With Woodburn facing charges, N.H. Republicans pin hopes on David Starr

  • David Starr Courtesy—

Monitor staff
Published: 8/8/2018 10:46:03 PM

He’s never run for office. He jumped in late – days after the official filing deadline. He’s still learning the ropes of Facebook; his website is a few tweaks away from getting off the ground.

But David Starr has as good a shot as ever at New Hampshire’s state senate District 1.

After a tumultuous week that saw Senate Minority Leader and District 1 Sen. Jeff Woodburn charged with nine domestic-violence-related misdemeanors, Democrats are without a clear roadmap for filling the seat. Woodburn faces nine charges, including four of simple assault and two of domestic violence; the 53-year-old senator has made no indication he will resign from his Senate seat.

But Republicans also fielded a candidate, and now, as the political winds shift, they’re giving the opportunity their all.

Enter Starr, 75, a retired engineer and former Air Force captain based in Franconia. A week ago, the candidate was something of a longshot, pitted against a political giant flush with cash and connections. Now, a stunning political upset and a line of surrogates and strategic coordination from the state party could flip that equation around.

“I was the only Republican that stepped forward,” he said. “I’ve lived up here for a long time, and I’ve been coming up here for even longer.

“I really love the North Country. I think it’s beautiful, it’s scenic, and the skiing is great. And I feel I’m here to preserve what we’ve got.”

Woodburn did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

With Starr, Republicans are backing a straight-line conservative who supports “right-to-work” legislation and opposes income and sales taxes. For mainstream Republicans, Starr, a member of the National Rifle Association and the co-founder and former chairman of the North Grafton County Republican Committee, checks plenty of boxes.

He favors the party’s approaches to increasing business opportunities in North Country and beyond, citing right-to-work as a key mechanism. He’s an advocate of “managing state spending to the lowest possible level.” And he hopes to be a representative of his region’s interests, from securing funding to fix roads to finding ways to bring back industry and jobs.

But the party is also fielding a candidate who has never run for a legislative position, let alone held one. Addressing that potential limitation, Starr expressed confidence he learn the ropes from his colleagues. And he argued his professional experience could help plug the gap.

“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer. I’m an engineer. And engineering is the art of creating things that work out of stuff you can get.”

The challenge nearly didn’t materialize. Early on, it appeared Jeff Woodburn would enjoy an open race. Four days into the state’s filing period, no one in the Republican party had thrown in their hat to challenge him – and no North Country Democrat appeared willing to take on their party’s top senator in a primary.

But the prospect of a no-contest election didn’t sit well with Woodburn, who won his seat for the third time in 2016 with 54 percent of the vote. So he threw out a dare to state Republicans: Bring your worst.

“Running without an opponent is like a pub with no beer!” he wrote in a June 16 Twitter post. Then he upped the ante.

“Although quiet summer has appeal; democracy demands competition & I love a good political quarrel,” he wrote in a June 15 Twitter post. “In that spirit, I’ll pay the filing fee of any Republican that runs against me.”

It’s a gauntlet Woodburn perhaps wishes he had never thrown. Facing a string of harrowing allegations, a trial process that could stretch well past election day, and a party that has abandoned his campaign and urged him to resign, Woodburn is staring down potentially insurmountable barriers. North Country Democrats are still dallying on whether to push for a write-in challenger for the Sept. 11 primary.

And in Starr, Republicans say they have a viable match.

“We’ve always thought Jeff Woodburn had his weaknesses, and now people are going to be aware that he’s not the person he’s claiming to be and he certainly lacks the clarity and the integrity to be in office,” party spokesman Joe Sweeney said in an interview.

Starr says he wasn’t seeking the limelight; he was plucked out by a party looking to broaden their electoral front. A day after the filing deadline passed, a state Republican official asked if he would run, Starr recalled. Honored by the suggestion, he quickly agreed.

But despite Starr’s late start, Sweeney insisted he has been running a full campaign since he declared. And he says the seat is winnable, and was even before Woodburn’s charges. Many towns in the district went for Trump in the 2016 election, and state senate results aside, local Republicans have also fared well there, he said.

“It’s one of the seats that when it comes down to a partisan basis, it should be a Republican seat,” Sweeney said.

Still, Woodburn’s regional bona fides run deep, whether via his impassioned tributes to his constituents on the Senate floor or his regular tours of local businesses. Those personal connections have propelled him to double-digit victories in all three of his recent senate elections. Filling that void, for any candidate, is a tall order.

Sweeney acknowledged that challenge, speaking to Woodburn’s reputation as a “fighter” for the northern-most residents of the state. But he said the past week’s events change everything.

“With the North Country having such a strong regionalism of their own, he’s appeared to cross party lines … but I think that illusion’s going to fade away this election,” he said.

So far, Starr has been pulling together his campaign apparatus gradually. A Facebook page dedicated to his campaign made its first posts earlier this month. And the initial batch of campaign yard signs and issue flyers has only just begun to arrive.

Mostly, he said, he’s spending his campaign season touring the district and letting voters dictate his priorities. That includes traveling the gamut of stops – restaurants by day, select board meetings by night. If sent to Concord, Starr would tow the Republican party line, he said, but only if it doesn’t conflict with the needs of Coos and Grafton counties.

One test in that department: the fate of the biomass plants. Earlier this summer, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed House Bill 365, which would have provided subsidies to New Hampshire’s biomass industry, much of which is based in the north. It was a move that Sununu and other Republicans said would help bring down costs for the New Hampshire ratepayer, but one that set off outcry from loggers supplying wood chips to the plants.

Starr, a Republican seeking to represent those loggers, is of mixed mind on the governor’s actions.

“I’m undecided on that,” he said, pointing to his conversations with voters. “I’m learning.”

With weeks left to go until the state primary and fewer than 100 days until the general election, Woodburn’s accusations – and his pending court case – is likely to loom large over the District 1 election. But Sweeney said the party was not looking to “overly politicize” the situation, and Starr said he would not be making reference during his own campaign.

“I’m not planning to talk to people about it,” he said. “I’m not going to do that. I feel like if I did it would just turn people off.

But, he added, “As an ordinary human being I’m going to feel sorry for him. He’s in a lot of trouble both politically and in his personal life.”

Instead, he said, he would be moving town to town, meeting to meeting, selling a fresh face at an uncertain time.

“I’m going to have to work like a beaver to have enough people learn my name,” he said. “But I’m going to do it.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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