BearCat vote shadows upcoming city council election
The Concord City Council has already voted to get a BearCat, but the issue is now shaping this fall’s city elections. Of the seven contested races this fall, five include candidates running on their opposition to the armored police vehicle.
Eight candidates in this November’s election have said they decided to run for office because they disagreed with the council’s vote this month to accept a nearly $260,000 federal grant to purchase the vehicle.
“I’d like the race to be a referendum on the BearCat thing,” said Kevin Bloom, who is running in Ward 4.
Other candidates disagree.
“Those people who are running on single-issue candidacies, I think they’re going to learn very quickly that Concord is not a single-issue community,” said Mayor Jim Bouley, who is running for a fourth term.
Incumbents tend to win city elections, though few have been contested in the past decade. Four races were contested in 2011, and the incumbent won each race. The greatest number of contested races in recent years was 2001, when six seats has more than one candidate. That year was also the last time a newcomer unseated a sitting councilor – Kipp Cooper beat incumbent Andy Tarbell by just a few votes.
Single issues have drawn attention to city government in the past – open space was an issue in the late 1980s, and street renaming caused a few candidates to run in the late 1990s – but in recent years incumbents have largely run unopposed.
“This is a pretty moderate and by and large placid community when it comes to politics,” said Martin Gross, who was Concord’s mayor from 1976 to 1981. “Occasionally something crops up that’s very local . . . restricted to a specific ward or two. But this, in my estimation, this is unusual.”
Controversy over the BearCat began this summer, after Concord received a nearly $260,000 federal grant to purchase it. Opponents began to voice concerns over language in the city’s grant application, the militarization of local police departments and what they called excessive federal spending.
The Lenco “BearCat” Model G3, is an armored box that sits atop a Ford truck. It is not armed, and the police have said it will be used to offer protection in emergencies such as hostage situations or high-risk arrests.
It’s fairly common in any election for a single issue to attract candidates, said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College. Those candidates rarely win, he noted – unless voter turnout is low. In 2011, just 15.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
“When you’re expecting a very low turnout, a single issue candidate can actually do very well,” Lesperance said. “So if you can energize some segment of the population and get them out to vote, you can probably have some pretty surprising results.”
An August city council meeting drew hundreds to the city council chambers and an area outside city hall, and about 50 people spoke against the BearCat at a public hearing that night.
In describing the city’s need for the vehicle, police Chief John Duval wrote in the grant application that “groups such as the Sovereign Citizens, Free Staters and Occupy New Hampshire are active and present daily challenges” to the police. Members of the Free State Project describe themselves as peaceful individuals who move to New Hampshire for liberty and small government, and many of them spoke and protested at recent city council meetings.
At least two candidates who oppose the BearCat have moved to New Hampshire with the Free State Project. Others have identified themselves as libertarians.
Bloom, who is running in Ward 4, told the city council during the August public hearing that he is one of about seven Free Staters living in Concord. He said he was offended by the language in the grant application, but he sees problems in city government beyond the BearCat itself.
“Let’s face it, it’s a truck,” he said last week. “. . . There’s really no reason for it. In other words, this is like an impulse purchase for them, and if they won’t listen to their constituents on this, they won’t listen to us on anything, really.”
The city council voted, 11-4, this month to accept the federal grant. In the month between the public hearing and vote, opponents to the BearCat created a petition and gathered more than 1,500 signatures from Concord residents.
‘The chief made a mistake’
Bouley said last week that he stands by his vote, as well as Duval, who submitted a revised grant application to the federal government after he faced criticism this summer.
“I think that the BearCat vote was actually probably one of the more debated issues that we’ve had in this community,” Bouley said.
“. . . I know it was an emotional issue. I think it’s unfortunate that the chief made a mistake in the application. I think that he is an extremely honorable man to stand up and correct his mistake.”
Concord applied for the grant on behalf of the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit, a group of law enforcement officers in 20 communities. Duval said it would replace a U.S. Air Force Peacekeeper, an armored vehicle that was made in the 1980s and is in a state of disrepair.
Candidates interviewed last week said they are concerned about more than just the grant application.
Josh VanBuskirk, who is running for an at-large council seat, said he is concerned about the militarization of the police department. He moved to Concord nearly a year ago from North Carolina and works for the New Hampshire National Guard. He said he is not a member of the Free State Project, but he calls himself a libertarian and has friends who are Free Staters.
“Something that’s commonly brought up is that the BearCat is going to keep law enforcement safe,” VanBuskirk said. “And with my military background, one of the things that concerns me is a lot of times when you project an aggressive posture that’s going to make more enemies for you.”
