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Sunapee-Area Senate Candidates at Odds on Guns and Schools

  • Jenn Alford-Teaster

  • Ruth Ward



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2018

Newport — Voters in the 24 towns that comprise New Hampshire Senate District 8 will be asked in November to choose between two candidates with differing views on gun control and how to best improve the state’s school systems.

Jenn Alford-Teaster, a Democrat from Sutton, is challenging state Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, for the Sunapee-area seat, which stretches from Grantham to Weare and also includes the Upper Valley towns of Newport, New London, Croydon, Springfield and Unity.

Alford-Teaster, a 41-year-old Dartmouth College researcher, said she’s running to protect the state’s pubic schools and expand access to health care. Meanwhile, Ward, a retired nurse practitioner, advocates for school choice and supports efforts to include work requirements in the state’s Medicaid expansion.

Alford-Teaster said she’s running to help families facing hardships that hers once faced. She was raised on the Seacoast by her mother and grandmother, who both worked part-time jobs to support a family of four children.

At 18, Alford-Teaster left home for North Carolina where a friend was living, and worked a minimum wage job at a coffee shop until her employers encouraged her to apply for college. Alford-Teaster then enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and earned an undergraduate degree and later several graduate degrees while working. She moved back to the Granite State in 2005, and is now employed as a research project director at the Geisel School of Medicine.

“I’ve never run for office before, but it seemed like the most powerful way I could help other people who are working really hard to move from surviving to thriving,” Alford-Teaster said on Friday.

The 81-year-old Ward is completing her first term in the Senate and said she is seeking another to continue advocating for the district in Concord.

“To be perfectly honest, two years is not long enough to get anything done.” she said, adding that the past legislative session saw several victories.

One of those was a bill giving the Warner River “designated rivers” status, which will result in a roughly 20-mile stretch of the waterway from Bradford to Hopkinton being protected.

Ward also said that passage of the so-called Croydon Bill was a hard-fought legislative accomplishment. The measure allows some school districts to send students to private schools using taxpayer funding. Ward sponsored the bill and stood beside Republican Gov. Chris Sununu during its signing in June 2017.

“What it really comes down to is giving kids who are not doing well a chance to grow somewhere else,” she said, adding that the same is true of another school choice bill that failed to garner enough support this year.

Senate Bill 193, or the voucher bill, would have allowed low-income families to withdraw their children from public schools and use state adequacy aid to enroll them in private or parochial schools. The measure was killed in May after lawmakers worried that too much money would be diverted from public schools.

“It was really going to give parents a choice and was not insisting that this child who is not doing well absolutely has to go to the (public) school,” Ward said.

However, Alford-Teaster said she would oppose school choice efforts, if elected. That’s because public schools, she said, helped level the playing field when she was growing up.

“I think anything that makes it harder for local municipalities to cover the cost of their school district and downshifts taxes from the state level to already-crushing property tax burdens is just bad policy for New Hampshire,” she said.

Alford-Teaster said she would also fight to defend and make permanent the state’s Medicaid expansion, which insures about 50,000 Granite Staters.

When she was a child, Alford-Teaster said, her family required government assistance to make do, and Medicaid helped prevent lifelong health issues that would have become serious, if left untreated.

“I feel quite strongly that Medicaid helps to save costs overall by providing care to those who need it most,” she said. “I think it shouldn’t just be something that’s done for five years; I think it should be permanently in place for people who are struggling.”

Ward supported the expansion partially because it includes work requirements, such as a mandate that participants ages 19 to 64 contribute 100 hours of “community engagement activities,” such as employment, community service work or job training.

“I don’t like government handouts. I think that people should work for whatever they’re getting,” Ward said, adding that her constituents helped her warm to the bill.

“I went through the whole district and there are about 2,000 people who really rely on it, and I could not sit here and say ‘No, you can’t have any help,’ ” she said.

While there is a measure of agreement on Medicaid, the two candidates diverge on gun control issues, especially regarding whether firearms should be allowed in school buildings.

Alford-Teaster, a gun owner, said she would have supported legislation seeking to give school districts the authority to ban guns on school grounds.

Although the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act bans weapons within 1,000 feet of a school, New Hampshire law gives the state Legislature the sole authority to regulate firearms and knives.

An amendment filed by state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, would have allowed school boards and towns to set their own rules. However, the measure was killed by the Senate Republicans.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for those who are not in the community to make the deciding factor. I think that’s a reasonable thing to be able to extend to school districts,” Alford-Teaster said, adding that she also supports expanding access to mental health care.

Ward was among the Republicans who voted down Hennessey’s amendment. She argues that “gun-free school zones” invite danger by advertising a lack of defenses against a potential shooter.

“To have a school that has essentially a ‘no-gun zone,’ as far as I’m concerned, is just an invitation, if anything should happen,” she said.

One of the few issues that both candidates agree on is the Legislature’s recent passage of a bill that requires New Hampshire’s electric utilities to purchase power from the state’s six independent biomass plants, including one in Springfield.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the legislation this summer, saying it would increase power bills across the state. However, supporters say the measure is needed to help keep New Hampshire’s forestry industry financially viable.

Ward joined with 20 other senators as part of a bipartisan efforts to overturn the veto earlier this month.

“For me, in District 8, it was strictly a way of saving jobs for people,” she said. “I heard so many things from the foresters, the loggers, anybody having anything to do with the forest and timber industry that it really was pretty clear to me that it was a big issue in District 8 and I had to support them on it.”

Alford-Teaster said she supports the override for similar reasons, and worried the veto could have put hard-working people out of a job.

“Those are economic impacts that are not just palpably felt but culturally felt,” she said. “I think vetoing the bills was a bad choice.”

The general election is scheduled for Nov. 6, and District 8 traditionally leans toward Republicans.

Alford-Teaster has won the backing of Emily’s List, the national progressive political group that tries to elect women who support abortions rights to office, an indication that Democrats think they might be able to win the seat.

It was represented by moderate Sen. Bob Odell, a New London-area Republican, for more than a decade ending in 2014, shortly after redistricting took Claremont out of the district and added the Weare-area towns. Sen. Jerry Little, R-Weare, then held the seat until 2016, when he stepped down to become New Hampshire’s banking commissioner.

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