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Democrats tout experience in NH Senate District 5 primary

  • Beatriz Pastor

  • Sue Prentiss (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2020 9:51:47 PM
Modified: 8/31/2020 1:31:45 PM

WEST LEBANON — The two Democrats competing in the Sept. 8 New Hampshire primary for the opportunity to represent Senate District 5 say it’s their experience — whether during previous service in the Statehouse or work helping to manage the state’s response to prior crises — that makes them uniquely qualified for the job.

For Lyme Democrat Beatriz Pastor, it’s her three terms in the New Hampshire House that she believes set her apart.

Pastor, a professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Dartmouth College, represented Hanover and Lyme from 2008 to 2014, when she worked on efforts to expand broadband, health care and better fund education.

“Over the course of the years, what I saw was not only that these things continue to require work but that the work was even more urgent,” Pastor, 72, said of her decision to run for the open Senate seat.

Meanwhile, Sue Prentiss touts her 11 years on Lebanon’s City Council, and previous jobs as the state’s EMS bureau chief and manager of emergency services for Concord Hospital as beneficial, especially as New Hampshire works to contain and treat COVID-19.

Prentiss, who is now executive director of the American Trauma Society, says she was on the front line of the state’s response to the 2009 H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic and earlier SARS scare.

“I’ve done this kind of work. I’ve worked in public health, I’ve worked with public safety and I’ve worked in health care,” said Prentiss, 55. “I’ve been on the ground up and down the state of New Hampshire on issues like this when I worked for the state.”

The two contenders hope to succeed state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, who announced earlier this year that she won’t seek a third term representing the nine-community district, which stretches from Lyme to Charlestown and also includes Lebanon, Hanover, Claremont, Plainfield, Cornish, Enfield and Canaan.

It’s been considered a liberal bastion since 1998, when Lebanon Democrat Clifton Below flipped the seat by defeating Larry Guaraldi for an open seat that had been held by Republican Jim Rubens.

Prentiss and Pastor are running on similar platforms — each supports the implementation of a paid family leave plan, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and implementing a broad-based tax to pay for shortfalls in education.

And while debates have focused on those issues, they’ve also featured pointed discussions about Democratic politics and party loyalty.

Prior to 2016, Prentiss was a registered Republican and served on the steering committee for the short-lived presidential campaign of former New York Gov. George Pataki, a moderate Republican.

Pastor has made a point of informing voters of her opponent’s earlier role in Republican politics, even though Prentiss left the GOP after President Donald Trump’s nomination, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and endorsed former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. Prentiss also served as co-chair of Buttigieg’s New Hampshire campaign.

“I think it’s important for voters to know whether a Democratic candidate is really committed to core Democratic values and agendas,” Pastor said, suggesting that Prentiss had recently held conservative positions on social issues.

But Prentiss says she’s always supported reproductive rights and has a proven record of advocating for progressive policies and candidates.

“I’ve always worked outside of partisan politics to do what’s right for people,” she said. “I haven’t worried about what letter was after my name.”

Prentiss’ track record includes support of a 2017 resolution to enact an anti-discrimination policy that protects Lebanon’s transgender municipal workers from retaliation and harassment and efforts to oppose a natural gas pipeline proposed for Lebanon and Hanover.

During her two-year tenure as mayor, the city signed onto the Paris Climate Accord and adopted a resolution formally denouncing racism.

“I have a history of bringing people together who might not necessarily agree and getting them together to solve a problem,” Prentiss said. “I’m a problem-solver. I can work with people, connect them and get them to focus on what the end solution needs to be and then get us there.”

One illustration of that problem-solving ethic is Prentiss’ effort to win state funding to rehabilitate the Westboro Rail Yard, a yearslong effort she helped initiate that could see the state demolish dilapidated buildings and make way for a park in West Lebanon.

But for Pastor, it’s legislative and not local experience that should qualify someone for the Senate.

“One can always make promises in a campaign; one can always create narratives. But the one thing that tells you the truth about the candidate is the record,” she said.

During her six-year tenure in the House, Pastor cast votes to legalize gay marriage and medical marijuana, increase the minimum wage and prohibit discrimination based on a person’s gender identity. She also backed a law that allows college students to claim their dorms as a domicile for voting purposes.

Pastor opposed casino gambling, anti-union “right-to-work” legislation and limits on abortion, such as attempts to require potential notification or counseling for those under 15.

Looking forward, both candidates say it’s time for a broad-based tax, such as a sales or income tax, to level the playing field between property-rich and -poor towns in funding education.

“You cannot pay for education by putting 62% of the burden on property taxes,” Pastor said. “That creates just savage inequalities in terms of the access to education that children from one place as compared to another.”

Prentiss called the state’s reliance on property taxes “regressive” and said it hasn’t yet found a way to step up and provide an adequate education to every child.

“We’re nibbling around the edges of this rather than heading straight toward the target, which is fairly funding public education,” she said.

The candidates also call for a $15 minimum wage. Pastor would like it increased immediately, while Prentiss says she would support a gradual hike from the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

“We’re woefully behind here in New Hampshire compared to our other New England states,” Prentiss said, while Pastor called an increase a “crucial piece of the puzzle” in helping provide residents with a social safety net.

The two also would back a paid family leave plan that’s been passed twice in the Democratically controlled House and Senate.

The plan, which was vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, would provide workers up to 12 weeks off to take care of sick family members or themselves following the birth or adoption of a child and would be funded through a mandatory deduction from workers’ paychecks.

Pastor’s supporters include Hennessey and prior state senators Peter Burling, of Cornish, and David Pierce, who lived in Hanover and Lebanon, and former state Rep. Ray Gagnon, D-Claremont.

Prentiss’ backers include former state Sen. Clifton Below, a fellow city councilor, and a number of other Lebanon officials, along with the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire and Claremont City Councilor Allen Damren.

Whoever wins the Sept. 8 Democratic primary will go on to face Charlestown Republican Timothy O’Hearne in the November general election.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.


New Hampshire Senate District 5 has been re presented by a Democrat ever since 1998 when Clifton Below defeated Republican Larry Guaraldi for the seat, which was being vacated by Hanover Republican Jim Rubens. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who ran in the 1998 race.

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