Incumbent city councilors said they would rather focus on other issues.
“I think Concord deserves representation on the council that isn’t about a single issue,” said Councilor Fred Keach, who now represents East Concord and is running for an at-large seat this fall. “It’s obviously a complex set of issues that come before council, and I’m not sure what those who oppose the BearCat think they’re going to accomplish. Perhaps return it. I’m not sure.”
Some candidates said they would like to return the BearCat. Mayoral candidate Chris Booth said he is running solely based on his concern about the BearCat. He said he “would make sure that the BearCat never arrived in Concord,” because it is a waste of money and could be used to arrest residents in their homes.
Duval said the vehicle has been ordered and will arrive in about five months.
Others candidates who oppose the BearCat acknowledge that blocking its delivery may not be an option.
“(Stopping the BearCat) is not my sole purpose at this point for getting on the council,” said Tim Bauman, who is running in Ward 2. “It’s definitely what prompted me. It’s not my sole purpose. Yes, I want to pursue it to rescind it, but at a certain point we have to move on.”
Bauman moved to New Hampshire six years ago as part of the Free State Project, but said he is an ordinary resident of Concord and would prefer not to be labeled as part of a group. He wants to ensure Concord focuses on community policing techniques rather than armored vehicles.
Promise to listen
Cassandra Rasmussen, who is running to represent Penacook, said the BearCat issue has already been decided. (Councilor Liz Blanchard, who now represents that ward, is not running for re-election and voted in favor of accepting the grant.) But that vote was part of Rasmussen’s decision to run, because she feels residents did not want the city to purchase the vehicle. She is running on a promise to listen to her constituents.
“The BearCat issue was unfortunately out my hands,” Rasmussen said. “That was in my predecessor’s hands.
. . . I can’t control what she did. I can control what’s going to happen in the future.”
Rasmussen’s opponents in Penacook – Brent Todd and Adam Czarkowski – said they did not choose to run based on the BearCat issue.
Other candidates who have said they are opposed to the BearCat include: Timothy Willis, Samantha Clattenburg and Scott Welch in the at-large race; and mayoral candidate John Cook.
In Ward 4, where Bloom is running on the BearCat issue, his opponents said they would rather move on.
“I think it’s important to run based on your vision for the future of the city as opposed to a reaction to one or two issues,” said Ward 4 candidate Byron Champlin. “And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to take an overall view of the city.”
Champlin and a handful of other newcomers interviewed last week said they were not sure how they would have voted on the BearCat grant.
Candidates not running on the BearCat issue did list a number of other issues they find more important: the city budget; the upcoming Main Street redesign project; the Route 3 reconstruction project.
“People in Concord are not single-issue voters,” said Councilor Amanda Grady Sexton, who now represents Ward 4 and is running for an at-large seat. “They care about things like reducing our taxes, paving our streets, preserving open space and providing good quality services for everyone from kids to our seniors.”
The BearCat is not an issue in Ward 3, where there is a three-way race between Rick Cibotti and incumbents Jan McClure and Jennifer Kretovic. McClure now represents Ward 3, and redistricting moved Kretovic from Ward 2 to Ward 3. They both voted in favor of the armored vehicle. Cibotti, who last ran for the council in 2009, said he supports the council’s vote.
Five incumbents are running unopposed this fall. Only two of them – Dan St. Hilaire and Keith Nyhan – voted to accept the federal grant. Councilors Allen Bennett, Candace Bouchard and Rob Werner voted against the federal grant and are not facing opponents this fall.
Councilor Dick Patten, who also voted against the BearCat grant, filed a petition on Friday to run for re-election, after announcing earlier in the week that he would not run. He is facing opposition from two candidates: Dennis Soucy, who said he supports the city’s purchase of a BearCat; and Gail Matson, who said she would have listened to her constituents to determine how to vote.
State Rep. Katherine Rogers, a longtime city councilor who lost a race for mayor to Bouley in 2007, said the number of contested races tends to come in waves. City elections have been quiet for the past decade, she said, but they are not always uncontested.
“So I don’t think it’s unusual if you look at the broad course of history,” Rogers said.
Both newcomers and incumbents said last week that they welcome the competition.
Welch, who did not speak out against the BearCat but decided to run for an at-large council seat after hearing negative reactions to the council vote, said that voters can choose a direction for the city Nov. 5.
“The people of the city of Concord are getting a choice this year,” Welch said. “And I think that after the election, we’ll be able to see what that choice is.”
This article has been updates to correct the city council’s vote count on the BearCat grant.