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Eight vie for four seats in House district along Connecticut River

Cheshire District 1

Michael Abbott, Peter Benik, Paul Berch, Kate Day, Cathryn Harvey, Richard Merkt and Lucy McVitty Weber are running in Cheshire District 1. Not pictured is Whitney Aldrich.

Four Republicans are on the ballot in Cheshire County House District 1 in the party’s latest effort to unseat a quartet of Democratic incumbents.

The district has been represented solely by Democrats since 2012, when it took its current form covering Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Walpole and Westmoreland.

Incumbent Reps. Michael Abbott, Paul Berch, Cathryn Harvey and Lucy McVitty Weber touted their legislative experience and called for helping municipalities fund education and responses to COVID-19. The Republican candidates — Whitney Aldrich, Peter Benik, Kate Day and Richard Merkt — say they are a “tax-fighting team” dedicated to limited government. Here’s a closer look at the candidates:

Michael Abbott

Abbott, 72, has lived in Hinsdale since 1970 and taught U.S. history and civics classes at Hinsdale High School for 15 years before serving as the school’s principal. He later worked at C&S Wholesale Grocers in Keene before retiring in 2014 to run for the Legislature.

“I just thought that I had done the theoretical part [of government], so maybe it would be a good idea to do the practical part,” he said.

Abbott criticized the state’s method of funding public education primarily through local property taxes, which he said leads to inequities between school districts and also creates a regressive system of higher taxes for less-wealthy communities. He argued that the state’s annual per-student contribution is “not anywhere close to what it should be.”

Abbott dismissed the idea of an income or sales tax but said he supports House Democrats’ efforts to create a capital gains tax and use the revenue for education.

“Those people who can afford to pay should pay their fair share,” he said.

While noting that Cheshire County has avoided any major COVID-19 outbreaks, Abbott said the state should have provided additional safety guidance for residents and school reopening plans this fall. He said he would support a statewide mask mandate as well as tighter restrictions on public gatherings.

Abbott said New Hampshire should also establish job-creating programs to help residents currently relying on unemployment benefits.

“Let’s put these people to work, whether it’s in a daycare center, whether it’s working on the roads [or] whether it’s cleaning public buildings,” he said.

Abbott, a member of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, said his top legislative priority is steering repairs on two bridges over the Connecticut River that connect Hinsdale and Brattleboro. He explained that the bridges, built in 1920, are too narrow and pose an inconvenience for tractor-trailers. Construction of a new bridge is scheduled to begin next year.

Peter Benik

Benik, 49, has lived in Cheshire County for more than four decades and graduated from Keene State College in 1995. A Walpole resident, he is the general manager at People’s Linen Service in Keene and was previously the operations manager at Fishtales Market & Cafe in Peterborough.

In 2008 and 2010, Benik ran as a Republican in a seven-member House district representing Keene but lost in the general election both times. He explained that he is running for office again because he is concerned about a lack of civil discourse in American political culture.

“I wanted to try to help be part of the solution instead of just complaining and being angry about what was going on,” he said. “… I’m not sure how elected officials can help, except for how they comport themselves in doing their business.”

Benik said alternatives to public school, like private and charter schools, should be more accessible to families, contending that greater competition would improve the quality of education. He explained that state and federal aid could help students offset the cost of private schools, while municipalities’ property tax revenue would still be funneled into the local district.

“When schools end up competing for education dollars, they will improve organically,” he said.

Benik said the state has done a “decent job” helping businesses reopen after requiring temporary closures this year due to COVID-19. To continue relieving their financial distress, he said lawmakers should not create new income or business taxes and also should avoid imposing additional public health regulations that would affect commerce.

“We have a good idea of the high-risk populations [for COVID-19], and I think they know as well,” he said. “I think you can open up businesses and do it safely and let them operate fully.”

Benik indicated he would consider raising the state’s minimum wage, which is currently the nationally mandated $7.25 per hour, but rejected House Democrats’ proposals to increase it to $15. He argued that would harm young workers because businesses would not be able to afford to hire them, and that it would force many retailers to raise prices.

Paul Berch

A Westmoreland resident for more than 35 years, Berch, 74, worked in the Windham County (Vt.) Public Defender’s Office from 1975 to 2009, when he retired as the managing attorney.

He ran unsuccessfully for an N.H. House seat in 2010 before being elected two years later. Berch explained that he was inspired to run due to a perceived lack of community and civility.

