Kris Roberts

Kris Roberts.

Long before Kris Roberts was a school board member, a city councilor, a N.H. state representative or a Democratic candidate for state senate District 10, he was a Marine engineer who traveled the world.

Over a 25-year span ending in 2002 as a lieutenant colonel, he built schools in Panama, repaired plane runways in California and took part in the first deployment to Saudi Arabia in the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991.

It was a varied career Roberts says taught him discipline and organization, skills he would later use to juggle multiple elected roles in New Hampshire politics. But it also delivered an experience that would lead to his most personal political fight.

Stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1980 as a facilities maintenance officer, Roberts was helping dig a hole for a fuel pit when the crew found a row of barrels filled with dioxins and other chemicals. They had been put there by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, and their contents were noxious.

The effects of the exposure unraveled over decades: for Roberts, taking the form of heart stops, thymus cancer and prostate cancer, which doctors told him decades later were direct results of the chemicals.

Proving that to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in order to receive disability funds was a battle of its own. After an eight-year legal fight against a skeptical Veterans Affairs agency, he provided enough evidence to demonstrate a connection.

He won an award of compensation by the Board of Veterans' Appeals in 2015, spurring an investigation across the island for similar sites.

For Roberts, it wasn't money from Veterans Affairs he was interested in; he was already covered by disability pay from the military. Rather, it was principle.

"I was trying to get the VA to set a precedent," he said, referencing fellow exposed Marines he said he was still in contact with. "Once you set a precedent, the others follow."

Now running in the Democratic primary for the state senate, Roberts, 61, of Keene, is hoping to carry that spirit to higher office, presenting a campaign characterized by a forceful, unapologetic political style.

He says in office he would push to encourage young people to stay and help build the New Hampshire economy through outreach to New Hampshire. He would pair those efforts with a focus on increased immigration to bolster the state workforce. He would fight for student loan relief programs for graduates staying in the state, and would seek to increase investment to public universities to drive tuition costs down.

It's an investment mentality he would carry over to the opioid crisis, he said, pressing for expanded funding for treatment centers to increase beds. He advocates for budgetary horse trading with Republicans in order to force into place a permanent arrangement for federal Medicaid funds into the state.

Assessing the cost of his proposals, Roberts takes an unflinching position on the need for more revenue. He has called for the implementation of a state income tax, though he admits it's a stance unlikely to pass in the legislature.

Seeking the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 13 primary, Roberts faces two opponents: Jay Kahn of Keene and Ben Tilton of Swanzey. Chester Lapointe is running unopposed on the Republican side.

Many of Roberts' positions are ones that could lead to more than a few fights on the senate floor. But citing his 12 years as a state representative in Keene, and eight years on the Keene City Council, Roberts says he has proved his mettle.

He spoke on the house floor four times in support of marriage equality in 2009, helping push through a bill signed by the governor that year.

In the City Council he cast the sole vote in favor of continuing the Keene Pumpkin Festival in 2015, after riots and parties near the Keene State College campus at the 2014 festival led to a large police response and garnered national media attention.

But he insists that while he stands by personal principle, he prioritizes voting in line with what his constituents want.

"Up in Concord and a lot of places, people have personal opinions; they won't change their opinions and they vote for what they think would satisfy them," he said. "As a state rep at large, I represent 23,000 people. I didn't get elected to make it about me."

Some of his political colleagues have lauded his approach. 

"Talking to those across the aisle or those who have dissimilar beliefs and convictions is Roberts’ natural behavior," wrote Delmar Burridge, former state representative from Keene and present candidate for N.H. House District 16, in a letter to The Sentinel. "Never does he discount anyone, no matter how they appear or speak; not even on a bad day."

Twenty N.H. state representatives have endorsed Roberts, according to his campaign website.

Roberts lives in Keene with Lucy, his wife of 39 years, who works in customer service. They met in Keene State College, marrying shortly after Roberts' graduation and before his first deployment. They have three daughters, and nine grandchildren.

After finishing his military career in 2002, the Roberts moved back to Keene, where Lucy grew up. Kris, feeling physically and mentally depleted from his experience in service, did not feel up for a full-time career but wanted to put his mind to use. He turned to public service instead, first running for and winning election to the Keene School Board and later branching into the N.H. House in 2004.

Roberts suffered a stroke in 2014, putting him in the hospital for several weeks. He says he has since mentally recovered, though still harbors some physical effects from the episode.

He characterized his senate campaign as rooted in local issues and local support. His family is his campaign team, he often says.

Looking to his appeal in Cheshire County, Roberts draws on his early political successes 14 years ago.

"I was always straightforward, putting non-political speech forward," he said. "The people agreed with that."

Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or edewitt@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @EDeWittKS