Four in the running for NH House's Cheshire District 6

Nov. 5—Four candidates are facing off for two seats in N.H. House's Cheshire County District 6, which covers Chesterfield, Hinsdale and Westmoreland. But both of the Democrats running and at least one of their Republican opponents can agree on one thing: They consider this part of the state an overlooked corner in Concord.

Rep. Michael Abbott, D-Hinsdale, a former civics teacher and once principal of Hinsdale Middle/High School, said that's the driver of his re-election campaign in several different areas but namely roadways and Internet infrastructure.

"I realize the political reality that [the southeastern part of the state] is where the majority of the population is centered, but I still think [legislators] have to pay attention to this part of the state," Abbott said.

There's one gift coming to the area, though, that Abbott said he's looking forward to: a new bridge connecting Hinsdale to Brattleboro. Contractors recently began site work on the project, the N.H. Department of Transportation announced, with plans for a late 2023 opening. It'll replace two existing bridges built in 1920.

"As it is now, if a tractor-trailer truck is going over these two bridges, ... [it] has to swing into the middle of the road and then swing back," he said. "This will not be the case because there is no suspension on the new bridge, and it'll have two lanes coming off the bridge."

Challenger Richard Merkt, who chairs the Cheshire County Republican Committee, seconded Abbott and expressed displeasure about a Westmoreland bridge he said is deteriorating but he said the town doesn't have the budget to repair.

"If the [federal] infrastructure bill was such a help, how come something like this has got to wait for years and years?" Merkt, of Westmoreland, asked. "New Hampshire is in an enviable position because ... we have running surpluses. [But] we need a fair share of tax revenue brought back to our district and our county."

For Rep. Cathryn Harvey, D-Chesterfield, it's not strictly this corner region that's forgotten; she also feels the committee she serves isn't given enough attention, which is motivating her campaign. She's a member of the state Fish and Game Commission and said while New Hampshire may have a wealth of money, it comes from careful management of the state's natural environment.

"I don't think it gets the respect it deserves, because the second largest amount of money income the state takes is from tourism," she said. "If we don't keep our wildlife and our outdoors as pristine as it is right now, we're not going to be able to maintain that revenue coming in the state."

A retired music teacher of 43 years, Harvey said the most essential aspect of being a local representative in her mind is having a say in education. While not on the House Education Committee, she said bills surrounding schools "have her full attention" and that she votes so students thrive.

Merkt, a commercial real estate manager, is a co-founder of Lionheart Classical Academy, a Peterborough charter school, and member of its board of trustees. He said school choice is important to him so parents "know what their children are being taught."

He's joined by the other Republican in the running, Tony Barton, of Chesterfield, who also favors school choice. Barton says on his campaign website he is a corporate pilot for Bombardier Aerospace of Montreal.

He wasn't able to send responses by press time Friday night to questions a reporter emailed him that day, but a positions page on his campaign website states he wants to introduce legislation to ensure "parental concerns are addressed while protecting academic integrity and freedom" if elected.

Harvey spoke critically of New Hampshire's Education Freedom Accounts Program in a candidate questionnaire she submitted to The Sentinel. The state program is intended to assist New Hampshire families at or below 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines in finding educational opportunities for their children, according to the New Hampshire Children's Scholarship Fund. Participants are granted funding to pay for tuition, tutoring, online learning, supplies and other expenses at the school of their choice.

"The EFA program will cause property taxes to rise and will deplete funds available to local school districts," Harvey wrote. "This is not a 'school choice' program but a subsidy for students already enrolled in private education."

In his own response to The Sentinel's candidate questionnaire, Barton said that as a state representative, he would want to promote greater imports of liquid natural gas via the state's seaport for new gas-fueled power plants.

"This would bypass the stranglehold of neighboring states and the federal government on gas pipeline construction," Barton wrote.

Abbott, meanwhile, said he's hearing about inflation from constituents and that it has him thinking natural gas is not the way forward to power the Granite State.

"Part of it is the war in Ukraine; in my opinion, [with] electric companies depending so much on fossil fuels the price of gas or propane goes up dramatically and then the electric rates are going to go up," he said.

He looked back favorably on the last legislative session where he said representatives voted for residents in need of heating oil assistance to receive at least $400 based on income.

The candidates are split on marijuana legalization in the Granite State. Abbott and Harvey want to see recreational cannabis legalized, but sold through state-run stores overseen by the N.H. Liquor Commission. Merkt and Barton took more opposing perspectives; Barton marked on a candidate survey from the nonprofit organization Citizens Count this year that he's entirely against any form of recreational cannabis in New Hampshire. Merkt said he wants no state involvement beyond decriminalization.

"I'm not sure the state should embrace marijuana as an economic opportunity," Merkt said. "You're asking people to put substances in their bodies that aren't really good for them. I'm not condemning it, but by the same token I'm not sure it should be something the state makes a profit on."

And the four are either neutral on or against further restrictions on access to abortions. New Hampshire's existing law bans the procedure, in most cases, after 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Abbott and Harvey believe whether someone chooses to have an abortion is between them and their physician and that there should be no state intervention. Barton stated in his Sentinel questionnaire he'd like to leave the law "as is," while Merkt said it's not a priority and that votes show more than three-fourths of state residents approve it.

To Abbott, reproductive legislation has become "kind of a partisan issue," and it's the kind of partisanship Harvey says she wishes to see less of, hoping for "civility" in the House as she said division has ramped up in pandemic-era politics even locally.

"My hope is the pendulum swings the other way and we can get back to actually talking together on committees, talking together in the hallways or at lunch or wherever," Harvey said. "I know it's possible because I saw it the first time I was [in office] and it's gradually eroded."

Trisha Nail can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or Follow her on Twitter at @byTrishaNail.