“As somebody who spent a long time doing public service work, I know how important it is to bring different communities together to make progress,” he said. “I just wasn’t seeing that happen.”

Berch characterized the state’s role during the pandemic as a conduit for economic resources between the federal government and Granite State communities. Arguing that commercial revenues fell in part because consumers were concerned for their health, in addition to government-imposed closures, he said the best financial stimulus would be to reduce the state’s virus case numbers. That could include requiring face coverings, Berch added.

“Until people feel safe, they’re not going to go back,” he said. “The best thing that can be done for business is to deal with COVID.”

Berch touted his efforts to increase government accountability, noting legislation he introduced that would make the state’s Exculpatory Evidence Schedule — a database of police officers with disciplinary issues — public record. (The Sentinel is one of several media companies suing to make it public.) He also expressed support for greater transparency around police shootings, banning non-disparagement clauses in settlements over misconduct by public officials and requiring law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant before using facial recognition software.

“I think that the public has a fundamental right to know how good a job its employees are doing,” he said.

Berch added that he is committed to expanding Internet service in his district. That issue affects home values, job access and education, given the increased reliance on remote communication during the pandemic, he said.

Among his accomplishments, Berch pointed to his advocacy for the ongoing renovation and expansion of Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland and said the project is an example of impactful, bipartisan work.

“We are a caring community who is showing that we can care for our elderly,” he said.

Kate Day

A Nashville, Tenn., native, Day, 63, moved to the Chesterfield village of Spofford in 2005. She is a former bacteriologist and wastewater treatment specialist and previously chaired the Cheshire County Republican Committee.

Day finished fifth in the 2018 general election for District 1. She noted her passion for public policy, including the mundane regulations that affect pillows, toothpaste and other household items, as her motivation to run again.

“There’s politics in everything,” she said. “… Going to Concord and representing my neighbors would be the biggest honor and thrill for me.”

Day’s top priorities as a legislator would be to limit taxes and government regulations. Arguing that it is often difficult to restrain policies once they are in place, she said a state income tax rate, if enacted, would likely increase in the future. Day also noted her preference for local property taxes, compared to an income tax, because municipal officials are more accountable than state officials, she said.

“With an income tax … your money will go to Concord, and someone else will decide how to spend it,” she said.

Calling for a reassessment of New Hampshire’s education system, Day said measurements of the state’s academic performance have not reflected its spending increases, on a per-student basis. While endorsing a state role in education funding, she proposed cutting administrative costs and making charter schools and private schools more accessible to reduce expenses and improve performance.

She noted the pandemic’s adverse economic effects but added that it has also revealed several positive trends, including the potential benefits of remote learning for students who are not comfortable in a classroom — more evidence for why parents and students should be afforded greater school choice, she said.

Day said individual choices and social pressures are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, citing as an example how the pandemic lowered office energy usage and kept vehicles off the road. But she expressed opposition to public policies that would encourage climate-friendly behavior through incentives or penalties.

“I would much rather someone choose to do something good for the environment or choose to do something that is going to be better for them [or] better for their company,” she said.

Cathryn Harvey

Harvey, 70, is in her second term representing District 1. A Spofford resident for more than three decades, she was a music teacher for 43 years and has served on the local school board and budget committee.

In 1989, Harvey helped found the Chesterfield Public School Foundation, which solicits private donations for Chesterfield School and funds academic programs. The organization helped the district develop its reopening plan this fall and financed the purchasing of laptops and outdoor tents to use as classrooms, she said.

Harvey said the state should consider spending more on education, particularly during the pandemic, arguing that not all districts can rely on foundations to cover their needs. She added that New Hampshire policymakers must ensure public schools across the state are providing equitable educations.

“No matter where you live in New Hampshire … the funding should be adequate for all kids,” she said.

Harvey also criticized state officials for not offering guidelines on school reopening plans until late July. She said earlier recommendations would have helped parents and students prepare for the academic year and reduced the cost of academic materials that were in high demand by then.

“Had we had a plan in May, the supplies … could have been purchased in a much more timely manner,” she said.

Pointing to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire, Harvey said she would support a statewide mask mandate to keep businesses open, if necessary. She also emphasized health care accessibility for Granite Staters, including after the pandemic, as a critical issue but did not offer any specific policies to expand it.

As chairwoman of the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee, Harvey explained that she is committed to protecting the environment and noted its importance to the state economy, which depends heavily on tourism. She touted her involvement on a commission studying the potential for offshore wind sites.

