Woodburn beats write-in challenger in state Senate primary despite abuse charges 

  • Kathleen Kelley is running as a write-in candidate against Jeff Wodburn in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. Courtesy

  • Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, walks to the Secretary of State's office to file for re-election, June 14, 2018. Ethan DeWitt

Monitor staff
Published: 9/12/2018 1:58:00 PM

Sen. Jeff Woodburn secured the Democratic nomination to keep his seat Wednesday, overcoming a cloud of domestic abuse allegations brought by the attorney general’s office and a last-minute challenge from his own party.

After grabbing an early lead in the key towns of Berlin, Gorham, Littleton, Jefferson and Whitefield, Woodburn finished with a comfortable margin, earning 68 percent of the vote. He won 2,354 votes in total; his opponent Kathleen Kelley, a write-in candidate, won 1,014, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

In a statement posted on Facebook on Tuesday, Woodburn embraced the victory.

“A month ago, I suspended my campaign to focus on clearing my name and protecting my family,” Woodburn wrote. “My friends in the North Country, who know me best, stood by me. Today, the people have spoken and I am grateful and humbled by their overwhelming support.”

Woodburn did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday, sending the Monitor a copy of his statement instead.

Kelley at first requested a recount, but backed off after realizing she would have to pay for it. The flap is the latest complication in an election that has veered wildly in recent months. On Aug. 2, Woodburn was arrested in Concord and charged with nine misdemeanor counts of domestic abuse-related charges, stemming from alleged behavior directed at an intimate partner and spanning over a year. Woodburn has denied the charges and vowed to fight them in court.

Within hours, top Democrats – from the state’s Congressional delegation to the state party chairman to eight out of Woodburn’s nine Democratic Senate colleagues – called on the senator to resign. A week after the charges, Woodburn resigned from his position as Senate minority leader; Sen. Donna Soucy was quickly voted in as a replacement.

But Democrats in Woodburn’s district – which covers 58 towns spanning from the Vermont border to Maine’s – proved less willing to condemn Woodburn. Few attended an informal meeting of the Coos County Democratic Committee to address the issue, and the committee did not ultimately call for the senator to resign. And while he stepped away from the public eye and avoided calls and emails from reporters, Woodburn never actively withdrew from the race.

On Aug. 16, two weeks after Woodburn’s charges, Kelley entered the race as a write-in candidate, framing her candidacy as an alternative choice who would more or less stand for the same issues as Woodburn. But  Woodburn remained the sole candidate on the ballot.

While the state Democratic party asked Woodburn to resign, it stayed out of the primary race, citing its rules of neutrality. Now the victor in the primary, Woodburn will face David Starr in the general election, a Franconia Republican new to campaigning.

A spokeswoman praised Kelley for her “strong campaign,” and reiterated party chairman Ray Buckley’s calls for Woodburn to resign. For her part, Kelley said she was proud of her showing under the circumstances.

“I think a three-and-a-half week write-in campaign for a name that’s hard to spell ... I think it was a hell of a race to run, but we did a great job,” she said.

And she voiced criticism of the local Democratic committees – in Coos County and northern Grafton County – which she said should have taken a stand against domestic violence even if they didn’t disavow Woodburn.

“We know that our community struggles more so than most of the communities in the state with high alcohol and drug abuse, and that sexual violence and domestic violence go hand in hand,” she said. “There is no excuse for them not to have come out with some very clear statements that they are not condoning those activities.”

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