Cook On Concord: Aggressive politics in Manchester creates strange results
As four-time co-chair of Mayor Robert Baines’ campaigns, I have a bias about Manchester politics, especially mayoral races. On Nov. 8, in a surprise, 35-year-old Ward 3 Alderman Frank Guinta, strongly backed by the Republican Party, defeated Baines, the three-term mayor, who was expected to cruise to victory.
So, I have been asked many times since the election, what happened?
First, in most states and in most cities, mayors and other elected officials are elected for four years. Thus, when voting for a candidate for the fourth time, the incumbent would have already served 12 years. In all New Hampshire, except for Nashua, the term is two years. Therefore, when talking about voting for a candidate the fourth time, he or she has served only six years. Because of this, the “time for a change” slogan, effective for challengers (Baines used it against then-Mayor Raymond Wieczorek in 1999) works sooner. This probably had some effect on the Manchester race.
Second, a confluence of events seemed to work against Baines. While his challenger was raising the issue of crime, a couple of incidents outside of questionable nightclubs drew attention to the issue, even though it is not a major issue in the city. Confusion about educational test scores also was evident.
Next, a reassessment process had started that made the population nervous, as inspectors visited their homes to check the value of their property. This made the issue of “taxes, taxes, taxes” ring truer to people, even though the facts would refute it.
Consider these issues individually:
• On crime, the Guinta campaign pounded a “55 percent rise in violent crime.” One member of the police commission explained that since violent crime in Manchester is so low, any increase creates a large percentage rise and, moreover, a majority of the statistics are due to increased awareness of and willingness to report domestic violence — a good thing, not a bad thing. However, the long explanation is always lost and the short accusation is remembered.
• On education statistics, Manchester’s schools repeatedly have higher test scores than in the past. Facilities have been renovated, and that was long overdue. Still, the challenger talked about “three failing high schools.” That was blatantly false, but he could point to statistics from the “No Child Left Behind Act” that indicate that the improved test scores had not improved enough to keep Manchester schools out of a certain category and a long and involved, accurate refutation was hard to use against such a headline. The fact that the statement was irresponsible, slandered the city, its teachers and great progress seemed to make no difference in a political campaign. A reasoned response from educators apparently came too late.
• On taxes, it is hard to explain to people that an increase in their assessment does not necessarily mean an increase in their taxes. It is also hard to explain that the current 1.6 percent increase in the tax rate, approximately half of the rate of inflation, was a remarkable achievement of frugality and management when the other side is emphasizing the fact that taxes have gone up every year.
Add to this the fact that the New Hampshire Union Leader, the main newspaper in town, while it did not endorse either candidate, made critical editorial remarks about the mayor repeatedly in the week before the election, and you have a recipe for trouble for the incumbent.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the amount of money poured into the Guinta campaign from all over the country and its use in buying tasteless signs that tied “the bad Baines” to “crime” and “taxes,” mailers that used distorted pictures of certain candidates and a GOP campaign newspaper that was close to defamatory created an atmosphere of negativity.
It will be interesting to see how much money was spent and where it came from in this campaign when final reports are filed. At some point people got the idea that Mayor Baines, if re-elected, would run for Congress, and that spurred national fund-raising in both campaigns disproportionate to the significance of a local election.
Bob Baines refused in all of his campaigns to engage in negative campaigning. The opposition obviously engaged in almost completely negative campaigning, backed up by big bucks.
On the other hand, the Guinta campaign and its supporters should be given credit for organizational vigor on election day, getting many people to the polls. The city Democratic Party, supporting Mayor Baines, did not match this effort, thinking their candidate would win easily.
On election night, although stunned, Mayor Baines was quick to instruct all of his family and close supporters that he wanted no tears, he wanted their heads held high and he did not want negative comments made even then. He commented that in his 20 years as a high school principal, he had to remind sports teams that they had to learn how to lose as well as how to win. After conceding, he walked to the Guinta headquarters and graciously congratulated the winner.
He can be proud of six years of growth and progress, economic development, improved schools and positive leadership.
What is the significance of this, beyond a local election? First, Manchester will have a new mayor who will have to work with increased majorities from the opposition on both the aldermanic board and school board. Thinking citizens will give him a chance, whether they voted for him or not, support him when he tries to keep Manchester’s progress going, and hope he does a good job. We only get one mayor at a time.
But the disturbing news is that negative campaigning, backed up by a lot of money, worked.
Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.