Belknap County group targets ‘extremist Free State agenda’ in NH House delegation

Newly formed PAC seeks to seeks to endorse ‘reasonable and responsible’ candidates
Brian Beihl

Brian Beihl, a campaign consultant and organizer, is overseeing the Citizens for Belknap election undertaking.

Citizens for Belknap – a newly formed group whose members include Republicans, Democrats and independents – has mounted an effort to replace the leadership and other members of the county delegation at the polls.

The organization has registered as a political action committee, which will endorse and support candidates from both parties running for the county’s 18 seats in the House in both the primary election in September and the general election in November. This week the group opened its campaign and began distributing yard signs, placing advertisements in local newspapers and posting a petition online.

“Many of our citizens are appalled by the behavior of our county delegation toward the Gunstock Area Commission,” said Al Posnack of Alton, who chairs the PAC. “But our concerns are not just about Gunstock, but about health care and public safety as well.” He singled out Reps. Mike Sylvia of Belmont, who chairs the delegation, and Norm Silber of Gilford for “pursuing an extremist Free State agenda.”

For the past several years, county government has been roiled by conflict between the county delegation and the county commission and department heads. The conflict has been marked by disagreements over the preparation and management of the county budget, especially appropriations for the nursing home, leading to litigation over the respective authority vested in the two bodies.

Infighting between county officials aroused little outcry from the public. But when the leadership of the delegation sought to control the management and operation of Gunstock Mountain Resort, with an eye to leasing the facility to a private entity, opposition from residents was immediate and vociferous. More than 2,200 residents petitioned to maintain the status quo. When the delegation placed four of its political allies on the five-member Gunstock Area Commission a group called Citizens for Gunstock was formed, and it morphed into Citizens for Belknap.

All 18 members of the House delegation are Republicans, including a number of outright libertarians and Free Staters cloaked in the mantle of the GOP. Fifteen of them earned the highest grades awarded by the NH Liberty Alliance for their voting records in 2021 while the other three fell just one mark short. A third of the delegation earned the highest ratings midway through this year’s legislative session and another 10 ranked just a notch below them.

Sylvia, chair of the delegation, was the prime sponsor of a constitutional amendment calling for New Hampshire to secede from the United States. Reps. Glen Aldrich of Gilford, Ray Howard of Alton and Paul Terry of Alton joined Sylvia in voting for the resolution, which the House rejected by a vote of 323-13.

“These individuals pretended to be Republican representatives for the good people of Belknap County, but instead supported a New Hampshire constitutional amendment to secede from the United States,” said former Rep. Brian Gallagher of Sanbornton, a conservative Republican. “I can’t think of a more unpatriotic act, and such an action violates their oaths as state officials and their Pledge of Allegiance to the United States.” He noted that Sylvia, Aldrich and Terry are seeking re-election.

Citizens for Belknap intends to endorse “reasonable and responsible“ candidates from both parties in the primary and general elections with the overriding goal of replacing the leaders of the delegation by defeating them along with their most ardent followers at the polls.

Brian Beihl, a seasoned campaign consultant and organizer who is overseeing the undertaking, said he has been pleased by the initial response to the effort from voters. In particular, he pointed to the number of longtime Republicans disaffected by the pretense of extremists and radicals disguising themselves as Republicans.

The election has widened a rift among Republican members of the delegation, some of whom have chafed at their leaders’ imperious use of power, blatant lack of transparency and open disrespect of the public. Altogether, 14 of the 18 incumbents seeking re-election are facing contested primary races in five of the county’s eight House districts.

In Belmont, Travis O’Hara, one of a handful of Republicans who have repeatedly distanced themselves from the leadership, has challenged Sylvia for the seat in District 4.

Likewise, Silber, Sylvia’s closest ally, is one of seven Republican candidates vying for the four seats in District 6, made up Gilford, Gilmanton and Ward 2 in Laconia, where incumbent Republicans Glen Aldrich and Gregg Hough, both in lockstep with leadership, are also at risk.

Meanwhile, Belknap County Democrats has fielded a full slate of candidates in seven of eight districts. Shut out completely in 2020, Democrats fancy their chances of capturing at least six seats, with candidates they view as promising in Laconia, Gilford, Meredith and Center Harbor.

As of May, the 41,440 registered voters in the county consisted of 16,083 Republicans, 10,483 Democrats and 14,874 undeclared voters. In eight of the 11 municipalities Republicans represented the largest bloc of voters while trailing the number of undeclared voters in Gilford, Meredith and Center Harbor.

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