The race between two well-known candidates for Keene mayor this year may dip deeper into party politics than in recent memory.
Keene’s charter says that all city primary and general elections “shall be non-partisan in nature” and that ballots shall not indicate a candidate’s party affiliation.
But state and local Democratic and GOP committees have already gotten involved in the campaign between Mitchell H. Greenwald, 66, a councilor in Ward 2, and George S. Hansel, 33, an at-large councilor.
Hansel says he wants the political groups to back off, while Greenwald says he welcomes support from any groups who will give it.
Greenwald is a registered Democrat and has served on the council for 22 years. Hansel, in his second term, is a registered Republican. He ran unsuccessfully in 2014 for the N.H. House against a Democratic incumbent.
Political science professor Andrew Smith said most town and city elections are presented as nonpartisan, “but for the most part those are a bit of a ruse, and everybody knows it, including the voters.” Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said people typically look for cues to figure out the candidates’ party affiliations.
“So it comes down to being essentially partisan without the labels,” he said.
The GOP and Democratic parties have a vested interest in local elections, he added, and in this blue corner of the state, a race between two candidates on opposite sides of the aisle is bound to break down into partisanship.
Political parties get into campaigns
For Greenwald’s campaign launch Wednesday, the N.H. Democratic Party sent email advisories to news outlets and included details about the event on its website calendar.
Holly Shulman, a spokeswoman for the organization, said both state parties regularly support candidates in nonpartisan municipal elections, adding that “offering help to candidates who share our values is an important part of our mission.”
“Voters are well served when candidates at all levels have the tools to organize and communicate their message,” she said.
Shulman said state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley is a Keene native and “has a strong interest in making sure his hometown has the representation it deserves.”
In Cheshire County, both major political committees have gotten involved on social media, with the Republican committee sharing Hansel’s events on Facebook and the Democrats doing the same with Greenwald’s.
Representatives with the Cheshire County Republican Committee and N.H. Republican State Committee were not available for comment.
Cheshire Democrats Chairman Carl DeMatteo drew a distinction between sharing information about a candidate and endorsing one.
“Given the nonpartisan nature of our community elections, I don’t think we would formally endorse any candidate,” DeMatteo said. “That would probably represent, I guess, true partisanship.”
Last month, Greenwald spoke at the Cheshire Democrats’ annual spaghetti dinner. DeMatteo said Thursday that the organization invited him to deliver a few remarks because he’s a longtime Democrat, and traditionally the committee extends that opportunity to any Democrat running for office, regardless of whether the election is nonpartisan.
He reiterated that allowing Greenwald to speak did not constitute an endorsement.
Hansel — who attended the Democrats’ dinner — was not given the same invitation, DeMatteo said, “because he’s not ever been a member of our group, and I didn’t see any reason why we would invite him.” When asked if he was referring to the fact that Hansel is not a Democrat, DeMatteo said yes.
Then he immediately flipped the script, asking if Greenwald would be at the podium of a Cheshire County Republicans event.
“My guess is that ... them inviting Mitch to come and speak to them might be a low probability event, I don’t know,” DeMatteo said.
Four years ago, the Cheshire Democrats hosted a meet-and-greet for City Council and mayoral candidates and originally invited only declared Democrats. Ann Heffernon, then the organization’s chairwoman, told The Sentinel at the time that the state party asked the committee to do so, but the Cheshire Democrats later opened the event up to all candidates.
There are no requirements for candidates in Keene’s local elections to report campaign contributions or expenditures, though Councilor Terry M. Clark proposed crafting rules for financial reporting earlier this month. His proposal was sent to city staff for review.
The two candidates’ positions
While both Greenwald and Hansel agree that their campaigns shouldn’t be party-affiliated, they diverge when it comes to what that nonpartisanship should look like.
Hansel said he wasn’t aware that his events and videos were being shared by the Cheshire Republicans Facebook page.
“Whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, they have no place in local elections,” Hansel said. “They shouldn’t get involved, [and] it’s wrong if they do.”
He accused Greenwald of pushing the partisan angle as a campaign tactic.
“It’s a card that’s obviously being played by my opposition, and I think it’s because he’s struggling to come up with a message as to why he should be mayor, other than it’s his turn to be mayor,” Hansel said.
Greenwald argued that, while the organizations themselves are partisan, allowing them to promote candidates doesn’t affect the party-neutral status of the local race.
“Yes, I’m comfortable with [the Cheshire Democrats sharing his events], and the more I’m talking I want to know why the Cheshire County Republicans are not sharing my events,” Greenwald said.
He compared the county Democrats and Republicans to any other organization, no different than if “the licensed professional nurses or firefighters or dog-catchers” helped spread the word about his campaign. “It’s their partisan issue,” he said of the party committees. “If their partisan issue falls in line with saying I’m the best individual to be mayor, fine.”
Hansel, on the other hand, expressed interest in contacting the county political committees to stop them from sharing his campaign information. After a phone interview Thursday afternoon, he later forwarded emails he had sent to both organizations, asking them not to show him or his campaign any official support, including promotional or speaking opportunities that are not offered to all candidates.
Hansel sent a similar email to Greenwald, which ended with a call to action: “I hope and expect that you will join me in this initiative to help preserve the nonpartisan nature of our local races.”
Greenwald said Friday night that he received the email and appreciated it, though it wasn’t any new information to him. He didn’t indicate whether he intended to join Hansel in rejecting the committees’ support.
He disputed the assertion that he or his campaign is trying to make the race partisan.
Is partisanship unavoidable?
Smith, the political science professor, noted that attempting to ignore the party affiliation is particularly difficult in places like Keene, where the overwhelming majority of voters lean left.
“Unless there’s some other factor that makes the, in this case, the Republican candidate extremely well-known for other reasons than politics in that area, then I think that it’s gonna devolve into partisanship,” he said.
While some might argue there are reasons to try to maintain nonpartisan municipal elections — such as allowing more opportunities for people to serve in local positions, regardless of party affiliation — Smith said what works in theory doesn’t always play out in practice, and he doesn’t see many substantial pros or cons to nonpartisanship.
At the end of the day, he said, most voters likely wouldn’t be upset if their local elected officials were partisan or if the elections appeared to be.
“... I think it’s a realistic assessment of where we are in politics today that we vote our party. We make our decisions whether we like somebody or dislike them by their partisanship.”