How Concord became a Democratic stronghold

  • Records from past elections, shown here at the state library in Concord, demonstrate that the capital city wasn’t always as unflinchingly Democratic as it is today. NICK REID / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/1/2016 11:55:30 PM

State Rep. Dick Patten was a Democrat when he first ran for elected office in 1979 to be a supervisor of the checklist in Concord’s Heights neighborhood.

But he took a piece of wisdom from the senior supervisor there and changed his registration before the election.

“She says, ‘You’d make a good supervisor of the checklist,’ but, she says, ‘I will tell you, Republicans have a foothold in Concord
. . .You really will not get elected as a Democrat.”

So he became, for a time, Patten the Republican. And won. Four years later, he missed out on a state representative seat by 400 votes, but, in a confirmation of the anecdote, the voters in Concord sent nine Republicans and four Democrats to represent them in the State House.

That outcome, which was commonplace back then, may sound impossible to contemporary residents of the city, which is considered to be staunchly Democratic.

In fact, barring a handful of last-minute write-in campaigns, it will be impossible this November. More than half the races for state rep in Concord are uncontested.

Where 17 Democrats filed for 15 seats, only six Republicans signed on, leaving voters from six wards with no choice on the ballot at all.

Patten, who’s now seeking his fourth term as a Democratic state representative, has no opponent for the first time. Likewise, in the Senate district, Dan Feltes had no challenger until the Republican Party appointed Jeff Wallner to run, after no Republicans campaigned for the seat.

No contest

The ratio this year – six Republicans candidates for 15 state representative seats – is marginally better than in 2014 and the same as 2012, two elections that sent zero Republicans to the State House.

But it’s a slump in the party’s representation within the capital city as compared with the 2000s and earlier, according to the secretary of state’s records. As recently as 2000 to 2004, Republicans contested all but three of 39 seats.

Democrats still won a majority of contests during that time, but earlier still, Republicans won most state rep seats over the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s.

Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman from Concord, pointed to a handful of reasons why it’s now “virtually impossible for a Republican to win in Concord.”

First was the Monitor’s editorial pages, which, he said, have become more liberal over the past 30 years, to the benefit of local Democrats who have ridden endorsements to wins at the polls.

Similarly, he said, the state employees’ union and Planned Parenthood’s political arms have become more automatic in their support of Democratic candidates.

Democrats have also found a way to win the governor’s seat 18 of the past 20 years, in no small part, he said, because they’ve learned to take what’s known as the Pledge, to veto any new broad-based tax.

“Once the Democrats started taking the Pledge – which has been wonderful, we won on that issue – it made it easier for independents and sometimes moderate Republicans to vote for Democrats,” Duprey said.

Moderates ousted

The tax issue was one of the things that helped bring to an end the 13-term tenure as a state representative of Liz Hager, a former city councilor, mayor and Republican gubernatorial candidate from Concord.

Hager said by the 2008 election, it had been quite a while that her four-seat district was occupied by three Democrats and her. But that election, for her and fellow Republican state Rep. Jim MacKay, was a turning point.

Hager said her own party recruited four Republicans to challenge her in a primary, because of her progressive positions supporting an income tax and abortion rights and opposing right-to-work legislation.

The campaign against her, including its “hateful fliers,” was successful, she said, in that she lost her primary.

But in the general election, all four Republicans lost.

“It was a ward they couldn’t win,” she said. “Concord has just become a very Democratic town, but the Republicans have definitely helped it by throwing out, specifically, intentionally getting rid of moderate Republicans.”

MacKay added: “(Hager) went out in the primary. I went out in the general election, which is an indication things were beginning to shift in Concord in terms of the Democratic Party. But that’s nothing to do with why I changed one party to the other.”

MacKay had spent decades as a Republican, including the 12 years he served on the city council and four as mayor, but he switched parties in 2010 and won as a Democrat.

He said, “The kind of moderate, progressive party that I was familiar with was now the Democratic Party.”

In the early 1970s, when MacKay got his start in politics with then-Gov. Walter Peterson, “the city was all Republican, very progressive and well respected. Somewhere the Republican side of things began to shift and became more, not just conservative, but small government – and in some ways with the Free Staters, it’s no government at all.”

He added: “It isn’t so much that the city has changed. . . . I think the party’s changed. I vote about the same way now (as a Democrat) as I did probably 20 to 25 years ago” as a Republican.


What else has changed is that he has no one to campaign against in his uncontested ward this year.

“I feel funny about it,” MacKay said. “I’ve got a sign on my car, and I go around to things, and I meet people, but people look at me strangely and say, ‘Jim, I already know you. . . . You’ve been around so long. We’re going to vote for you.’ ”

“I don’t want to give the impression I’m going to win no matter what,” he added. “I stood at the polls most of the day on primary day and people kept coming up to me saying, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

On the other hand, there will be competition in some of the city’s other wards, where a group of young Republicans are taking on entrenched Democrats, including six-term state Rep. Steve Shurtleff, the minority leader of the House.

Joe Alexander Jr., a 21-year-old college student who’s running in Ward 10, got on the ballot as a write-in candidate when he saw there was no one running in his district.

Alexander, who has worked as an intern in the House majority office, said he’s not concerned about a potential disadvantage running as a Republican in Concord.

“I’m not worried about what Republicans can typically do in Concord,” he said. “I’m worried about what I can do in my neighborhood.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)

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