Ward 8 state rep race puts Concord in the spotlight

  • Dennis Soucy talks about his campaign for District 17 state rep in his Ward 8 home on Wednesday, October 24 2018. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Dennis Soucy talks about his campaign for state representative in his Ward 8 home on Wednesday. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • Safiya Wazir holds her daughter, Aaliyah, behind one of her campaign signs in Concord, N.H. Wazir, a Democrat and former refugee from Afghanistan, is running for the 400-member New Hampshire House after an upset win over the incumbent during the primary. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) AP

  • Safiya Wazir leaves a campaign flyer at a home in Concord earlier this month. Wazir, a Democrat and former refugee from Afghanistan, is running for a seat in the New Hampshire House. AP

Monitor staff
Published: 10/27/2018 9:41:30 PM

It’s no stretch to say a Concord local election has rarely received as much attention as this year’s fight for the Ward 8 state rep seat.

When Safiya Wazir defeated incumbent Dick Patten 329 to 143 in the September primary, the national spotlight quickly turned to a race where about 2,700 registered voters on the eastern side of Concord will decide one seat in the 400-person New Hampshire House of Representatives.

Wazir – a former refugee from Afghanistan – and Patten – a lifelong resident of the neighborhood known as the Heights – were everywhere from the New York Times to the Boston Globe. Two days after the primary, MSNBC’s Morning Joe had a segment where a commentator called Wazir’s win “a uniquely American story.”

A Google search will show you the Guardian and Public Radio International have since done their own profiles, and Wazir has also done interviews with the BBC and Rolling Stone magazine, she told the Monitor on a recent “The Backstory” podcast.

Neither Wazir or her newest opponent, Republican Dennis Soucy, thought the story would get this big.

“We’re such a little place in Concord,” Wazir said. “... I didn’t want to have the national recognition on me. I am who I am, and I like to do things locally.”

“You wouldn’t believe the calls we’ve been getting,” Soucy said.

Demographically, the November race is nearly identical to the primary: Soucy, 70, is white, and has lived in the Heights for decades. Wazir, an Afghanistan-born graduate from Concord High School, is a 27-year old mother of two with a third on the way.

The race is taking place against the backdrop of New Hampshire’s predominately white Legislature and population – and the Capital City’s growing diversity.

Concord as a whole is at twice as diverse as the state’s average, with 2016 census data showing that 10.6 percent of the city’s population is made up of Asian, black, Hispanic or multiple races.

Much of that population is concentrated in the Heights, an area that incorporates not just Loudon Road, but the neighborhoods and industrial offices surrounding it. Mill Brook School and Broken Ground School, where neighborhood children go to learn, are currently 31.5 to 39.1 percent diverse, respectively, compared to the state’s 14.5 percent.

Diversity in the city has been growing for decades, and celebrated by many at the annual downtown Multicultural Festival. It can be seen in the various ethnic grocery stores around the city and the dozens of languages spoken at Concord High School.

But there’s been resistance, too: A Pembroke man scrawled racist graffiti on the homes of four African refugee families in 2011 and 2012, incidents that rocked the community and caused at least one family to leave the area.

And in 2015, a weeklong Hindu religious ceremony at a home on Pembroke Road ended with a frustrated neighbor posting a sign, in black writing on two sheets of white paper, stating: “GO HOME.”

Each candidate tackles the narrative and attention differently. Both candidates are hoping their local connections will be the key to victory on Nov. 6. In the meantime, they’re learning firsthand how difficult it can be to navigate the national spotlight.

The story so far

It’s easy to see a compelling story in the Ward 8 race.

Wazir has built a community service profile while living in the Heights for the past 11 years, serving as the board of directors for the Community Action Program and vice-chairwoman of the Head Start Policy Council. She was also presented with the New Hampshire Children’s Trust Unsung Hero Award earlier this year.

Her family fled the Taliban when she was young, and she spent several years in a refugee camp in Uzbekistan before coming to Concord, where she learned English and worked at Walmart and Goodwill, worked on the high school yearbook committee, ran track, and helped support her family after her parents became ill and could no longer work.

