Dartmouth professors, students vie for seats in NH state legislature

by Emily Lu | 6/16/20 7:57pm

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Updated June 16, 2020 at 8:02 p.m.

Two Dartmouth professors and two students have filed for candidacy in the fall Democratic state primary, after three state representatives and the state senator serving Hanover announced they would not be running for re-election. Spanish and comparative literature professor Beatriz Pastor is seeking a spot in the New Hampshire state Senate, while government professor Russell Muirhead, Riley Gordon ’22 and Victoria Xiao ’22 are running for spots in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

This year's candidacy filing period lasted from June 3 to June 12. Besides Pastor, at least one other candidate — Lebanon Councilor Suzanne Prentiss — is running for the state Senate seat. At least nine candidates are competing for Hanover’s four House seats — including Hanover finance committee member Mary Hakken-Phillips, Lyme representative for the board of directors for the Upper Valley Democrats Joanna Jaspersohn, vice president of college visit consulting company Render Experiences Brittney Joyce, retired orthopedic surgeon Jim Murphy, incumbent Rep. Sharon Nordgren (D-Hanover) and management consultant Orian Welling.

Currently, Hanover is represented by state senator Martha Hennessey ’76 (D-Hanover) in the 5th District, who announced her retirement in May. Of the four representatives — Rep. Polly Kent Campion (D-Etna), Rep. Mary Jane Mulligan (D-Hanover), Rep. Garrett Muscatel ’20 (D-Hanover) and Nordgren — serving Hanover and Lyme in Grafton County District 12, only Nordgren is seeking re-election in the fall. Muscatel resigned on Monday following questions about his residency, though he had already planned to retire upon graduating from Dartmouth. 

Pastor said that she decided to return to politics and run for state senator after being approached by members of the Upper Valley Democrats in February. She first served in the state House from 2008 to 2014.

“It was a surprise, but I really felt called to serve,” Pastor said. “Growing up, I [didn’t] have an interest in a political career ... [but] I wanted to serve and do something for the people in this area.”

When Pastor served in the state House, she worked in the Committee of Science, Technology and Energy, focusing on bills about climate action and energy efficiency. She said that she hopes to continue her work with climate change in the state Senate while also addressing issues such as voting rights and health care, especially in the midst of the pandemic. 

“If we thought that we needed to expand health care for the people of New Hampshire 10 months ago, now it's clear that we absolutely must,” Pastor said. “If we thought that we had to lower the cost of health care, now we absolutely know that this is the case.”

During the filing period, candidates are required to submit a declaration of candidacy and a statement of financial interests, as well as pay a small fee to the secretary of state’s office. 

Hanover town clerk Betsy McClain said that the town hall is not currently open due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so candidates could “stay in the vestibule … and trade [documents] back and forth through the slot,” or mail in documents in order to file for office.

Hanover/Lyme Democratic Party chair Deb Nelson said that it is atypical to see so many candidates vie for Grafton County District 12’s four seats — usually only four Democratic candidates file for these spots, and those four are elected in the general election.

Xiao said that she did not decide to run until the filing period, adding that the pandemic served as a way to tell herself “not to postpone what [she] want[s] to do.” Observing what she described as the tendency of the Asian community to “stay away from being outspoken,” Xiao said that she was inspired to participate in local politics after canvassing with former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign in the winter.

“I feel like [running for office is] a challenge, [but] it will help me clarify my values and principles and just make me more a part of the community,” Xiao said.

Citing her experience of “self-censoring” as a high school student in China, Xiao said that she values free speech and diversity of thought, which she said has been impaired by political polarization. Her platform will also focus on lowering and equalizing property taxes in Grafton County. Xiao identifies as a “libertarian-leaning Democrat.” 

Gordon, who announced his campaign for state representative in early April, said that he has done legislative work with Muscatel and has worked to address voting rights on campus. His campaign focuses on protecting students’ right to vote, which he said has “been under assault for the past couple of years here,” as well as other issues important for young people in the state, such as criminal justice reform and gun violence. He added that Dartmouth students are much younger than many living in New Hampshire, including most legislators.

“There are a lot of issues ranging from climate to gun violence to criminal justice that don't get a lot of the attention that we would like to see from our legislators,” Gordon said. “I've got a whole host of bill proposals that just aren't really being considered by our heavily older-leaning legislature.”

Gordon added that voter education is an important part of reaching out to students, as he hopes to convince students to request absentee ballots and vote in the fall primary.

McClain wrote in an email statement that to her knowledge, this is the first time that Dartmouth students and a professor have filed to be candidates for the same office. Muirhead said that having students and a professor running will not be a negative for any of the candidates, adding that he hopes it will “amplify interest in attention in our community and increase turnout.”

Muirhead, who recently stepped down as interim director of the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, said that the current national political climate contributed to his decision to run. He said that while he did not make his final decision to run until the filing period, he has been concerned about the “fundamentals of democracy” over the last two years. 

“It's absolutely vital that we have electoral processes that people have confidence in,” Muirhead said. “As a political scientist, it's something I care profoundly about, and I want to do my part to help secure and maintain free, fair electoral processes in New Hampshire … That kind of access is, for the first time in my lifetime, being threatened by a variety of efforts to make it harder for low-resource voters.”

Because candidates will likely be unable to host traditional public events with large gatherings, Nelson said that the Hanover/Lyme Democratic Party will host Zoom forums to allow candidates to share their relevant experiences and views on various issues. She added that these sessions will likely be recorded and posted publicly on social media to accommodate those who may have internet bandwidth issues.

New Hampshire’s primary election will be held on Sept. 8. While New Hampshire typically only allows for absentee ballots if voters are not present in the jurisdiction or have a disability, McClain said that Gov. Chris Sununu (R) has declared an emergency order that also allows those without disability and who do live in the area to vote absentee during the pandemic.

“This year, we're really going to encourage folks to vote absentee,” McClain said.

Correction appended (June 19, 2020): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Joanna Jaspersohn is a New Hampshire Department of Safety tax collector when in fact she is the Lyme representative for the board of directors for the Upper Valley Democrats. The article has been updated to reflect this change.