“I think that would be an important thing to keep the outdoors as clean as it possibly can be,” she said.

Richard Merkt

Merkt, 71, moved to Westmoreland three years ago after holding a number of government roles in New Jersey, including as a state legislator and town administrator. He was previously an attorney for manufacturing and retail companies and unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor in 2009.

Noting his experience in local politics in New Jersey, which also included stints as a mayor and selectboard member, Merkt said he believes in limited government.

“The closer government is to people, the better,” he said. “… Any decision that can be pushed down so that it can be made competently by the local government, that should happen.”

Merkt explained that he decided to run for office because of his opposition to three bills passed by Democratic lawmakers in the current legislative session that he said would have imposed nearly $600 million in new taxes. He criticized the District 1 incumbents for what he said was a lack of accountability to constituents over their support for the legislation, which would have repealed business tax cuts, created a capital gains tax and established a paid family leave program. (The business tax restorations were included, conditionally, in the 2019 state budget but will not go into effect next year after state revenues were high enough to avoid triggering them. The Democratic-controlled Senate dropped the capital gains tax proposal, and Sununu vetoed the paid family leave legislation.)

Abbott, Berch and Weber voted in favor of all three bills. Harvey was absent for votes on the first two and voted in favor of the third.

“I have no doubt that the same bills will be introduced again in the future, and I have no doubt that the Democrats will pass them again,” Merkt said. “We need to have a change in the team.”

Like Benik and Day, Merkt said the state should expand school choice, arguing that charter schools can educate students for less money than public schools. He proposed using existing programs to make charter and private schools more accessible, calling the Education Trust Fund, which distributes grants to public school districts and approved charter schools, an “enlightened policy.”

Merkt said he would consider supporting additional, state-funded relief for New Hampshire businesses hurt by the pandemic. Despite praising Sununu for quickly disbursing emergency federal aid, he said he opposes “one-man rule” and advocated for greater legislative oversight of how the money was spent — a point of contention between the governor and some Democrats.

On climate change, Merkt said he is not convinced that human activity is contributing to global warming — despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is the primary cause — and the state should monitor the situation.

“I don’t think that we understand this as well as we would like people to believe we do,” he said.

Lucy McVitty Weber

Weber, 68, is the district’s senior representative, having first been elected to the House in 2006. The Walpole Democrat serves as the body’s speaker pro tempore and as chairwoman of its Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee.

Formerly an elementary school teacher in Lebanon and later an attorney in Brattleboro, Weber moved to Walpole in 1998 with her late husband. There, the couple owned what was then the Walpole Inn until 2006. She also served on the zoning board.

Weber pointed to her efforts to fund the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families, which she said was “in dire straits” a decade ago, as a signature accomplishment. She explained that social workers are now responsible for fewer cases because additional funding has enabled it to hire more staff.

“The focus should be on having interventions available to families long before they get into the trouble that requires court intervention,” she said. “If we strengthen families early on … it’s better for the kids, it’s better for the family, it’s better for society as a whole and it’s cheaper.”

Enacting similar “upstream investments” to prevent long-term expenses for the state and its residents is Weber’s focus on the health and human services committee, she said. While arguing that guaranteeing universal access to health care is the federal government’s responsibility, she expressed support for limited measures like expanding dental coverage for adult Medicaid recipients.

Weber said, if re-elected, she plans to re-file legislation that Sununu has vetoed, which would have created a new protective order for senior victims of domestic abuse or financial exploitation by a partner. She criticized Sununu’s opposition to the bill, which he said would have placed administrative burdens on the people it aimed to help.

“He is continuing to leave our elders completely unprotected,” Weber said.

Noting her support for the one-time increase in education funding included in the 2019 budget, Weber said she is committed to maintaining state contributions to public schools to ease local property taxes.

She also described her passion for constituent services, explaining that she has helped workers apply for welfare benefits and business owners apply for financial relief during the pandemic.

“We don’t ask if somebody voted for us or not when they need a constituent service,” she said. “If they live here and they’ve got an issue, we tend to help them out to the extent we can.”

Whitney Aldrich

Aldrich, 74, is a former member of the Walpole selectboard. He ran unsuccessfully for the N.H. House in 2010 and 2012.

In a candidate questionnaire submitted to The Sentinel in 2012, Aldrich listed maintaining a balanced budget, investing in high school and adult education, and reducing business taxes and the rooms and meals tax among his priorities. He did not answer a questionnaire this cycle and could not be reached for comment.

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.