Contrast that with Patten, the 66-year old Heights lifer who fended off a Republican challenger at least twice in the last decade to hold four consecutive terms as a state rep and who, by all accounts, wasn’t pleased with Wazir challenging his place.

“A lot has been promised to minorities,” he said on September 11. “A lot of out-of-Concord people are getting everything.”

The next day, he had more to say to the Globe.

“It used to be the Heights would support a Heights person … but the Heights has changed,” Patten said. “We have many immigrants in there now, and she’s from Afghanistan so she was treated like the princess.”

He told the Globe he would back Soucy in the November election and has switched parties to officially become a Republican, claiming Democrats didn’t support him enough in the primary.

Wazir mostly dismissed her opponents’ criticism, saying that she has withstood bullying in the past and that New Hampshire should welcome diversity.

“Our state is aging, and we need younger people to stay in the state in order for us to move forward,” she told the Associated Press. “Immigrants or refugees have ideas that they could contribute into this state because every bit of new blood brings new ideas to the state.”

She’s sticking with her message as she now takes on Soucy.

“My representation most likely will be equal opportunity for both seniors and youth, so both parties can be heard. ... If we have younger people in the State House, it’s because we’re in the 21st century, not back in the 50s and 60s or 40s.”

But while Wazir said her story is a positive message about representation, the attention she’s getting has made campaigning a little more difficult.

“It’s putting me in a position where I can’t find time to trying and knock on doors and call constituents,” she said. “Being recognized nationally, it’s taking my time away from doing stuff locally.”

That’s not to say Wazir hasn’t been out in the Heights – she balances her family time with campaigning. She’ll be out next week with Democratic candidate for governor Molly Kelly and 2nd Congressional District incumbent Annie Kuster.

‘Fighting veteran’

Soucy, a veteran and cancer survivor who retired from work in transportation and surveillance, isn’t quite as comfortable with the coverage.

Speaking Thursday at the home he and wife Carol have lived in for 35 years – a single-story yellow house in sight of the state’s National Guard building with a sign informing visitors that video cameras are in use – Soucy said he has been unfairly labeled as sexist and racist.

In addition to his campaign being linked to Patten’s comments, Soucy had his own bit of primary-day attention. He and Rick Naya, the executive director of New Hampshire NORML, got into a verbal scrap at the Ward 8 polls that started about legalizing marijuana and quickly escalated.

“I told you I’m a fighting veteran and I’ll do anything for America, anything for my country,” Soucy said on the anniversary of 9/11. “I’ll shoot terrorists if you want me to. I will.”

Soucy said he regrets that interaction. “Naya caught me right off guard,” he said. “I was not prepared for that.”

“I’d still fight for this country, and I know that came out wrong after I said that,” he added.

He said people twisted his words.

“Boy, after that came out, everyone was saying, ‘Oh you hate Muslims.’ I didn’t say I hate Muslims, I said if I had the opportunity to go over there to fight, I would shoot terrorists, I would be the fighting man,” he said.

Soucy said he’s sympathetic to the immigrant and refugee in his community, who he sees on the streets and at the Immaculate Heart of Mary church, where he frequently volunteers.

“You feel bad for them because they’re going through a process of, ‘Boy, I gave up everything, my country to come here,’” he said.

But while Soucy initially shied away from talking about Wazir – “I’m at the point where if I say anything, I’m going to be labeled,” he said Thursday – he’s also said all the attention her campaign has been getting has been undeserved.

He pointed to his own upbringing – growing up poor in Manchester, that he washed the family’s clothes in the polluted Merrimack River and having to get his first job at age 11. He said his own parents were immigrants and struggled.

“I’m the victim here,” he said. “We struggled, and here we are — everyone is jumping all over her for doing absolutely nothing, for being a refugee.”

Though much has been made of their differences, both candidates say they really don’t know much about each other. They’ll be on stage together for the first time Thursday during a Monitor candidates’ night forum, which kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at Concord High School.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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