Kathleen Kelley mounts write-in campaign against beleaguered state Sen. Jeff Woodburn 

  • Randolph business owner Kathleen Kelley said she’ll run as a write-in candidate against Sen. Jeff Woodburn in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 8/16/2018 3:24:41 PM

Less than a month before the primary, a write-in candidate has emerged to challenge state Sen. Jeff Woodburn as he faces a series of domestic violence charges.

Kathleen Kelley of Randolph announced Thursday she would run for the Democratic nomination, set to be decided Sept. 11. Kelley, who co-owns the White Mountain Lumber Co. with her husband, Mark, vowed to focus her campaign on workforce development and the opioid crisis.

“Today, I’m excited to announce my candidacy for New Hampshire State Senate District 1. There are critical issues at stake in this election including supporting our public schools, protecting access to quality affordable health care and investing in economic programs that help rural New Hampshire thrive,” Kelley said.

The race for Senate District 1, held by Woodburn since 2013, took a turbulent turn after Woodburn was arrested Aug. 2 and charged with nine counts of domestic violence-related charges by the attorney general’s office. The alleged behavior, which prompted four simple assault charges, was directed at an “intimate partner,” the office said.

Woodburn has since stepped down as Senate Minority Leader, a position he’s held since 2014. He has said little publicly since his arrest and made no indication that he would resign his seat or suspend his re-election campaign. After a sparsely attended special meeting on Aug. 10, the Coos County Democratic Committee declined to formally back a resolution asking Woodburn to resign.

The state party has called on Woodburn to resign but has otherwise said it isn’t getting involved in the race for his seat.

“According to the NHDP constitution, neither the state party nor local committees are permitted to get involved in any Democratic primary,” Communications Director Gabrielle Farrell said Thursday evening.

New Hampshire state laws do not allow a party to remove candidates from the ballot without their participation.

In an interview Thursday, Kelley acknowledged the unusual turn of events prompting her involvement in the race, which weeks ago had seemed a sure bet for Woodburn. Her decision to run was prompted by conversations with local community members as well as state Democrats, including gubernatorial candidates Steve Marchand and Molly Kelly and newly elected Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy.

When addressing her primary challenger, Kelley walks a fine line. She was among the first in the North Country to call for his resignation when news of his arrest broke earlier this month. And her attempt to unseat him, of course, speaks for itself. But speaking to his role as a legislator, she expressed respect.

“Jeff’s done a great job; I have no complaints about the way he’s represented the North Country in Concord,” she said. “I have worked with him over the past six years.”

Winning over a district where loyalty commands a premium – against a candidate who has styled himself as a fighter – will be tricky, Kelley acknowledged. But she said her candidacy was about choice.

“I am not trying to cause a chasm, a break, a divide in the Democratic party, maybe between progressives and the traditional Democrat. No, that’s not what I’m trying to do,” she said. “I’m trying to offer a choice for people who feel like they don’t have a choice right now. Whether they can support somebody who’s going to be distracted right now.”

Born in Indiana, Kelley first encountered the North Country as a college student, marveling at the hospitality offered to her in Gorham after a hiking trip, she said. In 1988, shortly after giving birth to her first child, she moved up with her husband, a native of the area whose family ties extend back generations.

Through the decades, Kelley worked as a CPA for nonprofit organizations and small businesses, and later managed campaigns as a fundraiser, she said. Along the way, she became politically involved, often traveling to Washington, D.C., advocating for North Country-related priorities, she added.

Launching her campaign, Kelley highlighted positions she said would resonate with voters in District 1, which covers 58 towns and all of Coos County. She would prioritize education adequacy, mental health services and health care access, and improvements to transportation infrastructure. Within those priorities, she added, are efforts to improve Medicaid reimbursement rates for nursing homes and substance and mental health treatment centers.

Driving her candidacy overall, she said Thursday, is a sense that District 1 needs a Democratic voice, one not encumbered with legal baggage and controversy.

“When this came up,” she said, speaking on the arrest, “I became passionate about the fact that we needed a plan. So that our residents, our constituents have someone they can vote for that is going to be able to focus on these issues first and foremost and is respected. I felt it was important that someone step up to the plate.”

The winner of the Democratic primary will face David Starr of Franconia, who is running unopposed for the Republican nomination.

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