person, retail politics of the Granite State can give anyone a fair shot at running for president.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s first visit to the region came in February at the Orchard School and Community Center in Alstead, while he was still in the exploratory committee phase of his campaign.

Each subsequent visit drew bigger crowds, with his rallies at Keene High School and the Peterborough Town House being among the most well attended of any in the Monadnock Region this cycle.

While former Vice President Joe Biden’s status as the national race’s front-runner has remained rather steady, Buttigieg is the only candidate so far who has been able to get a surge in the polls, emerge from the pack and maintain that momentum. He now polls in the top four nationally and is leading in Iowa.

According to the RealClear Politics polling average, Buttigieg is in second place, just 1.3 percentage points behind Bernie Sanders, after briefly leading in the Granite State.

Buttigieg also took The Sentinel on his campaign bus in November, which his campaign’s communications advisor said was modeled after the late John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express.”

The continuing opioid crisis

This year saw more tragedy and havoc wreaked by addiction to opiates such as heroin and fentanyl, with the release of Cheshire County’s fatal overdose data from 2018 showing an increase locally despite a slight decrease statewide.

An opioid response program was born in 2019 to serve Cheshire County, with the goal of bringing a diverse group of perspectives together in its early stages.

The area’s only needle exchange program recently lost its funding, and New Hampshire’s hub and spoke program continued to face challenges in its rollout.

Those affected by the crisis shared their stories of losing loved ones with The Sentinel, and despite a growing awareness of the problem and increased national attention, the death toll keeps mounting.

Affordable housing

While the opioid crisis has been a top issue in the Granite State and dominates national coverage of New Hampshire, a longstanding problem has quietly emerged as a top five issue in the Monadnock Region and statewide.

The vacancy rates for one and two bedroom apartments have dipped into the low single digits, sometimes beneath 1 percent.

Struggles over changing zoning laws in some local communities have gotten at the crux of the debate: whether to preserve the region’s rural character or invest in denser units that could provide stability to the future of the Granite State’s workforce.

Several presidential candidates have taken notice, rolling out affordable housing plans begging with former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro rolling out a highly praised plan in June.

Affordable housing was also central to Hansel’s campaign, and while no particular event sparked the increase in attention around the issue, stories of hardship — such as that of the Duncan family being evicted in mid-December — continue to make headlines.

Sentinel reporters Olivia Belanger, Sierra Hubbard and Paul Cuno-Booth contributed reporting to this article.